My decision to visit downtown for food was a stolen moment, one both spontaneous and light. I wonder if coincidences happen or if serendipity exerts unseen control.
Downtown was an eerie place that afternoon around five. Dimday is a word that describes the point when light surrenders. Winter came like a blanket to a place unaccustomed to it. For those who relish the greyed out quiet, it was beautiful. You can count me among them. Sunlight brings joy, distracted and widened eyes to witness the carnival of our exposure; winter commands reflection and thought.
I parked a street away, around the block, and walked along the broken sidewalk, heading toward one of the rejuvenated eateries along the old street. A mother with her young son crossed near me. She was pleased to hear me greet her in Spanish. Crossing the street, I noted that all the colors, though subdued, seemed to be more vibrant in the odd and fading light. Everything was punctuated by the neon lights at some of the businesses. It was a place I would have preferred to linger in, observing. As I walked behind the mother and her son, entering the crosswalk, I looked up and made eye contact with the driver in his truck, waiting for us to cross. I waved and smiled. To my surprise, the man smiled back, waving like an old friend.
Entering the restaurant, I recognized him immediately at the bar, with a large beer, and a plate of food in front of him. He seemed diminished in comparison to my memory of him. Our memories add armor and soften the complexities that come alive when we revisit those who sometimes stroll in the hallways of our minds. The hardened memories I had of him didn’t align with the older man sitting there.
I ordered and picked up my food. On a whim, I stopped and asked him if he remembered me. He said my name immediately when I pulled down my mask. Not that “X” should be unusually hard to recall. He would remember me for reasons other than my peculiar name, though. I told him that the past was behind us, somehow communicating through intonation that it was indeed true and not a pressing issue between us. Because I’m emerging from my cocoon, I moved closer and made eye contact with him. We spoke as if the past happened to other people. I felt the stolen moment transform into a lemon moment.
My feet, already light and uncaring from the other-worldly light and atmosphere, lightened further as I exited the eatery. I left a piece of me back there, with him. I know my presence lingered with him. Whatever animosity previously prevailed, it dissipated there. I already knew that his behavior so long ago would now be mostly categorized as an interesting story – and stripped of its power.
And that the last year has given me a piece of myself back to experience it.
Meeting my sister answered so many questions. Not all of them, though. Expecting complete answers at any stage of your life is a denial of the fact that as we change, the same answers can ring hollow or fail to give us satisfaction. We often don’t understand our motives or what led us to those choices, even regarding our own lives. Usually, the simple answer is “nothing.” You might be comforted by realizing such a thing. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that our lives might be a game of pinball, with our choices volleying us across an almost random field. Careful observation of other people’s lives tends to reinforce it, though.
Isn’t it strange that we stridently ask and demand explanations and answers from those who preceded us, even though we well know that there may not be a reason that falls blithely to our hearts?
When we’re young, we falsely believe that the adults and people in our lives somehow have a magic formula for safety and love. Growing up exposes us to the harsh alchemy of people being people, making mistakes, and quite often winging it. In my case, I should stop surprising myself with revelations. At this point, almost any combination of things may be valid. It took me until I was 52 – and in the face of constant argument – to find out that my Dad not only had fathered another child but that he had done so with a girl much younger than he and from a different background. For those of you who understand my hometown’s circumstances, this alone gives ample berth to find credibility in any rumor or suspicion.
It might explain why Dad decided to move everyone to Springdale and Northwest Arkansas for a new life. After he went to Indiana and ended up in prison, he returned to Monroe County to stay. Whether he would farm, be a mechanic, or work one of several other jobs available, he made it clear he was back to stay.
Now, thanks to DNA and an ongoing decision to keep looking, I’ve changed the narrative of how I came to live in this part of the state. Much of my adult life revolves around terrible misbehavior on the part of my Dad. Knowing that I live here due to it changes nothing. Yet, it does make me think about the spiderweb of cause and effect.
In the summer of 1972, we packed up and moved to Northwest Arkansas. It was probably August, not long before school started.
I am convinced that we moved in 1972 primarily because my missing sister was born in May of that year.
If I heard rumors of her when I was younger, they would have been snippets of angry revelation from my Mom or others, probably during a drunken tirade. I did hear hypothetical insinuations, but I don’t recall concrete accusations. Such a truth would have certainly caused a homicide between my Mom and Dad. I have to admit the possibility, though. The existence of my new sister in itself proves that we are all unreliable witnesses to our lives. I used that concept of ‘unreliable witness’ on one of my first blog posts about genealogy. We will never have all the facts of our lives coherently arranged. We can’t trust our memories, much less those around us, who actively conceal and camouflage their lives for one reason or another.
I lived most of my life suspecting that my new sister was out there in the world. She lived most of her life without the answers that could have given her the ability to understand herself better. It wasn’t her choice, but she paid the price and consequences of not knowing. I hate that for her.
I don’t know how life would have looked had Dad been honest with everyone about having another child. He died in 1993, another lifetime ago. My sister was around 21, and I was about 26. His shame or inability to acknowledge his indiscretion robbed other people of a fuller life. I can’t understand how a man who beat his wife and children, went to prison, and killed someone in a DWI accident would have difficulty saying he had another daughter. This is doubly true after his Mom died on May 21st, 1983. My sister turned eleven years old the next day.
I wish that people could be open to the complexity of their lives.
Were it my choice, all of y’all who know me well also know that I am no fan of concealment. We’ve done it, said it, and lived it, precisely in the same way that my Dad and others did before we came along. In the future, our descendants will whisper, pry, and discover. You may as well give the painful answers now if you find yourself in any way in the role of a secret keeper.
Somewhere, there is another me, looking for answers and wishing that my sister didn’t have to spend so many years without her truth being exposed.
I wish. For me, for you, for us all.
Let’s all shine the lights in whatever direction they are needed.
On Father’s Day 2019, I discovered that my ancestry and DNA quest had not been in vain: I found a sister (or we found each other), one whose existence defied any possible expectation. We didn’t meet initially – and then the pandemic struck. We both survived 2020. So, ironically, we met for the first time on New Year’s Day. While y’all were eating black-eyed peas, I was meeting a reflection of myself and wondering about the spectacle of life and how decisions made five decades ago continue to reach forward. Unlike other parts of my life, this has been a reward, one welcomed by both of us. How we got here was the result of other people’s decisions. We still have questions, though one of which is no longer what we might be like in person: Carolyn is as kind, witty, and outgoing as I could hope.
When Carolyn arrived, I discovered that I had met my match for the longest hug ever. I’m also not the baby of the family any longer. I kept telling her that I saw Aunt Barbara is so much of her mannerisms and look, which compliments everyone involved.
It’s incredible how good-looking we both are, isn’t it? 🙂 Due to Carolyn’s presence next to me in the pictures, I realize how much of my Dad’s devil-may-care attitude is reflected in me. I’m still wondering how it is possible that Carolyn is my sister.
I also met her youngest son, who tolerated our hours of catching up on 48 years of missed lifetime as we sat, talked, and pondered into the night.
When I was younger, I suspected that I might have family in the world. I’m still amazed that I kept the hope into my 50s – especially to find someone who seems to be a bit like me, even if she got there from an opposite path.
This strange, strange world holds a few surprises still.
Carolyn and I are the two truths; the lie is that love and truth can be concealed, even in a world convoluted by people’s inability to tell their stories due to fear, shame, or for some other human reason that eludes definition.
Though it isn’t a contest, I am convinced that I won the New Year’s Day contest for the most rewarding.
P.S. You might wait until we hear Carolyn’s opinion; you’d have to be crazy to accept mine without corroboration.
I am still surprised that most people’s minds aren’t cluttered with a million observations about the people and places in their days. There’s not enough time to consider them, repackage them, and appreciate them. Even with the virus, the one that supposedly slowed the world’s spin a bit, I find myself accelerating toward a crucible that I can’t quite define.
I don’t get writer’s block and I even find myself not understanding how a musician runs out of ideas, lyrics, and brilliance. While watching the new “Selena” series, I rolled my eyes at least 50 times as the musicians struggled to find ideas and inspiration. If we are blocked or stifled, all we have to do is open ourselves up to the great people we have around us. We all survive by collaboration; it’s worth your time to stop struggling and listen to people as they live their lives. There’s enough story here for a thousand books and a library of music.
There’s too much life out here with so many people inhabiting our world in a way that deserves recognition. Humor, love, tragedy, and even the moments when you find yourself organizing your kitchen cabinets on Saturday night all carry weight.
I wish y’all could get ICS too. We could flood the world with our stories. Love, X .
I routinely go through my colossal draft lists and discard troves of ideas and actual stories. I’d discard the computer, but they get expensive. When I was writing several of my Elm Springs stories, I kept skipping over the “Man Parked In Pond” account due to the incongruous absurdity of the title.
What might amuse you more is that I’ve seen several cars in ponds in my lifetime. Both stupidity and drinking were involved in all cases. I think there’s a universal truth to that last sentence. I can proudly say that I was in the car on separate occasions while BOTH my Mom and Dad drove into ponds, ditches, or swamps. It’s one thing to go into a small pond, but if you’ve ever seen how deep and snake-filled some irrigation ditches and swamps can be, you’re not enthusiastic about getting into one. At night. Snakes do not like to cuddle.
I am not afraid of snakes until they get into my underwear. Call it a phobia if you have to.
When I first worked at a nursing home in Springdale after high school, I often ran home before I got my second car. My first car, a great one given to me by my brother Mike as he shockingly went into the Army, was stolen by my Dad and sold on my cousin’s car lot. The irony is that I worked on the side at my cousin’s garage to earn credit toward the next car.
It was only 7-8 miles home from work. Those runs were interesting as hell at times, just as they were when I started from home and ran elsewhere. It was different back in the day. People drove drunk a LOT. Country roads were littered with cars at night. Saturday morning and Sunday morning was a great time to see the places on the road where people were probably driving too fast. Or drunk. One of the neighbors near where I lived often stopped and “borrowed” things from the cars he found on the side of the road at night. Thinking back on it, it was impossible for him to get caught. This is in part due to the visibility of approaching lights and the failure of most drunks to inventory their possessions, much less know for certain that they are driving their own car home at night.
Note to civil engineers: if you want to reduce unsafe and drunk driving, put a buttload of stupidly sharp curves in the road. Or a five-mile stretch of road that is 100% roundabouts. The Arkansas educational system didn’t adequately prepare most people for sensible traffic devices.
If you’ve driven the side roads from Springdale to Elm Springs, you’re aware of the sharp turns everywhere. Many of those turns sit next to barbed wire fencing. Or worse, ponds. While I didn’t see the accident when it happened, I was running home when I heard brakes and skidding, followed by sounds that didn’t make sense to me. It was after midnight, so I couldn’t imagine who or what had crashed. As I ran along a sloping S-curve, I saw taillights. As I neared, I could see that the barbed wire fencing had been torn open. The truck that went through the fence went a few feet into the pond. While I was sure I was going to try to help, I didn’t know how exactly. I heard someone drunkenly mumbling. In today’s terms, it sounded a lot like Kenny Chesney singing any of his Top 40 hits.
I remember being glad it wasn’t my Dad. He’d traversed many a fenceline while driving drunk. More than once, with me in the vehicle. Good times! After one particularly bad accident through a cow field, he kept repeating the same joke: “I was looking for a good steak.” His sense of humor was legendary when he wasn’t trying to kill someone.
The man in the truck managed to get the door open. He was cursing in drunk language at that point. Though I couldn’t see much, I realized he was trying to get into the truck’s bed from the cab so he wouldn’t step into the shallow water. I waited. Sure enough, a huge splash followed as he fell off trying to get over the side of the truck. He set the world record for putting the lord’s name in vain for the next couple of minutes. He staggered out of the pond.
“Who the f### are you?” he asked me.
“The ghost of drunks future,” I quipped. I wasn’t scared at all to mock any drunk I didn’t know.
This tendency got me into some precarious predicaments through the years, including one incident when a drunk tried to throw a mostly-empty pitcher of beer on me, and I yelled, “Ball 4!.” My shout made him angry when it dawned on him that people in the bar laughed. I had reluctantly accompanied my roommate Ray to go shoot pool at a bar that now no longer exists in the Midway area. When the drunk acted as if he would chase me, I dashed to the back door, opened it, and then slammed it. I stepped out of sight into the filthy supply closet near the back door. The drunk ran outside, thinking I went out first. We laughed our asses off about that for a long time. The best part of this story is that he didn’t remember getting mad or running out the back to chase me upon his return.
We didn’t have cell phones back then. There was a payphone at a small store a couple of bends of the road away from the pond. But I wasn’t going to accompany a drunk for that kind of walk. “Go knock on that door,” I told him and pointed to a brown house a couple of hundred feet away. “They’ll help you.” I waited, and eventually, he stumbled his way in that direction. I left out here that the owners of the pond and the house were the same people. I ran the rest of the way home, amused at my cleverness. I found out that the owners made the driver completely fix their fence and make restitution. Had I not run by that night, I don’t think he would have. And I wouldn’t be able to brag I watched a grown man drunkenly try to climb over the edge of his truck and then fall into a pond.
And so, I leave you with “Man Parked In a Pond.” It’s not Faulkner or Conroy, but it amuses me.
After six weeks+ of not biting my nails, I can say that my fingers feel alien to me in a way that a normal person would not find credible. I’ve not gone a week without biting my nails. For my entire life.
Several weeks ago, when I turned the switch off mentally about food, I just decided that I no longer bite my nails. Despite nothing else ever having worked for my nail-biting, not even public shaming or a global pandemic, I just knew I could do it. While my cuticles look odd, I don’t recognize my fingers. I’ve had to adjust a lot in my life for something so simple as suddenly having fingernails. From not using my hands to stir mud and potting soil to avoiding scratching ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. At night, I find myself touching my fingernails with my front teeth. Until you bite your fingernails for fifty years, I don’t think you’d believe me if I accurately describe how odd it is – as if someone put thimbles on each of my fingers and asked me to play the piano.
It occurred to me that if I were sufficiently crazy enough to do so, I could get a manicure. It’s important to note that I don’t know what proper nail care looks like, having gnawed on my talons like The Bachelorette bites the neck on her first date of the season. (Note: I’ve never watched the show. I put that bit in to trick the manicure-crowd into believing I might have.) I have promised my fans I’m going to learn to paint nails properly, though. I’ll let y’all know when I have my first nail-painting party.
I’m not looking for an attaboy. I should not be complimented for no longer doing something that is honestly pretty stupid to begin with, especially after 50 years of it. Much in the same way, it would be imprudent to congratulate me on no longer shooting black tar heroin into my eyeballs. It’s just a bad sign I started to begin with.
That’s my cat in the background. He’s nervous I might start scratching him.
P.S. There’s a link to a post in below, one I made several years ago. It’s stupid – and that’s why I think about it more than I should.
A friend posted a version of the “what is your name backward?” quiz. My name is not only the shortest possible palindrome, but it is still my name no matter how you turn the letter. Also, no matter where I go, maps have an “X” on them, and state, “You are here.” It’s like they KNOW. X is not only the antepenultimate letter of the alphabet, but it is also the third-least used, which explains why dates were so hard for me to come by when I was younger. In math, X is an independent and unknown variable. (Which also explains my dating issues when I was younger.) On the plus side, I rarely had to do math, because the teachers instructed my classmates to “solve for X.” X has also become a non-binary gender identifier, indicates buried or hidden treasure, used to indicate a signature and/or illiteracy, can be used as a multiplier, indicates Voiceless velar fricative (that’s a literal mouthful), an axis in the Cartesian coordinate system, is a stand-in name for people undergoing spiritual conversion, the number 10, and also indicates that a work is the result of a collaboration between two artists. Though it inexplicably angers some, the X in Xmas stands for Christ from its Greek roots. When I picked the simplest possible name, I missed the boat!
After I wrote my Rip-Shirt story, someone messaged me to tell me she knew who the person was I taught to stitch. And then she gave me the gift of sharing a few anecdotes about the time she spent with him. My memory didn’t keep any recollections of them being close. But I take pride in knowing that my little story, the one about a sliver of my life, took her back to another time. I did that. And she felt comfortable enough to share bits of herself with me – someone who is a hack but loves personal stories.
I think we all crave personal stories if we can stop worrying about language or our words being misconstrued. Who are we kidding? We don’t understand ourselves, not really, so the expectation that others conform to an idea of our self-image that we don’t even possess is a bit preposterous.
I love to think that every once in a while that I write something that triggers a memory and hopefully a fond one. While we should not get anchored in the past, there are few greater pleasures than using our nostalgic eyes to wander in time. As we age, we change around the static memories. It’s our gift. For anyone lucky enough, our memories soften and gauze our eyes to the harshness that pervades people.
As for the man I taught to stitch in my story, I have a couple of stories that are simply hard to believe. One of them is either incurably romantic – or breathtakingly odd. The overlap of both possibilities is what makes me remember it. I don’t remember all the details, but I’ll try to write the story in a future post in such a way so that no one gets in the crosshairs about it. Other than the man in question, only one other person knew it happened. I used to think I understood his motives clearly. Age taught me that I was mistaken. I wish I had known then that piece of his heart. Though you don’t know of which story I’m writing, I laugh and admit that the day I’ll write about would definitely have ended differently.
For now, I just wanted to share that I feel like my rip-shirt story pushed several people back in time to consider people they loved. People wrote to me on my blog, too. Sewing is an activity that most people predominantly feel echoes from their childhood.
Each time I share such stories, many of them seem to take on a life of their own. Others see them and realize that they too are connected to me in intangible ways. Whether it is a plane crash on a clear blue day, an untimely death, that some of our family are not who we think, the closets of secrets so many of us carry in our front pockets as we live our lives, we each are capable of surprising ourselves and others.
The coincidences and unlikely overlap of our lives should no longer surprise me.
But it does. And whatever regard for other’s people stories I have, they envelop me.*
Although it seems insignificant, I deleted a story today, one that was 40+ pages. Not because it was a lesser story, but because I am incapable of the subtlety needed to capture the bittersweet dread and optimistic anticipation of each of my days.
Each fall, I look back and remember when a plane crashed where I lived. It could have easily zeroed me out in a blink. The story I wrote involved Joe Frasca, the dead pilot, visiting me, much in the way Scrooge had visitors from the past and future.
In the story, Joe Frasca did not waste his time telling me to use my allotted time wisely.
Instead, he told me that the only authentic life is one that’s observed, felt, and experienced, regardless of location. We focus so much on the Kodak moments, the vistas snapped in impersonal pictures and the adrenaline-laced remnants of activity that we forget that every single moment of our lives is a solitary window observing everyone and everything around us.
That Joe was an expert stunt pilot and saw the world from one of the best viewpoints possible isn’t lost on me.
I forgot that the pilot was engaged at the time of his death. Someone sent me a link to a blog post his sister wrote. After reading it, I realized that the lessons he did actually leave me with aren’t mine to fictionalize. One day, if I am capable, I will revisit the story, in the same way that I still look to the sky, wondering about the other universe floating above us.
I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for writing stories in related batches. Like any storyteller with a labyrinth of brain cells, I find myself wandering between branches of the same story. At times, what seems interesting to others is evident to me. In others? I’m clueless.
As I attempted to finish this, I thought of the innumerable times I’ve wondered about how I acted and what I was trying to say with this story. I’m not sure. It’s an apology at heart, though inexpertly written. It’s a wildly imperfect recounting, too. And that’s good enough for me. The day is too long to slow the urge to share. One of these days, as I write, it will be the last time I do so, though I won’t know it. As with the millions of stories everyone holds close to their secret hearts, they will vanish and with no witnesses to bring life to them.
As my senior year in high school ended, I moved to Elm Springs. I’ve written a few stories about it, both the violent end of my parent’s marriage and others about the whimsical encounters of life I experienced there. Nostalgia paints it in a way that evades mundane description.
This one is an apology. Though it is likely that the person I needlessly harmed doesn’t recall, I do. I’ve done so many things that are much worse than this. Trying to explain why my brain zeroes in on this relatively small story and goes back to my choice to be cruel offers no explanation.
A friend I didn’t initially know very well named Don Braden occasionally came over in the summer. I can’t even remember how it started for him to visit. For anyone to come over to my house was an anomaly. Only a couple of people in my childhood knew the shorthand of dread that I experienced at the idea of others knowing the content of what passed as a homelife for me. Many of us experienced this, and it is a strange common ground upon which to stand with human beings. A couple of childhood friends knew: Troy Duncan, Mike Hignite, and others to a much lesser degree. It is no accident that, despite the intervening distance, the fondness I feel for them is distilled nostalgia. I can’t explain why there were some people I could just say, “My parents are violent and drink too much. It might not be safe at my house. Also, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” I have no gauge or measure to explain what allowed or compelled me to be forthcoming to some and guiltily silent with others.
Don would sometimes ride my terrible bicycle (or his, too maybe? – please pardon my lack of recall) as I ran several miles around the long circuit of the lake’s roads. He was an awkward guy – but certainly not to my level. I’m confident I misjudged how smart he turned out to be. He had a quick wit and smiled relentlessly. While I ran, having him talk to me was a welcome way to relax and melt the miles away.
One of the things Don didn’t know was how uncertain the storm of my Dad’s anger could be. I don’t recall Dad exploding in anger in front of Don, but I remember snarled mumbles and veiled complaints. Due to my limited ability to warn people, I didn’t know how to navigate the implications of just yelling out, “It might not be safe here.” Don gave no indication (that I remember) that he had any idea of what a terrible family life might be like. As I grow older, I am still astonished to discover that people precisely like me were hidden in plain sight. Some make my stories of vulgar violence seem meaningless. I think and hope that Don’s childhood is what shaped his effortless ability to laugh. And that he still possesses the superpower of humor.
If I did yell out a warning about my parents and didn’t remember doing it, I know that I wasn’t entirely honest. There were a couple of times before Dad ran off to Monroe County to start a new life that Don barely missed an outburst, both coming and going.
I liked running and riding with Don. But the fear of ‘something’ happening convinced me to be a lesser human being to him.
One early afternoon, Don drove over. He knocked. Instead of answering the door, I hid in the back. The console tv in the living room, visible from the front windows, blared. He waited. Finally, he retrieved a large watermelon from his vehicle. He broke it on the concrete porch in front of the house, creating a delicious mound of watermelon pieces and running juice. Instead of coming out and admitting I was at home, I went out the back door and waited. How long I waited, I don’t remember. Don ate handfuls of the watermelon. At some point, he decided that no one was at home or coming out. He cleaned his hands with the water spigot outside and left.
It was a dumb thing to do. In my defense, I was an idiot. I don’t know if it would have helped him to know that my stupidity and lack of understanding of how to deal with people was the problem – not him. I don’t understand how letting him stand outside with a broken watermelon could have saved him from any potential craziness had my Dad came home, much less violently. That seems to highlight precisely how muted my ability to be logical regarding my situation was.
I didn’t keep up with Don. I didn’t keep with most people. Don went to the Air Force, someone told me. And I was glad for him.
Though I found Don on social media. I didn’t reach out to him. He is smiling and apparently living a good life. I wouldn’t want him to remember that I was a jerk, nor to disturb his life. If Don miraculously ever reads this, I, of course, later figured out that Don could have been a great friend, especially if I could have been honest so he could see that I was just an idiot. It’s easier to be friends with an idiot than a bad person.
Not that my blip of hideous behavior could deflect someone from the trajectory of a great life, but it is increasingly evident that we have no idea whatsoever what the smallest thing can do to affect another person’s life. Given the terrible things I’ve said and done in this life, I haven’t been able to put this one aside. I can’t explain my reluctance to share other stories of pure craziness and yet find this one stuck in my throat.