Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Grandma, What a Big Thirst You Have!

-  Sisters in Southeast Alaska, getting into mischief.  One of those towns where nearly everyone has a name ending in 'sen', Peterssen, Andersen, Gundersen...  descendants of the Nordic pipeline.  A village that has an interest in everyone's personal business, tolerates their quirks, helps out when they can.  Sibling girls, condemned by their mother to daily visits to the home of the town alcoholic, Mary Bersvendsen.  "That's what neighbors do", she tells them. 
-  So, every day, after school in the usual rain, they slog to Mary's house, check her health and do small errands.  They know Mary's story, how she couldn't have children, how she lost her husband in a fishing accident, how she cried non-stop until she started drinking, and how she became one of those drunks that puts the second six-pack in the freezer to cool while she drinks the first, and never freezes a can.
-  The girls understood that Mary couldn't cope, but wondered why THEY were assigned to do the coping for her.  Every day they cleaned a different kind of mess, fluffed her pillows, threw out the empties.  But God knew THEY (the girls) weren't getting anything from the experience (much less getting paid), except for poor old Mary telling them how sweet they were for stopping in, and then sending them on their way as if she had invited them and suddenly had something she needed to do or live for.
-  Years went by and Mary deteriorated.  The town kept her house livable and spoke in whisper-tsks whenever the Bersvendsen name was mentioned.  The girls reached the age where hormones and boredom cloud decisions, and they concocted a way Mary might do them a return favor. The boys their age were obsessed with MAN things, like boats, and chainsaws, and ...beer.  Not that they had actual access to many of those things, but the girl who could offer a taste would be popular indeed.
-  The girls knew that Mary seldom took nutrition except from a can, and that her kitchen had long since been relegated to storage.  They also knew how she kept a tab with the Bottle Stop liquor store and the town cabbie, who delivered a new supply every few days.  Occasionally though, she had some other random need, and one of the Olsen clan would bring their car and take Mary the three blocks to the town store, where people would fuss over her, ask about her health, wish her well, and shake their heads after she'd left.
-  The timing was never right for several weeks while the girls perfected their scheme, but on a dismal morning just two weeks before school was out, the Olsen Ford crackled off the gravel driveway with Mary preening her reflection in the window, and the girls launched the plan they'd concocted.  The youngest put on one of Mary's nightgowns, donned one of Mary's knitted  night caps and jumped into the smelly rumpled old bed.  The elder partner in crime spun the dial on the phone and handed the receiver beneath the covers to her sister.  What came out of the girl's mouth was a gravelly mix of Julia Child and Little Richard.
-  "Hello Mr. Anderssen?  Could you pick me up some beer, Honey?", much the same way they'd heard Mary ask many times before.  But Andy threw them a curve,  "Sure, Mary, but I'll be a few minutes.  I've got a real fare. That guy from the Fishing Commission and you know he won't want to go out of HIS way.  Are you okay? You don't sound so good."
-  "Sure, Sure.  Um, I just ate a red hot", she croaked.
-  Silence.  Then, "So okay, Mary.  See you in a little while.  Bye."  Dial tone. 
-  The older girl ripped the phone out of her sister's hands. "What the heck was that?", she yelled.
-  "What!?"
-  "That was the worst imitation of Mary ever!", even though she'd never heard an imitation of Mary. 
-  "You can do better?  It's not like we practiced or anything!", even though she had practiced all week.
-  "And what was that "Mr. Anderssen crap?  Mary would never call him Mister!", though actually Mary was from a different generation, who often addressed people more formally. 
-  "It sounded less pretend than 'Hey Mac', which is prob'ly what YOU'd have said.  Which, by the way, why DIDN'T you say it?" though actually she had been thrilled with the prospect of acting as Mary.
-  "RED HOTS?  RED HOTS??  Where did THAT come from?", even though she knew they had shared a tiny box of cinnamon drops that morning.
-  "I COULDN'T THINK OF ANYTHING ELSE!!", she screamed.  And that was true. 
-  The argument stopped when the crackly road announced the arrival of a car, and the girls looked out.  It was Andy, the cabby, with the state official in the front seat, tippling a brown paper wrapped bottle, then handing it back to Andy for a swig.  Evidently, the liquor store had not been out of the way after all.  The girls dove back into their roles, the eldest pretending to wash the dishes she'd dirtied for appearances, and the younger pulling the stained quilt over her head.  And then, with Andy balancing a case of beer waiter-like on his hand as he came up the walk, the girls tensed at the sound of another car pulling onto the road.  It had to be, and was, the Olsens with Mary in tow.  Andy waved with his free hand, thinking nothing of seeing the woman who had, just minutes before, called from her red hot sick bed.
-  The girls panicked.  The twice clean dishes clanked into the sink, the gown flew generally toward the closet, and two flying forms, one in a pink nightcap, flew down the rear walk where Mary, having noticed the cab blocking the front drive had asked to be driven around back, where she opened the gate just as two forms blurred past. 
-  "Hello dears!" she said to girls running at her.
-  "I've got it! Just got one bag today." she offered to the girls zinging past.
-  "You go on now.  See you next time!", she finished when the girls were already well down the street.
-  Then Mary went into her house, opened one beer from the case on the end table, put a six pack in the freezer, and settled into a strangely warm but comforting bed,  daydreaming about how nice it was to live in a place where neighbors cared enough to take her shopping, deliver sustenance, and send their wonderful children to check up on her.
-  Andy fluttered his fingertips at the girls on his way to the airport.  "D.U.I.", the eldest mouthed while beaming her friendliest smile back at him.

Monday, July 5, 2010


-  Pizzaman has really good local pizza.  They also serve schooners of microbrew.  So, with our house trembling from guest prep, there was little question where I was going for take-out.  When I walked through the door, a line of folks waited for seats.  One bleached little southern lady in heels bypassed the line and beat me to the cashier. "How long is the wait?", she drawled. 
-  This cashier is one of my favorites.  She is cute, courteous, professional, and very, very pregnant.  She asked about the size of the party and estimated a fifteen minute wait. 
-  The tourist raised her eyebrows, hesitated a second, brought three fingers to her cheek, and wailed "Oh Low-word!".  Thats the way she said it; two full syllables.  The hostess noticed my reaction, but controlled her own.  She shrugged an "I'm sorry", and the little belle wheeled and stormed away. 
-  The cashier smiled at me, reached for my order, and told me what I owed. 
-  I threw my hips to the side, raised my hand to my cheek, shook my head, and moaned "O Lo-word!!"
-  I must have done it well.  She doubled over and roared.  The next customer in line was laughing one of those mouth-wide-open-but-no-sound-coming-out guffaws, and the waiting-for-tables crowd, who hadn't heard the earlier exchange, were smiling that somethings-funny-but-we-don't-know-what confused half grin.  I shrugged an "I dunno" at them and waited for calm, but it wasn't happening.  The poor girl laughed so hard that she sat, actually sat, on the floor gasping.  Two waitresses ran out of the dining room to her side.  "My God, What happened?  Are you okay?"
-  Through tearing eyes, she was staring up at me staring at her with a fake concerned look.  "He...  He...", she tried between heavy breaths,  "is gonna make me have this baby!" 
-  The man behind was shaking his head.  One waitress was giving me hate looks, the other was helping the plumpish one to her feet.  She took some time, softly cradled her belly, then waved the other staff away, composed herself, and took my money.  She thanked me with a smirk, then pointed her finger at the man behind and said "Don't even think about it!"
-  From the car I could see her calmly handle business with the next customer, and as she called someone to fill in, I saw her mouth the words you come to expect from a woman in her condition, "Low-word, I gotta pee!"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fireworks - A Requiem

I used to love big fireworks shows.  Now I don't care.  Last night I sat alone in the guest bedroom and waited after midnight for the first boom.  It shook the house and startled the puppy from his sleep.  I hugged him and crated him, and went back to the show that was well on it's way.  There were no oohs and aahs, no squeals of delight, no patriotic music; Just me, a wall full of family photos, and a picture window dotted with colored splashes against the dusky Alaskan sky.  And like the movie that isn't quite good enough to involve you in the story, the show became interesting for it's rhythm, and the exact two seconds it took for the sound to travel to me, and the puffs drifting in the breeze the opposite direction of the clouds behind them.  I began to start predicting which types of shell would come next, and wandered to the realization that nothing had been new in the fireworks game for a very long time.  Then I began to remember the fireworks of my childhood, where fuses were lit only by child-like adults, and the explosions were all huge, and names were written in sparkler glare.  I remember losing power to the entire block when a tossed splattering stick crossed the feed wires. When I first beheld a commercial display, with it's shimmery old glory and layers of exploding beauty, I knew my life had purpose.  But there is no Stanford School of Pyrotechnics in my old neighborhood, and the closest I could get was to become a professional firefighter where all of my coworkers were similarly obsessed.  I had eighteen runs including a house fire one July 3rd while operating only a brush truck, and it was the pinnacle of the adrenaline driven portion of my life.  But the best, the very best, fireworks came when my girls were little, and we watched the reflections in their wide eyes, and their wriggly forms, hands on cheeks, backlit by the flashes, jolted by the booms. 
-  One of those girls came to visit last week.  We had a wonderful time, and now she's gone off again to grad school, and she's grown into a beautiful, fun-loving and independent woman that any father would be proud of, and I'm sitting here watching the celebration of the birth of our nation considering whether her generation will be able to restore any of the ideals dreamt of by the founders, then mortgaged by the people on my wall, me included.  I'm wondering if one man's vote will mean again what it should, and if real leaders will emerge that can decide issues based on diverse individual judgement rather than a party line.  I wonder if race will ever become irrelevant.  I'm hoping that the earth isn't already too polluted to recover. And I'm wondering, watching fireworks, how many of those other people watching are still proud of this country, willing to make real sacrifices for what it stands for, what it means to the history and destiny of humankind.  I'm missing that feeling in myself.
-  Mostly though, I guess I'm just sliding off the highs of last week, sad that time is over, already missing my daughters, missing my youth again.  Even fireworks don't fill that hole.