Saturday, October 29, 2016

Saturday Musings, 29 October 2016

Good morning,

I can tell the day will confuse me.  I awakened in the dark with the phone's alarm bleating.  I smashed my hand on the virtual button as though it had depth and texture.  I lay with tight chest and aching  legs, grappling with the gloom and trying to figure out why the alarm had sounded later than I intended.

But even so I fell back asleep for an hour, dragging myself downstairs when I heard the dog whining.  I brewed coffee and listened to the latest debate about whether some e-mails prove the Democratic presidential nominee should not hold office and a clip about the Republican nominee's lecherous conduct.  I shook my head and sat in the dining room, surrounded by nearly the same mess that I've been observing since September.  Outside the dog barked into the morning.  At the back door, I watched the tinge of pink spread over the eastern horizon, looking at my clocks, wishing my phone had awakened me as early as I planned. I remained baffled, worried about my competence. The morning had started without me.

Another half hour would pass before I figured out that my devices had re-set themselves to Pacific time.  Wishful thinking has infected everything around me.

A ghost slipped into the house and sat itself down at my table.  It's a woman, with a beaked Syrian nose and liquid brown eyes.  Her bald head rises above the starkness of her gaunt face and bony shoulders.  My mother's frail body barely caused a ripple beneath the sheet after her death.  I want nothing more than to remember how she danced through life.  If she insists on haunting me, I want her ghost to wear blue denim wrap around skirts and short-sleeve colored T-shirts, with a cross-body home-made corduroy bag slung round her plump torso. Instead her emaciated body trembles now, as her ghost surveys the clutter around her, the flotsam and jetsam of my depressed days.  She raises her hairless head to fix her gaze on me.  Her message sears my heart.   I pull my body from the chair and pour another cup of coffee.

During my grad school days, I frequently drove from the city where I lived to my parents' home in Jennings for Sunday dinner.  Those were my hard-core vegetarian days.  I ate what we'd call "vegan" now, no dairy, no eggs.  Eventually I'd settle into a "lacto-ovo" vegetarian phase which opened a lot of culinary doors.  But during those late 1970s, when I strove to cleanse my body of the toxicity of my year in Boston, I consumed fruits, vegetables, beans, and water.

My mother found clever ways to feed me.  While she and Daddy ate fried chicken, I'd munch a black-bean loaf shot through with sunflower seeds and avocado.  I think my Mom read every hippie cookbook that the library offered just to lure me to her table.  Still she'd simmer soup on the stove, hoping to tempt me with fat noodles and stop the downward plunge of my weight.  She mildly suggested that I consider an Orange Freeze from Steak 'n' Shake when my weight dropped below 100.  I shrugged her off.  I dragged out the chapter of my adviser's book which I had been assigned to write, and described my theories and how I intended to articulate them.  I showed her my wait-list letter for the Fletcher School of Diplomacy.  She didn't ask how I'd pay for a D.C. apartment.  She just listened.

Beside my laptop, on the desk in what has become the guest bedroom, the stack of papers from my mad dash to finish my 2015 tax return gather dust.  The top layer has drops of blood from the frenzy when I sank a knife into my left index finger that night.  Twelve days later, the cut has almost entirely closed.  My butterfly job  along with an entire packet of dusty wound sealant staunched the flow of blood.  The top of my laptop still bears the christening sheen of brown powder.  I barely feel the pain any more.  Like so many other wounds, the surface healing covers its malaise.

Now the sun has found its way high into the sky.  The ghosts retreat.  My weeks-on-end of unrelenting work should have abated, but late yesterday afternoon the other side in a settlement reneged.  I'm faced with going unprepared into a trial on Monday, having been fooled by the mediator's certainty that the parties had reached an agreement.  I'm taking one day for myself, to wash a load of clothes and unload the perennial over-crowding in the dishwasher for which I must confess enormous gratitude.  Tomorrow I will rise early and go into the office.  I will do whatever preparation one can do in ten hours, including meeting with my client and his family after their church and Sunday dinner.

But for today, I will heed the fine arch of my  mother's haunting eyebrows.  I will haul the cleaning supplies out and scrub the scum from my lovely fancy upstairs shower.  I will strip the beds of their wrinkled sheets, and throw away the moldy vegetables.  I cannot do much to please my mother now.  But I can clean.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Musings, 22 October 2016

Good morning,

On my walk to the car yesterday, I noticed the mock Rose of Sharon  still bore wild lovely blooms pushing towards the sky.  Untamed, untrimmed, it covers the bathroom window and rises towards the roofline.  I stopped to admire its resilience.  Usually, someone has hacked it to the ground by now.  I know that I need to get the bush pruned, but for another day or two at least, I'll let it be.

As I continued to the end of the driveway, I found myself thinking about the mulberry bushes on Pick-A-Chick, down McLaran Avenue and up Avis Avenue to the deadend.

I couldn't be more than five or six.  Joyce walks ahead, carrying a pail.  I've got a bowl.  I'm wearing an old shirt of my father's, buttoned over my shorts and T-shirt.  The bowl thumps against my legs as I scurry to keep pace with my sister.  She's five years older than I am and walks fast, intent, determined to get to Pick-A-Chick before the birds eat all the mulberries.

When we crest the hill she runs forward, shouting, and a flock of crows rises into the summer sky.  We move into the grove of volunteer bushes.  It sits in a patch of ground which breaks the course of the street.  On the other side, the abandoned truck with pictures of chicks stands at one angle.  Or stood.  It disappeared at some point but in my mind, rusted there forever, giving the spot its nickname.

Soon Joyce has filled her bucket halfway.  I move more slowly, picking one small berry at a time.  My fingers grow stained with the purple juice of the ripe mulberries.  I sneak a few into my mouth til my teeth take on a red tinge and my lips look painted.  The front of my father's shirt has smears of berry.  Joyce half-heartedly scolds me for eating instead of filling my bowl.  She shakes her head.   She knows who will bring home the bulk of our haul.  

And she does.  An hour later I start to whine.  Joyce relents and we begin the walk home, three long blocks carrying our harvest.  When we get to the kitchen, we rinse the berries and store them in a clean bowl in the refrigerator.

Later my mother takes them out and folds them into a batter for muffins.  I stand on the little bench to stir for her, careful not to break the berries.  We put them in cupcake papers in the muffin tins, then Mother holds the door of the oven and slides the pans into the warm cavern.  I bend over and look through the window.  We'll eat the muffins for breakfast after church on Sunday, with fried eggs and bacon.  Mother will take only half of hers, cutting it clean and spreading margarine with care.  She'll eat slowly, and pick up the moist crumbs with the end of her finger.  One of the boys will gobble the other half,  which I know without asking that my mother really does want.  But boys must be fed.

I close my eyes when I take the first bite of mulberry muffin.  It tastes like heaven.  I push away the memory of my friend Sharon taunting me.  "Mulberries are for poor people!"  I don't know why she said that.  I think they are divine.

A lifetime later, I still wonder at the thought that the delicious berries would somehow be worthy of a little girl's contempt.  I suppose her mother had told her that only those poor Corleys had to gather wild mulberries.  I can picture the conversation in their kitchen, Sharon asking if she can go to Pick-A-Chick with Joyce and me, and her mother replying, "We don't need to pick  mulberries on someone else's property, we can afford to buy blackberries at the store."  I can buy berries now, too; but I would give anything to walk back to Avis Avenue, and scramble on the dead-end picking mulberries with my sister, while the crows cawed above us, waiting their turn at the delicious feast.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Here is the Google Map picture of my childhood home.  This was probably taken a while ago, and even so, it's changed from when I lived there.  But seeing it still makes me smile.
I love you, J-Bear.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Saturday Musings, 15 October 2016

Good morning,

Another Friday evening saw me at dinner with one of my friends who keep me young, a sister-from-another-Mother who shares so much of what I believe:  Passion for helping; liberal politics; independence; fierceness in her loyalty and  her dedication.  Patricia Scaglia has pursued her life in ways that I would have done, had I not taken a couple of unexpected turns. So dinner with Tricia livens my week, but she's a couple of decades younger than I am.  I come home later than this middle-aged woman probably ought to do, and sleep far beyond my usual hour of rising.

This morning as I stand dismayed at the front door, beholding the determined rise of the sun over the neighborhood, I spy a postcard peeking from a pocket of my purse.  I slide it from the zippered compartment and stand holding it, looking at the front, reading what it says on the back.  I lower myself into the chair by the secretary, take a sip of coffee from my crystal mug, and let myself drift back to the day that the postcard evokes.

I won't tell the whole story.  I've written of it before today.  A new job; a drive to Westport to celebrate; a step onto the street in my new suede pumps; a driver blinded by the setting sun.  Crash -- body flying into the air -- angel in the heavens saying, It's not your time. Law Student Run Over By Iranian, Film at ten, ooh, aaaah, ah.  But the days afterwards, I rarely think of them.

My first bed at Menorah that evening flanked three others in a six-bed triage area at the old Menorah Hospital in the city.  I lay beneath a thin sheet with my right leg cradled in a humongous contraption to stabilize the 32 breaks, splinters, really, you know? and the crushed patella plateau.  I could barely see without the contact lenses which had popped from my eyes as I flew through the sky, with no one to break into my apartment to get my glasses.   I lay in misery, at once furious and forlorn.  Nurses and aides fussed around me.  A doctor stood over me, explaining that swelling prohibited surgery.  A police officer leaned down, telling me something. I could not discern his words.  Somebody muttered over and over and over: Hail Mary full of grace.  Hail Mary full of grace.  Hail Mary.  Hail Mary.  It took me a half hour to realize that my cradle Catholicism had arisen but had been dormant so long that I could not remember the next line of the prayer.

A figure loomed, holding a piece of paper and a Bic pen.  Sign here, sign here, said the voice, with an accent so heavy that it barely penetrated the fog of pain.  Just then, one of the ambulance guys snatched the paper from the man's hands, and a scuffle ensued.  When the commotion quieted, the paramedic who had peeled me from the asphalt sat beside me in a folding chair.  He told me that the driver had been arrested, that he had been there trying to get me to sign a paper saying I had not been hurt.  Hospital security had escorted him from the premises.  A guard would watch over me through the night.   He held my hand as the nurse administered a redeeming shot and I slipped into darkness.

By morning, my parents had come and persuaded my landlords to let them into my apartment.  They brought my glasses, a nightgown, a book of Walt Whitman poetry, and the engulfing comfort of their love.  Visitors began to troop into my room.  Law professors, classmates, my landlady, a handful of the happy hour partiers who had comforted me until the ambulance came.  Summer Shipp, who had seen me fly past her window from her office on the second floor, sat by my bedside for hours that first day.  She told me about calling the police because she had seen my body on the way down and thought I had jumped from the roof of her building.  Law student commits suicide, Film at ten, ooh ahhh ah.  But I had not jumped.  I had been catapulted with such force that I flew more than two stories towards the heavens.

The man whose sunset-blindedness had caused him to hit me did not come back.  Maher Altalathina, his name.  He had told the officer that he came from Persia and had no insurance.  Persia.  I pictured his olive complection as I lay in my bed.  His dark hair, his stocky body, his urgency as he tried to get me to sign a hand-written release.  My Syrian grandfather raged against the fellow when he heard about it.  What kind of man won't accept the consequences of his actions, he asked my mother.  He gave her money to help with my bills while I couldn't work.  He called me from his home in Springfield and told me he loved me. He told me to let him know if I needed anything else.

Summer Shipp continued to visit.  She told me that she and other business owners had petitioned the city for some kind of traffic controls at the intersection near where I had been struck.  They've put up a flashing yellow light, she assured me.  They're dong a study.  We're going to get a real traffic light, we hope.  I don't remind her that I had crossed between corners; I had jaywalked.  I had parked at the curb halfway between Broadway and Pennsylvania on the north side of Westport Road, and stepped into the street.  Her exuberance stayed my words.  I had become the symbol of her crusade.

I spent the next couple of months being moved from one room to another in the hospital as we waited for the swelling to abate enough for restorative surgery.  My friend David Frye brought my textbooks and tapes of our classes.  Other friends gleefully invaded with contraband -- bottles of wine, slabs of cake, steaming hot pizza.  Roommates came and went as I enjoyed a respite from whatever my life had become that I could not handle.    I never wanted for company.  In some weird way, those two months did more for my self-esteem than the two preceding decades.

As spring approach, Summer Shipp continued to visit me.  One day she brought me the letter from the city advising that the traffic signals had been approved.  She sat by my bed and told me that nobody would ever have to go through what I experienced.  There would be a proper walk signal.  Her flushed and gleaming face conveyed her sense of justice having been served with me as its poster child.

I left Menorah Hospital in a cast from ankle to crotch, a bottle of narcotics, and a flutter of worried admonishments from the hospital social worker.  She thrust a list of phone numbers at me, placating her own instincts which cautioned that releasing me to my fourth-floor apartment could be a mistake.  My parents drove me home and stood behind me as I crutch-walked all the way to my door.  I fell asleep in the green recliner while my father unpacked groceries and my mother put clean sheets on my bed.

The weird thing about being disabled most of your life is that when you're made more disabled, it almost seems like just desserts.  From that time in 1982, my right leg slowly degenerated.  Twenty years after the accident, an orthopoedic surgeon removed my knee and replaced it with the last of the old-styled artificial knees.  Another fifteen years have gone by; that mess of metal and plastic has not worked right for years, and the leg which we once laughingly called "my good leg" struggles to keep pace with its weaker mate.  But since the function of my artificial joint sits far down on the list of things that plague me, I hoist it when it locks and rub it when its phantom ache rages.

Sometimes I use that accident to explain the way I walk.  What happened to you, lady? children will say, in Target, in the grocery store, on the corner downtown when I'm struggling into court.  I didn't look both ways when I crossed the street, I say, in a serious voice.  I didn't cross in the crosswalk, like we're doing now.  I didn't hold my mother's hand.  With wide eyes, they tighten their grip on the fingers of their harried parent.  That won't happen to me, they say, and hurry away.

Now the city has decided that the traffic signal at Westport Road and Pennsylvania "does not benefit traffic flow or pubic safety".  Thus, they "have determined that the traffic signal should be removed".  I can hear Summer Shipp spinning in her terrible grave.  The angels above Westport are preparing for double-duty.  They're standing by, waiting, to separate those whose time has come from those who must stay, here on earth, for at least one more day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Saturday Musings, 08 October 2016

Good morning,

Yesterday I sat with my head slightly bowed, hands held still in my lap.  My eyelids lowered, not with the burden of my fatigue but with resolve.  I felt my body strain, fury rising from my belly.  A quiver ran through me, hard and fierce.  The shudder subsided and I listened to the drone of my opponent.

Later, after the judge had pronounced her reluctant ruling in my favor, I trudged to the car pulling my trial bag behind me and remembered a late night in Brookfield, Missouri, when I argued jury instructions, sweaty in my blouse and wrinkled suit.  The judge had long since shed his robe and loosened his tie.  Each side had commandeered a different private room.

My boss and law clerk waited in the county law library as I ran back and forth to the courtroom.  Piles of law books toppled with each careless slam of the heavy old door against its frame.  I kicked my silly girl shoes from my feet as soon as our cadre hid behind the oak to grumble about the judge's complaints.  Wording, sentence structure, whatever we did, the man criticized us while the defendant's lawyers, smooth and serene, let the judge do their work for them.

John Arens, the head of my law firm, seemed unaffected by the activity.  He jiggled a stack of Susan B. Anthony coins from hand to hand.  The coins had become a symbol of the farmers whom he represented.  In those days, family farmers hoarded those coins, even as they struggled to keep their land, devastated by drought and the burden of borrowing when cash flowed free in the 1970s. Banks and the Federal agricultural lenders, the Federal Land Bank and Production Credit Association, pushed foreclosures and litigation to collect deficiencies from defaulting borrowers.  Our firm and a handful of other legal teams around the country specialized in representing the families desperate to keep their old homesteads.  Farmers across the Midwest huddled in their farmhouses, angry at the government, predicting the collapse of the economy and the sudden devaluing of paper money.  They buried cans of coins in the yards as insurance for the post-apocalyptic tyranny.

As we fought to defend one of those farmers, night closed around the courthouse.  Exhaustion overcame me.  Sweat ran from my law clerk's brow.  Ron, over-weight and puffing from exertion, pushed the nearest pile of law reporters aside so I could sit.  We  looked at each other, and at our boss standing unfazed at the other end of the room, smiling, calm.  At issue was the fate of our client's family farm, which his family had held for three generations.  Did the bank promise not to call his note on the default which followed the over-extending of his finances?  An exhibit which Ron and I had enlarged for the jury showed a faint erasure, the outlines of which John had quietly, calmly, shown a witness as the man sat humble in the box.  Yes, the banker admitted.  That is my handwriting.  I did change those figures.  I did alter that document.

We thought we had him.  We thought we'd proved that the man had fiddled with our client's application in ways that made the bank liable.  But if the judge did not approve the instructions we wanted, and let us submit the case for deliberation, that stunning revelation would be meaningless.  The painted farmhouse, the tidy kitchen, the stacks of split wood, the beds with their worn quilts -- all would be lost to the auctioneer's gavel with the rusty tractor, the bales of hay and the cattle which that hay was meant to feed.

Long glances passed between the members of our team as the bailiff rapped on the door and bid us to come back to the courtroom for the judge's last pronouncement of what claims he would let stand.  I drew my jacket over my rumpled blouse.  Ron pulled his tie over his head and straightened the knot.  John looked as freshly shaved as he had twelve hours earlier when we first came into the Courthouse.  His short grey hair lay perfectly combed across the crown of his head.  The starch of his shirt had held through the heavy heat of the old building.  He led the way, with squared shoulders and an easy bearing.

The  judge sat over us, on his bench.  He had not taken up his robe but had assumed his jacket.  I felt his gaze linger on the sagging contours of my face before moving to the quiet features of my boss.  Mr. Arens, said the judge, addressing the man who had forged the way through the law's murky waters to this moment.  You seem remarkably unconcerned about these jury instructions.

John smiled, an act which triggered a ripple of concern deep in my gut. I knew that look.  He set the stack of coins on our table and spread his hands.  Your honor, he replied.  I already know what I am going to say to the jury.  It doesn't matter to me what you decide to tell them.

In thirty-three years of practicing law, I have never seen a more shocked look from the bench, not in any courtroom, state or federal.  The next morning, when that judge read the  very limited set of instructions to the jury, the weight of his revenge fell heavy on our client's shoulders.  He had gutted our case, taken all of the claims which could have garnered punitive damages and reduced the matter to a simple breach of contract.  We got the jury but not the verdict that would have paid our bill and made the client more than whole.

We saved our client's  farm.  The jury gave us enough for me to go into the courthouse conference room with my pens and paper, and negotiate a debt write-down.  My boss never lost his placid smile.  Afterwards, when we had gone across the square to the bank and signed the papers, when we had driven out to the client's farm and eaten lunch at his mother's table,  Ron and I excused ourselves to walk around the yard and feign interest  in the vegetable garden.  Inside, John closed the case by negotiating his percentage.  Ten percent?  Twenty?  We did not know, and did not want to know.  Thirty percent of nothing should be nothing but somehow, it would morph into something hefty that filled sackcloths in the hold of our private airplane.

In yesterday's courtroom I had no trouble holding my face inscrutable as the judge ruled in my favor.  My opponent had reckoned without the legal holdings which supported what I wanted.  She thought she had struck some crude alliance with the court, that I stood on the outside of their circle with my client while she and hers dwelt in the inner sanctum.  She calculated badly, but I did not gloat.

I thanked the judge, gathered my papers, and took myself home.  I've learned my lessons.  Indeed, right can make might.  But it can also become fodder for revenge, and so I step carefully in every patch of grass as I make my way across the farm yard at the end of the day. My clients do not pay me in huge piles of coins, in crumpled bills bagged and stashed in a cargo hold.  But I learned from someone who made his living like that, and I learned my lessons well.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Saturday Musings, 01 October 2016

Good morning,

The roller coaster month of September glided to an uneventful stop last night and I stumbled from the car, hands grimy from clutching the bar, stomach lurching, hair whipped into a mass of tangles from the ferocity of the wind as the car plunged and climbed.  I staggered to a corner and collapsed, bruised and battered from the ride but exhilarated.  I celebrated with a warmed-over gluten-free pasta and a half-cup of Talenti Sea Salt Caramel ice cream, both consumed amid the bedraggled, neglected plants on my porch with murmured promises of dead-heading, watering, and re-potting this weekend.

I think of my son's childhood in October.  I see him and his friends dressed in Batman costumes, Power Ranger uniforms, as creepy ghouls with painted beards.  Slinging bags for candy, they would set out down the sidewalk, first in our neighborhood, then in south Kansas City or Roeland Park.  An adult would straggle behind them.  Occasionally we'd trick or treat for UNICEF.  As they grew older, we'd let them go out alone.  We would watch them depart, standing on our haunted porch, cobwebs hanging down around us, Irish coffees at hand.

The worst Halloween was 1998, the year of the Brutal Diagnosis.  In February I had been told that I had six months left, maybe a year.  I had grown pale and weak with an undiagnosed ailment.  I struggled to keep myself and my son afloat, surrounded by friends, the new man in my life at the time whom I would eventually marry, and a host of doctors leaving instructions at the Emergency Room to admit me if I came within five feet of its automatic doors.

That Halloween, nurses brought buckets of candy around to each room.  Any occupant awake enough to converse received a stash for dispensing to visitors.  I committed to letting other patients' children bother me.  An aide helped me wash and struggle into street clothes.  We pulled the curtain clear across the sleeping form in the next bed, an old woman who hollered throughout my sleepless nights.

Mona brought the boys to see me, Patrick and Maher, my son and hers.  Seven and eight, still too young to really understand my countless trips to the hospital.  I barely understood them myself and I'm fairly certain the doctors didn't either.  The boys came into my room with slow steps and timid faces behind their Halloween masks.  They held out their pillow-cases for the candy which I dropped by handfuls.  Maher scampered out again, but my son moved closer to me and offered a piece of chocolate.  I took it with the same seriousness, thanking him in a voice pitched low to match his.

You unwrap it for me, I said, and he did, carefully, folding the paper and setting it on the bedside table.  I broke it in half and offered one piece to him.  I scooted over and let him sit on the edge of the bed, his small body barely disturbing the thin mattress.  We chewed without breaking the stillness of the nearly dark room, while the woman in the far corner slept beneath a mound of covers in her bed by the darkened window.

Patrick finally spoke, clearing his small throat, aiming for a stage whisper.  Are you coming home tomorrow, he asked.  He pushed his Red Ranger mask to the top of his head.  I could see his eyes, wary, sad.  I had no answer but I lied.  I'm sure of it, I answered.  The doctors say I'm already better.  They had said no such thing.  They didn't even know what was wrong with me and weren't the ones who would eventually figure it out.  But this was my son whom I had left alone with a man he'd known for a handful of months, who had moved into our home just two weeks earlier.  How could I tell him that for all I knew, he'd be living permanently with Auntie Mona by Christmas?

My deceit soothed him, I supposed, for he slid from the bed and moved towards the door, re-positioning his mask.  As he went out to join Maher in his Trick-or-Treating at the Nurse's Station, my son briefly turned towards me.  I'm being really good, he told me, the words falling in trembles.  I strained towards him but he did not see as he scampered into the hallway.  I let my hand fall, and closed my eyes, while the gloom gathered around me and my neighbor's gentle snores filled the room.

Eighteen years later, the crimson leaves have begun to float from the umbrella maple to settle on the front lawn of the house in which my son spent so many troubled days and nights.  All of those faces have gone from this  place now, leaving only their ghosts to keep me company.   The autumn unfolds and the days of the year grow short.  I pull my shawl close around my shoulders, pour another cup of coffee, and stand on the porch, watching those ghosts cross the lawn, smiling in the chilly air of a perfect morning.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
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.