Dirty Toes

A roach crawled over my toes and I swallowed a scream.

Sure, I was breaking dress code by wearing sandals, but it was 90 degrees in the middle of the summer. I was in a shanty house without air conditioning, feeling sweaty remorse only at not breaking more of the dress code with shorts. Who would care out of the cataract clouded, hard of hearing, mostly demented people I met?

The air reeked of stale cat urine and hung heavy in place even with the window cracked open. Knicknacks lined the wall on a narrow shelf. There appeared to be a number of clowns and small dust covered dolls jumbled together in no particular order. If the knickknack shelf was representative of this lady’s paperwork situation, it was going to be a long afternoon and I was already hungry for lunch.

I wondered if my blood sugar level was dropping or if the heat was affecting my brain when a black cat crept into the room. It eyed me suspiciously before ducking behind the tv to use the area as an extension of her litter box. She emerged with a guilty look that explained the wretched smell of cat pee that was definitely intensifying.

When I looked up, a roach froze on the wall.  It could sense me watching it, wishing for it to die or disappear. Another fat roach scuttled towards my computer bag; the bag sat gaping open on the floor beckoning all creepy, crawly things to enter. I felt a fresh scream forming in my throat.

A woman in cut-off jean shorts and flip flops stood between me and the bag.  Her dirty toes were firmly planted, she wasn’t moving.  What do I do with it once I close it? I will just have to open it again to get out a pen or to add a small dust covered doll to my pile of purloined knickknacks.

A phone chimed from inside of her back pocket. She pulled it out and flipped it open with her thumb.

“Hey yea, I’m busy now,” she said into the mobile device but continued to speak with the caller.

She turned away from me and cupped her mouth to divert and muffle the sound of her voice from the rest of the room. This cupping technique may have worked better if she also lowered her voice to a whisper, a detail she neglected as she started to negotiate some type of illicit drug deal.

I turned to her allegedly stone deaf mother who sat next to me on the couch and gave her an encouraging smile. I tried to communicate my patience and acceptance of the environment. The bugs, the smells, the man who just walked in with a weedeater muttering to himself, none of it bothered me that much.

See how Zen I am with all of this?

The woman returned my smile with a mouthful of pink gums.  Oh she’s healthy, I thought remembering an article I read at the dentist’s office about gum health. Wait, I stopped myself in mid-thought. Was that something I read at the vet’s office?

Her eyes were sea-foam green with brown flecks that turned gold as she shouted, “I hate when people talk behind my back.”

“Me too, me too,” I said in surprised agreement.

Her daughter warned me that communication would be pointless, “She can’t hear a thing. She used to be sharp but now she can’t even remember her name.”

I wanted to prove her daughter wrong. With the evidence of her health gums and now starting a conversation, things were looking good for the old lady.

“What?” the toothless old woman asked and after a second forgot what she asked and settled back into the cushion of the crusty couch and commenced to stare straight ahead at her narrow shelf of clowns and dolls.

Nevermind that plan to redeem her competency.  She was happy here.  This life in a hot, dirty, infested house made sense to her.

I refocused my attentions and wiggled my toes, remember the little piggies that were accosted by a roach earlier?

I was suddenly overcome with gratitude for their freedom and for my freedom to leave this house. If I pass out first, the roaches will eat my face or that man with a weedeater might come back for me. I resolved to stay conscious until we could finish our business. In the meantime, I might as well enjoy the experience.

We continued sit in a demented and hypoglycemic bliss and I thought of a Kurt Vonnegut quote that goes something along the line, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”




Oh, Neighbor.


The neighbors have been quite busy.

They started last week by trying to burn their house down. It was an unsuccessful attempt which only brought other nosy neighbors into our yard to find out details of the situation. If there is a silver lining to the dark little cloud that is their pyromania, it’s this. They now have a good excuse for ordering fast food every day.

I heard Bozo tell the pizza delivery man, “We can’t cook because we had a house fire.”

The pizza man wasn’t interested. “Oh yeah?” he replied and then asked for the money owed.

They Uber’d up and down our street running post-house fire errands all week. I haven’t seen them drag any of their burned junk out of the house or lug paint buckets and other cleaning supplies inside, which is not a surprise.

What has come as a surprise is that the suspicious cars and strangers have stopped visiting with Bozo. Due to smoke damage or a destroyed supply, he had to stop his petty drug dealing biz. I suspect he will need to work more hours at his regular job, not dealing drugs, to make up for this loss of revenue.

This afternoon, I spied through the blinds to see what those two crazy kids, Bozo and Bunny, were up to and made another startling discovery. Neighbor watching takes a lot of time and energy (#workfromhomefail).

Bunny was sitting on front porch steps with their ancient dog in her lap.  The dog is in rough shape; it walks with a limp, holds its old tail straight out like a stick, and has a massive tumor on his snout. Its fur is coated in a perma-grease that stinks. I learned the hard way how difficult the perma-grease is to remove when I petted it after the recent fire. It is possible that the old dog is used as a napkin after they eat their daily dose of fast food. More neighbor watching will be required to confirm.

In any case, Bunny was performing some type of surgery on the old dog’s nose. It was too terrible to describe in great detail. Just know, there was blood, lots of blood. Fortunately, the dog did not seem to mind as much as I did. I gagged and looked away. When I looked back, they were gone. Only a blood stain remained as a reminder that neighbor watching can be rich with rewards.

Burning Questions


Before the fire, I wanted to be a real writer. I wanted to write stories and books, essays and poems. I wanted to move readers with my words into action and compassion. Now, I just want to free myself of the words and be done with them.

“I’m bleeding,” our neighbor screamed as he burst through the front door.

Bright, red blood was splattered over his face.  It dripped from his hand and arm, which he held away from his body at a strange angle. An old dog trotted out next to him, faithful and endlessly loyal to his panicking owner.

This would be the perfect way to start a short story if it was fiction, if real smoke didn’t follow him out of the house in rolling waves. His girlfriend emerged from the dark smoke in bare feet and flimsy pajamas. She ran across the street with a pet carrier and set it down on the sidewalk.

She gasped for a breath of fresh air and yelled, “Call 911. The house is on fire!”

Without waiting, she ran back to the house and a cat started to wail from inside of its tiny prison. A small white paw poked out from one of the holes of the carrier and disappeared back inside. The wailing continued and then suddenly stopped. I understood the cat’s pathetic cries, an innocent victim of its humans’ actions..

It was how I felt at being left with the chubby babysitter of my youth or forced onto the school bus, taking one big step after the other, away from safety and towards the unknown. I wailed back then, just like the mangy cat on our sidewalk.

The neighbors kept running into their smoke filled house in search of the rest of their pets. Logic was overridden in their mad hunt for the frightened cats that did not want to be found. Sirens pierced through the summer air, deafening our pleas to the couple to stay out of the house. Help was on the way, if only to drag the fools out of the burning house.

In the meantime, the old dog flopped onto the sidewalk next to its sorrowful feline companion, patiently waiting for its master to return, being blind and deaf has its occasional perks.

Fortunately, the fire was put out quickly and the bleeding was stopped at the hospital. The pets were eventually reclaimed and all of the nosy neighbors returned to their respective homes.

Unfortunately, the night of the fire, I read an essay by Joan Didion. It was unusual for me to read non-fiction and a surprise how much I enjoyed it until I got to the last paragraph which stopped me cold turkey, dead in my tracks, (insert your favorite cliché here).

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Words have never chilled my blood as quickly.  They spoke directly to my mind and heart and left me with questions that demanded to be addressed, especially in burning light of the neighbors’ home.

What am I doing on here?  When does story telling cross the line? Is there a way to write something decent and not sell anyone out?  Who have I already sold out and at what cost?  I am left wondering as a writer and a person, now what?

I clearly have some thinking to do.

Small Talk


After any holiday is a good time for small talk. Someone did something somewhere and thus a conversation is born. As an introvert, I take advantage of these times. Like a rabbit in a garden of lettuce, I get while the gettin’ is good.

My hair dresser, who prefers the term “stylist”, always wants to chit-chat while she is washing and snipping away at my hair. I try my best to appease her throughout our sessions but usually fall into a blissful silence. I love having my hair done and don’t have much to say. People aren’t expected to carry a conversation with a surgeon, usually because of the anesthesia, but also to let the expert focus on his/her work.

I take this same approach towards my stylist (I prefer “hairdresser”) who disregards my silence and continues with the chitty-chat. In my best effort at normal human interaction, I had a good question ready for her at my last appointment.

As she was sudsing up my hair, I asked, “So what did you do for the fourth of July weekend?”

Nailed it. She did lots of things, including a trip to her grandma’s house on Lake James.

As she detailed the boat parties, fireworks on the water, live bands and skiing, I remembered the one and only time that I went to Lake James.

It was on the fourth of July, too. I experienced the floating booze parties and water sports, first hand. They hadn’t changed much in over a decade by her descriptions. Boats still congregated in great numbers, dropped anchor, and the boaters hopped into the water to drink beer out of ice filled coolers and to float the day away.

Everyone ends up with a sunburn, dehydration, and varying degrees of a hangover (for those who are of age, of course).

When I was there, it was at a time when people had cell phones but they weren’t “smart” like they are today. People weren’t addicted to them like we are now, myself included. I was lucky enough to have my very own cellular device which was silver with a hot pink, rubber case. There were actual buttons to dial the numbers and a little antenna on the top. As a highly prized piece of advanced technology, I took the best care of that little phone.  I can say with absolute certainty, it was not with me on the boat.

Looking back, I’m not sure how I got the message out on the water, in the middle of a floating booze party that my mom was in the hospital, but I did. The only thing I knew was that there had been a firework explosion and she was involved.

I wanted to tell my hairdresser/stylist that I had been to Lake James on the fourth of July, too. I wanted to share how I always wanted to go back to see the fireworks on the water. I wanted to share with her something real, but then that wouldn’t have been small talk, anymore.

Oh, the humanity


Circling the parking lot outside of a doc’s office, I grumbled at all of the sick people. Still no legit spots in sight after two loops so I parked in a handicap spot and ran inside. I considered adopting a temporary limp but felt that would be even worse. I had to pick up a packet of paperwork from a nurse; I expected to be in and out. A limp would take extra time.

Please, I begged the universe, don’t let me get towed or a ticket although I clearly deserve it.

The waiting room was filled the sick people who owned the bothersome vehicles. A man in a dirty white t-shirt had crutches leaned against his chair, another man wheezed as he ate a sandwich in his wheelchair, a woman with a tiny bun of thinning hair was surrounded by bags and coughed into a ball of ragged Kleenex. Briefly, one woman looked up from her cell phone when I rushed in and returned to the tiny screen with complete disinterest.

The room was filled with people and their problems. If I had a little mask, the kind with an elastic string, I would have put it on with great haste in hopes of preventing the spread of desperation.

I tried to remind myself that I am not a bad person.

These were the people who needed the handicap parking spot in the front of the building. They were here to find answers to what was wrong with them. I wanted to clue them in that it’s everything. Life can be wrong and unfair but it goes on. I wanted to help them to reframe the situation. Let’s not think about what’s wrong with your aching joints or lower back, why you have that cough, or distended belly.

Let’s focus on what’s right with your life.

You are at a doc’s office, so that’s a start. The sun is shining. We have fresh water and clean air. The streets are paved. Education is free and so are we, for the most part excluding freedom from debt and government rule.

Leaving the office with papers in hand, I let out a great sigh of relief. I had been holding my breath without realizing it as I traveled across the waiting room. The germs, my sensibilities screamed. The bugs, my unfounded fears yelled. The desperation of living on the fringes of never having enough, my inner voice quieted down overcome with reason, truth, perspective, and finally gratitude.

The humanity, oh the humanity.



Mudding the Walls


There is great satisfaction from working with one’s hands. However, when one nearly amputates one’s finger, the satisfaction is greatly decreased.

Let me paint the scene, or in this case, mud it.

We had taken down all of the wooden paneling in our backroom and replaced it with drywall. This makes for a short sentence but took several long weekends to actually accomplish.

Generally speaking, once nailed to the walls and ceiling, the sheets of drywall are close but not perfectly flush with one another. Most especially this is true in an unevenly cobbled together house such as the one in which we live. So we use this special tape wherever two edges of drywall meet and cover it with this grey gunk, called mud, to fill in the cracks, seal the seams, and to make the walls nice and smooth.

Easy enough, right?

I had just finished the perfect seam. Smooth and evenly spread with light feathering out on each side; it was the kind of seam that I knew would make my dad proud. Then it occurred to me that my tongue was going numb and my hands were shaking.

“Blood sugar’s dropping,” I slurred out.

I’ve got this, I thought to myself since my usual mode of communication was temporarily disabled. I shook off the shakes with the determination to finish one more seam before collapsing or seeking out a cookie or scoop of peanut butter. In either case, I was not giving up just because of a little hypoglycemia.

Scraping the excess mud from one drywall knife onto the other, I wavered with the thought that I really should stop but continued on anyways. And then suddenly when my drywall knife should have been scooping, smoothing, or scraping, it took on the function of slicing. The edge of the blade cut through the skin on the top of my index finger and stopped just shy of the bone. This was the finger that I might use to point out something interesting, to scoop a sample of frosting from a cake or to squish an ant, a very important digit by all accounts.

As blood spurted from the top of my finger, I stared in shock.  Then, I swore to never be helpful again and started screaming.  Side note: I am not the best at dealing with situations that involve pressure, crisis, conflict, or blood which are not exactly strong talking points in a job interview or when making a few friend.  Subjects such as these are better left to discussions with penpals and counselors.

Fast forward to a new day with a fresh bandage wrapped around my wounded finger.

I am still fervently wishing the walls will come together on their own, possibly through divine intervention, and waiting for my finger to heal.  The fact remains clear that this terrible job is not meant for the impatient or weak of heart.

My utmost respect goes out to the DIY (do-it-yourself) nation.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”