Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Heat 5:Horror:The Middle Seat

The Middle Seat

Her daughter cannot bear to be next to strangers and is plagued by so many fears for her age. She worries about poison in her breakfast cereal and sometimes hyperventilates when she becomes aware of her own breathing. She won’t sit alone on the school bus because she doesn’t know if the seat is clean enough, choosing to sit with two girls who mock her tears, but prove that the bus bench is clean. On airplane flights Lizzie gets the window seat and Stella is always in the middle so she can place her body as protection between any stranger and her daughter.

They make the trip between Seattle and Boston several times a year, and have been doing it for years. The overnight non-stops are the easiest flights of all, no wandering the Detroit airport - just six hours to endure on the airplane. In the boarding area Lizzie is already dozing against her shoulder, the antihistamine for her ears acting as a knock-out drug. Stella spots the largest man in the waiting area and says a silent Godless prayer that he won’t be her seatmate.

For two weeks over the holidays she has been accommodating every member of her family in ways that the oldest daughter of an alcoholic excels. She’s the peacemaker, the visitor who knows to pick up the kitchen without commenting on her nieces’ behavior. All the tension in the household, her parents dropping in, her brother-in-law’s politics and problems at work, she has managed to spin it into what will become positive holiday memories. Stella’s the enabler, the peacemaker, but at heart she’s still the teenager who believed that if she were perfect her father would stop drinking, her mother wouldn’t come to her for comfort. She’s tired of the drama and wants to get to her own home.

“Now boarding - all rows.” For once they’re near the front of the plane. Row Four, seats E and F. Stella kisses the top of Lizzie’s head. “Come on sweetie. It’s time to get on the plane.”

There’s already someone in the aisle seat of their row; not the round man. A man in a stocking cap, with shoulder-length black hair is sleeping, chin on his chest. Stella clears her throat slightly, the unspoken signal for please move your legs, but he doesn’t stir. With other passengers stacking up like a chain reaction accident she finally tosses her backpack over him and lifts Lizzie up and over to the window seat. The man makes a slight grunt as she tries to slide herself in front of his legs, but he doesn’t wake. Stella settles Lizzie with pillow and blanket against the window wall and fills the seatback with magazines even though she hopes to sleep. There’s a delay before take-off, but still the man on the aisle doesn’t stir. It’s possible that he’ll sleep the entire trip.

As they finally taxi a flight attendant in the front demonstrates inflating the air vest and pulling down the oxygen mast, but she seems more robot than person; she makes no eye contact and even her skin looks waxy. The flight is completely full, directly behind Stella a lap baby is screaming. But Lizzie is deeply asleep; Shirley Temple curls slightly damp against the pillow, perfect pink lips slightly parted. She is such a beautiful child. Even strangers claim she looks just like her mother but Stella always has to say, “I was never beautiful.”

After being in a house filled with small children, it feels strangely lonely to be seated in the airplane cabin, even surrounded by strangers on every side but one. The parents behind her try to stop the baby from crying, “That’s enough,” the mother keeps saying, as though the infant understands direct orders. Stella just hopes that if she can’t sleep there will be a movie that she wants to watch, anything to make her hours in the middle seat pass more quickly.

Stella feels the plane attain the speed for lift off, then there’s an odd lurch. The man on her left suddenly moans and throws out both of his arms, his right arm pinning Stella. She jerks to look at him. He is looking straight at her with eyes so bloodshot they look caught in a camera’s red eye. She can’t even make out his pupils. He has very white skin with a dark stocking cap pulled low on his forehead. There’s dried blood at one corner of his lips, trailing down to his chin. The way that he looks at her Stella wonders if he speaks English, if he knows where he is at all. She can smell cigarettes and a sweet odor she recognizes as Scotch on his panting breath.
He drops his arms and growls, pawing at the seatbelt restraint without seeming to understand there’s a buckle. The man tries to stand but is jerked back by his seat belt. What the hell is wrong with him, Stella wonder. He struggles again to stand. The waxen flight attendant unbuckles and makes her way to him, holding onto the seat backs as the aircraft bounces. “Sir, the seat belt lights are still illuminated. I cannot tell you that you can move around, but I cannot stop you if you choose to do so.”

The man looks up at her and moans. If she is shocked by his red eyes or keening, it doesn’t register on her face. “Sir, do you understand what I said?” Without waiting for a response, she turns and returns to her jump seat five rows ahead.
The man turns to Stella again, lank hair brushing his shoulders. “I need to piss,” he says. “Is there a bathroom or not?” Surprised that he speaks a language she can understand, Stella points to the bathroom in the front cabin and watches him stumble his way there. She turns again to look at Lizzie, who’s drooling slightly, looking like a doll belted into an adult seat. She will do anything to keep her daughter safe, please let her sleep through this flight.

Stella looks at the flight attendant call button that’s on the cabin on ceiling, flanked by the air nozzle and the light button. If only it wasn’t so obvious if she needs to reach for it. Why can’t there be a discrete button on the remote control that is itself so discretely fitted into the arm of the seat. What would she say? I don’t like my seatmate. I think he’s the type of person who gets removed from the plane in restraints. She and Lizzie were on a flight once when the woman across the aisle nearly died. Stella has always wished that she wasn’t in the middle seat that night, separated from the terrified woman by an indifferent teenage girl and the aisle. They’d made an emergency landing in Detroit. Detroit. Then they’d been stuck in a hellish terminal because the plane couldn’t take off again for hours. Stella sighs. She wants to be home, she’ll do whatever it takes to keep this plane in the air.

The bathroom door opens and the man lurches his way back, falling back into his seat. He leans his head toward her, almost resting his forehead on her shoulder to whisper, “Come as you are.”

“Excuse me?”

“I could barely friggin’ believe it. I went to where he lived. I saw the house and then I saw the signs in the town. In Aberdeen. Come as you are.”

“You’re talking about Kurt Cobain aren’t you? He was from Aberdeen.”

“I have his blood in me. I have Kurt Cobain’s blood. He’s why I’m on this plane even though I hate to fly. He’s why I started playing guitar.” The man turns his red eyes on her again. Does he have pupils at all? He fumbles for something in his pocket and pulls out an active cell phone.

“That’s supposed to be turned off,” Stella tells him. Can’t the man across the aisle see this too? Where are the flight attendants?

“You know, he was murdered. He didn’t kill himself. He was murdered.”

Stella is silent. She’d been living in Seattle when Kurt Cobain died. An electrician had seen his body; he’d been found with a shotgun blast to his head and a suicide note. She knew there were still fans who tried to find the house where he’d killed himself. She appears to be seated next to such a fan. What are the signs of heroin use? Is it red orbs for pupils, greasy hair and obsession? The crew works the aisle writing drink orders on slips of paper. “Budweiser and Jack Daniels,” the man next to her says like a challenge, but nothing crosses the flight attendant’s face. How can you still serve him, Stella wants to shout. Can’t they see he’s impaired?

He drinks in alternating chugs, the Jack Daniels nip tossed aside first. I’m sitting next to a drunk, Stella thinks as she helps him secure the tray table he’s hitting and picks up the Patriots stocking cap from the floor. I’m babysitting a drunk. Just then his head falls onto her shoulder fully. She reaches for the back of his head and tries to push him back into his own seat. A woman across the aisle watches with a weakly sympathetic smile. “What did you just do to me?” the man hisses at her. “What are you injecting me with?”

“Your head fell on my shoulder,” she tells him.

His right hand grabs her at the wrist, holding it an angle that she can’t turn from. “I know what you’re trying do. You’re like fucking Courtney. Full of lies. You’re the one who wanted me dead. You want my talent. You want to suck it out of me like blood.”

Stella closes her eyes and tries to will someone to get help. “Nobody could steal your talent,” she says to him.

“I didn’t want the fame,” he says. “Leeches. Sucking at me. I couldn’t pull them off. I couldn’t get them off me.”

He twists her wrist slightly. “You’ll take care of me when we land won’t you? That’s when I’m the most afraid. It’s when we land.”

“I’ll be right here,” she tells him, feeling her heart pound. People on every side. Why does she feel so alone? Why doesn’t anyone notice that she needs help? Can’t anyone else see that he’s nuts?

He seems to pass out, head back down on his chest. She extricates her wrist and looks longingly at Lizzie, blessedly oblivious. She checks her watch. Still hours to go. How will she get through this? Pulse racing she listens to make sure that he’s asleep then reaches her hand slowly toward the call button, and pushes it. Nothing happens. The icon doesn’t light, no ding, just a sudden strike of his hand again as fast as a snake. This time he rakes nails down the inner flesh of her arm. She gives a gasp. He pulls her arm toward him and leans down to suck at the blood he’s drawn. Stella tries to pull her arm back and looks desperately around to mouth “help” at another passenger. No one looks her way; they’re gazing at the screens on the seats in front of them, seemingly blind to this attack in plain sight.

“Stop,” she whispers, trying to make it roar out of her but she can’t seem to speak. “Help,” she tries again.

Her seatmate looks up at her from her arm, and now she can see his eyes, black irises and pupils. He smiles, and she can see crooked brown teeth. It’s her blood on his lips, so vivid compared to the dried blood on his chin. “Delicious,” he says. “I bet you’re a good mommy.” He looks beyond her to Lizzie and she tries to shift her body to block his view.

“I never eat any sweets. My friends say, Nathan – you must be diabetic or something. I’ve never been tested.” He sucks at her arm, drawing out more blood. “But I like to drink. I drink,” and with that he bites into the underside of her arm, between the elbow and the wrist.

Stella tries to pull her arm back but his hold goes up her arm and pain stops her from pulling her shoulder from its socket. She flails at the seat to try to get attention from behind and then squares her feet to kick against the seat ahead of her. She kicks again. No head comes over the top of the headrest in either direction. What is wrong with everyone? How can it be so hard to scream? It’s like she’s choking on her own fear.

Nathan gives a long lick of her arm, hair trailing through the lines of blood. “Come as you are,” he says again and leans his head back, keeping his fingernails sunken into her raked flesh.

Stella begins to pray. She has never believed in God before, but then again she has never been faced with evil. If evil can exist, maybe God can too, because it doesn’t seem like anyone else on this plane is going to help her. “Get this creep away from me,” she prays, “get this creep away from Lizzie.”

She must have slept. Nathan has let go of her wrist and is drooped beside her. She reaches for the remote control that’s still nestled inside the seat arm and pulls on its tether, pressing the brightness icon until the monitor lights and she can see where the flight is in relation to the United States. Somewhere over Montana, undoubtedly some place called Purgatory.

Her seatmate is conscious but crazed; he roars like a beast when the seatbelt keeps him from rising again. The other passengers risk glances as if he’s a dangerous animal, and they aren’t sure the exhibit glass is thick enough. Stella looks at the marks on her left arm and wonders where they came from? Did the cat scratch her while sleeping in her sister’s basement? Did she tangle with ice skate blades that last day? The man next to her makes retching noises and she wonders if he’ll vomit on her yet. He’s already spilled beer and she has had to push his greasy head off of her shoulder.

For all the fear of the landing her seatmate claimed before passing out, he barely notices when they land. He finally manages to unfasten his seatbelt and stands up during the descent. Stella isn’t going to stop him anymore. Let the flight attendants deal with him. She has survived the flight. Lizzie is safe and finally stirring. She shifts her small head from the pillow on the window to Stella’s right shoulder. Stella bends her head and drinks in the smell of her daughter; it seems like she can smell Lizzie’s blood itself, salty and delicious.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What Women Talk About

Our children bonded first the year after the new family moved to the block, playing with a kitten after a yard sale, running yarn all the way through the house during a neighborhood party. There was the first phone call about a play date. First grade at the same school, then just like that our children were best friends.

Friendship can be tentative and slower for adults. Especially in the fall when we may not even see our next-door neighbor until the spring.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” Ellyn asked when I had walked Emily up the street one Saturday. I let myself be coaxed across the threshold and into her house, still carrying garden clippers. I’d asked if I could cut some of their grapevines to make wreaths. It was November. It was wet. She put on the kettle and took out a mug that said 40 is Fabulous. “I know you’re not there yet,” Ellyn said, “but it’s either that or Jungle Book.”

We exchanged the information that placed us each in our day, her younger son had awakened very early, Alex had wanted to call my daughter at seven and counted the minutes until it was safely past nine. Her son Will came into the kitchen carrying a gallon jug of bubbles. Alex and Emily came to the kitchen to negotiate the problems of sharing candy. Will had a bologna sandwich. Alex peeled satsumas and left the peels on the top of the refrigerator. Then the older children disappeared and in one of those acts of parenting designed to allow grown-ups to talk, Ellyn filled a bubble lawnmower with the potion and Will went in circles around the dining room, entry and kitchen with bubbles spewing out of the blower before they wafted above the wood floors. We started to talk.

I’ve always thought that it would be wonderful to diagram conversations between women, to show where they start and where they end. I told her about a friend in Anacortes, who we were going to visit after ballet class with Miss Louise, how I called her for help with Emily once from a pay phone and she met me within fifteen minutes, how she insisted on dropping off breakfast for twelve the morning of Jim’s memorial.. “And now she’s pregnant, “ I concluded, “I may have offered to be her birth partner.”

We were still standing on either side of the butcher block in the middle of her kitchen, having been outside with the bubble blower and upstairs to reboot the computer and into the TV room to settle Will in front of a dinosaur video. “Have you been at a birth?” she asked me and from there we traveled farther. I listened to just parts of her birth stories. The precipitous labor that the nurse claimed wasn’t labor. How Will’s lung collapsed right after he was born, and they took him away. How her best friend brought treats to eat and a comedy to watch but all she could do was cry and leak milk.

I told her about my husband not wanting to be present, and digressed to the story of how my friend Amy hired dueling doula’s and then I came back to the birthing room. How my sister burst out, “What is this?” when she felt a lump on my calf during labor. “I want you to get this removed.” Then I jumped to last Christmas when my sister and her husband insisted on telling the birth story of their two-week old twins together. But how with two week old twins there was never time. Until the night before we flew back to Seattle and how I left my parent’s house in nightgown, ski jacket and my mother’s wool clogs, drove through sleet to their house at midnight and we curled up on their bed, with one twin in the cradle and the other twin on her father’s wide, warm chest and they told me the birth story in a form of chorus.

I explained why Jim didn’t want to be present, and how he’d had a bone marrow biopsy earlier in the day of Emily’s birth. Ellyn looked startled, pushed her hair behind her ears, “so that was going on with your husband even while you were pregnant.” We were both silent a moment and then she said, “it must have been like experiencing a war.” I was surprised because those had been my thoughts exactly back during that time. We talked about when a year could seem like a siege, like the year that a good friend died in a plane crash, her father died of a stroke, about how she and her future husband broke up and what it took to get through every day.

Next thing I was telling her about the liver biopsy day, changing Emily’s diaper and then Jim’s wound. Wondering how people perceived me? Did they think of me of someone whose husband was dying? How the word widow seems so unnatural. Ellyn admitted she often thinks about death and wonders what is on the other side. She told me about watching a friend die after falling from her horse while they were with friends on a beach. Ellyn said, “She didn’t hit her head, the horse didn’t fall on her. W couldn’t understand how she could just die.” not learning till later that a broken rib had punctured her friend’s heart as if with one fell swoop of a sword. Ellyn said it seems like a good ending now, one moment cantering along the sea - and the next minute dead.

“My father had a stroke,” she said. “He was only fifty-eight. It was one stroke and then he was brain dead. I hope he knew how much I would have liked to tell him so many more times how much I loved him. “They wanted us to decide so quickly about life support,” she said. He was still warm, how are you supposed to make a decision when they’re still so warm and he just seemed like he was sleeping? When my sister and I were there with him at the end, I realized that I had his hands.

We paused. We probably could have stopped but instead she put on the kettle again and we continued to pass our lives back and forth on either side of the butcher block, trading an infidelity for a dying cat, a distant mother for an alcoholic father. Consensus on Cary Grant and dark chocolate. “How did we get here?” I finally asked.

“We were talking about birth,” Ellyn said, and we were silent a moment retracing our steps. “Did you want to cut some of grape vines?” she asked as though that had been my true business there. For a moment I felt banished from the warm kitchen, but then she said, “I’ll bring my tea out while you cut.”

And so it was on that day with the children mysteriously occupied in her large house that we became friends. Later on she would take to inviting me to tea on Fridays after she watched my struggle to get Emily on the schoolbus. Still later we would begin walking together 4-5 hours a week. But on that day, Ellyn threw on a coat and stood by while I clipped long vines from her arbor.

“All the tea has kicked in,” I told Ellyn. “I won’t sleep for days.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Well,” I told her. “I hope that you really wanted me to come in for tea because I warn you. I have no will power. I’ll almost always go where I’m invited.”

“I really wanted you to come in and have tea,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you.”

That was the beginning, because there has to be beginning when women start to talk, but there does not need to be an ending. Sometimes when I am walking without Ellyn, I think about her stories instead of my own. I think of her father’s hands, still warm.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Portraits of Grief

My mother cannot keep up with the newspapers. They rule her. She feels an obligation to work her way through every section of the New York Times, the Boston Globe, (daily and Sunday editions), and an assortment of local weeklies. A pile of newspaper travels with her, crammed into omnipresent canvas bags. She is almost relieved when she has to wait in the stand-by line for a later ferry or fly cross-country. For a short time there is a sense of satisfaction while the pile shrinks rather than grows. These windows of peace are brief. For once she leaves the airplane, two or three days lighter, perhaps even a week lighter for a flight from Boston to Seattle, there’s the local news lying in wait, another newspaper between her and ever being caught up.

My mother feels buried in papers but she simply cannot bear the thought of missing a single article that might be important. She points out that she wouldn’t even know what she had missed if she skipped even a single day, as though that logic is irrefutable. For she is a one-woman clipping service, strictly volunteer. Catalogued in the gray matter between the short hair and the family double chin, are the personal and professional interests of some 30-40 friends and relatives, who apparently don’t read the papers. Beneath the disarming exterior of blue eyes, knee socks, corduroy jumpers and large dangling theme earrings (Scrabble letters, Christmas trees with battery-generated flashing lights during the holidays) is an extremely focused sixty-seven year old with scissors. She seems to have the type of instinctual need to clip articles that a salmon has to find its way back to its birthplace to spawn.

Rainy day museums in Paris, maple-syrup woes in Vermont, caterpillars, letters to the editor, the acrostics for the neighbor, a reference to Zanesville, Ohio…The articles are cut carefully and set aside to send to the friend who may have made a passing reference to a rainy visit to Paris. Eventually such clippings spill out of envelopes that have been recycled and sent to me along with a forgotten hairbrush from our visit, or a bathing suit that was marked down. The clippings, sometimes newsprint, sometimes copies, can date back months and create a game of connect the dots, forming the outline that my mother would trace of me. Triple chocolate cake recipes without dairy, train travel to Canada, essays by writers that she thinks I read, parenting columns. An occasional message in one corner, “don’t know if I’ve already sent this to you.”

This could be a full-time job for my mother; unfortunately she has other demands on her time. Her part-time job as a teacher’s assistant at the junior high, an average of thirty emails a day to read and reply, my father’s unwillingness to do household repairs, babysitting for her twin granddaughters, her spoiled cats, her hungry chickadees, the need to videotape even more news than she reads, “Days of our Lives” to watch on tape. Then there’s the laundry to line dry, the daily walks to pick up litter, the League of Women Voters (45-year member), the Democratic Party, and her two late night indulgences, ice cream and computer Scrabble. And most demanding of all, besides the weather reports and the letters owed, is keeping up in her journal. She uses a weekly calendar, alternating colors of ink for the days of week. Writing in very, very, very small print she includes all the highlights of the weather, and an accounting of the pertinent information, as she sees it, for each particular day.

It is no wonder that my mother falls behind and the newspaper pile grows. In the summer when all three generations are crowded together in the family cottage, my sister grows the most impatient. She mercilessly combines my mother’s stacks, jumbling up partially read with unread in one towering corner pile. Last summer my mother sometimes stayed home from the beach to try to catch up. We’d leave her uncharacteristically sitting in the afternoon, scissors in hand, newspapers on her lap, the cottage cool and quiet in the shade. But that was in simpler days.

It was my mother who called me from the East Coast, early on my sister’s wedding anniversary, to say that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My daughter had come into my room and crawled into my bed. I was reading to her when the phone rang just past seven a.m. The sun was shining in Seattle that Tuesday. Ninety-five heavenly blue morning glories were blooming for their one day. For us on the West Coast, the world outside the window looked normal. Trucks rattled by; there were no sirens. It took a while to notice the silence of the skies.

The newspapers swelled in the days and weeks after the attacks, boasting special photo sections and entitled with themes: America Under Attack, and then, America Strikes Back. My mother’s reading broadened, she felt obligated to read more about the middle east, every account of the doomed flights, and then, in the New York Times, the section called Portraits of Grief. The numbers count shifted up and down on the front page but in this section the numbers stayed fairly constant, about twenty lives per day. There were photos if available and three to four paragraphs apiece to capture a sense of the person who had been lost: the free spirit, the janitor, the avid sailor, the grandmother, the executive, the twin. Snapshot biographies all leading to the same ending, like string drawn from different geographic birthplaces, leading to nearly one single place on the map. My mother fell farther and farther behind, like a gravedigger who cannot keep up during plague. But she dismissed the thought of skipping even one single life, and she kept on. She cut out the boxed sections and put them aside, unable to place them in a paper bag for recycling or in the fireplace grate. October. November. December. What to do with the Portraits of Grief?

Finally she did what came naturally. She put these clippings in oft-used envelopes, the kind with padding that gets loose in gray clumps, and sent them along to me. Passing along a burden that was too heavy for her to carry. Unsuspecting at first, I opened that first envelope, and amidst the packaged chocolate sauce, photo reprints, coupons and usual inch of clippings out came the folded squares. The heat blowing from the floor vents made the clippings shimmy in the drafts. My tears would anchor them as they dropped onto the newsprint, my insides feeling as squeezed as the grapefruit on the counter beside me, the taste bitter in my mouth. And wondering, not just about the families, but about the obituary writers. How much more can they bear?

Alone in my kitchen, I would read every one and then confront again the question that my mother couldn’t. What to do with these lives on paper? Lives lost in an instant, or worse. At a certain point I thought, print every one. Whatever happens, don’t stop before it is done. Be it 3,015 or 4,232. Even if it takes all year, don’t stop before you have printed every single one. Finally, but never without pause, I carried the sections gently to the recycling bin at the top of the basement stairs and placed them in carefully, almost as if I was returning a bird to its nest.

And so these clippings will continue to flurry, floating down from my mother’s scissors as she frees them from the New York Times, and they will soar across the country in heavy sacks of mail. In my kitchen they will be free again, fluttering like all the paper that rained on lower Manhattan and has coated us everywhere with a gray, dusty coat of grief.
March 2002

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The 17th Of May

It’s a big day in Ballard today, Norwegian Independence Day, and Ballard hosts the second largest parade in its honor, outside of Norway. This is my 17th year living in Ballard, and I feel like every year I want to write exactly the same thing about Syttende Mai. I think about the first year in the house when we realized that a parade was assembling at the base of our street. Marching bands mingling with dancing clams, Scandinavian dancers alternating with skiers and a Ballard Market shopping cart drill team. It seemed like a foreign movie, Fellini Does Ballard. There were also the pink and blue balloons tossed by nurses from then Ballard Community Hospital. “Ballard’s Having Babies” the unfilled balloons announced. How symbolic.

We had our baby in Ballard and so even though I’m a transplant; she’s a native. Every year on the 17th of May I want to write about how she went to every single parade from the time that she was two months old until she was thirteen; how she would be in a child carrier, strapped onto my back, peering her head around mine for a better look. Yet I always seem plagued by regrets in May as though I don’t feel equal to this stunning month, the month when the lilies of the valleys cross with the rhododendrons, and the scent of wisteria wafts with the daphne. I don’t know why so many ghosts seem to walk with me in May. You would think they’ be scared off by the Shriner’s driving toy cars or the Seafair Pirate/Cowboys.

For almost thirteen years the 17th of May was also my bosses’ birthday. It became tradition in the office to make his favorite dessert on that day, and so it became known as Pie Day. I always made strawberry rhubarb and he would say that it was his favorite, even amidst the table heaped with butterscotch, key lime, green tomato, black bottom, and deep dish apple.

May is such a beautiful time in Seattle; the greens of the trees are still so fresh, the mornings so refreshing. So much bursting and popping from the flowers and yet I feel wistful. I miss Pie Day. I miss my daughter’s face nuzzling around the back of my neck. I miss gardening in the mist. Plus, I miss my friend Rucy. She loved my strawberry rhubarb pie too.

Rucy was a writing partner, a gardener, an artist, a grandmother, a friend. Her birthday was in May and if she had lived she would have been 74 years old this month. Each year on the anniversary of when she’d completed treatment for breast cancer she would share chocolates. She was a 27 year survivor. But three years ago the doctors realized that her dry cough was a symptom of lung cancer that was extremely advanced. We kept meeting and writing together for the next eighteen months, or at least writing together until about three weeks before she died when she had said that she couldn’t read her writing anymore.

Two years ago this May we met at the Java Bean on 24th NW. She had brought her own cushion to tie to the seat of a chair. Rucy had always been very small but her illness was rendering her smaller, so that it hurt to sit on her bones. Three of us drank tea and wrote, then our other friend had to leave and Rucy and I proceeded on an errand that I had volunteered to do with her. Rucy could be fearless in her words and deeds, but she didn’t particularly want to go to the Gob Shoppe alone to buy a bong.

The Gob Shoppe had been a near institution up on Sunset Hill; a head shop perched at the summit of Ballard’s highest rent area. But when it moved to Market Street and changed hands it seemed to become just another nails/tattoo storefront on a rapidly changing block. Rucy drove us a few blocks closer to Market Street and we parked two blocks away. She was in sweat pants and sneakers, short sleeves and her baseball hat, walking slowly. I felt robust next to her in sandals and shorts. Her skin was incredibly soft as she let me support one arm.

The shop was in the rear and on the 2nd floor of a tattoo parlor by then. The stairs looked long and steep to Rucy. But she made it and for over 20 minutes we moved back and forth between glass cases, stepping around a dormant yellow dog. Rucy’s son had made some suggestions and Rucy wanted a bong that would be as soothing a possible, a water bong. Her throat was always irritated; was there a way that trying to smoke could be soothing? The owner gushed over hand blown pipes and shared his tips on freezing water in the bowl, for the coldest experience possible.

When Rucy had made her choice the Gob Shoppe wouldn’t take a credit card and so we went through our backpacks to find every last dollar, uncovering money from nooks and crannies as though we were desperate magicians. “You could go to the ATM just down the block,” the owner suggested. Rucy glared at the owner in his blond dredlocks and apparent good health and said, “I couldn’t survive those stairs again.”

“I could meet you downstairs,” he said more quietly. But we counted out dollars and by magic there were enough. “Give it a special wrap,” the owner called out to another worker, “and throw in a cleaner for free.”

We moved slowly down the stairs. Rucy took as deep a breath as she was able before starting down. “Have fun ladies!” the owner called to us, as though our errand were recreational. We walked slowly back to her car. She asked me to repeat some of his directions for use and care. “Have fun ladies,” I kept parroting and she managed to laugh. Along 24th NW a City of Seattle truck was stopping every few feet for a worker to unload sidewalk signs that declared, NO PARKING, 5/17 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The bong didn’t work out well for Rucy. She said that she couldn’t get the hang of it and the effects certainly didn’t make her more inclined to eat. A neighbor tried baking her brownies but she said that they tasted awful. Yet when I would visit her she would give me lunch and even after she had stopped eating, she gave orders to her daughter on what cookies to have in the house for the visitors. That was when she was still able to be downstairs. The week before she died she said to me, you have to be my witness now. I want you to write about this, because by the time someone gets into this state; they’re not usually not able to speak.

But two years ago, on that 17th of May, the sun was still pleasant for Rucy. Over tea she had eaten part of a square of coffeecake, putting small bits slowly into her mouth. We spoke of her garden and what was blooming. She had always had the most stunning garden and that May she said that she knew that it would be her last spring. She had been giving away her plants and wanted them to all go to good homes. I gave her arm a last squeeze and watched her slowly maneuver from her parking spot. I walked home along what would be the Syttende Mai Parade route later in the day. She had forgotten her cushion at the Java Bean and I went to the empty table in the window and untied the cushion carefully from the high-backed wood chair.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Piano Tuner

One summer solstice I rented a piano for a party. A friend played and guests circled round him and sang. It was a fantasy come true, a scene from a Judy Garland movie. When my daughters’ fingers could spread far enough apart I advertised in the Ballard News that I was looking for a piano for free. A woman in Kent called to say that her children were grown; the piano was mine if I wanted to have it moved. I am not musical so I called a friend with an ear, “how will I know if it’s any good?”

“Have her play the keys for you over the phone,” he said. She did, and it sounded, well, just like a piano.

The piano is an upright and has now been backed along my front staircase for over seven years. My daughter took lessons for nearly six months. I decided to take them too, and I stuck them out for nearly a year and a half. I was so tense when I practiced that my shoulders knotted and I acquired tennis elbow, mostly from attempting the blues scale, over and over with my teeth clenched. The upright makes a lovely showcase now for my daughter’s pottery. Her hands made other choices. The lid stays open though, exposing the dusty keys. Sometimes a visitor, usually a child will hit at the keys. I miss music. But what I miss most, not having thrown a party in years or a friend who plays, what I miss most is the piano tuner.

I found piano movers in the yellow pages and called A-1, the first on the page. The movers gave me a card for a piano tuner who helped them refurbish instruments. Hak Bo Lee was handwritten on the A-1 card. He appeared on my doorstep after dark one winter night with no sign of how he had arrived. Hak Bo Lee was small, sturdily built, wearing a black leather jacket and a black beard, carrying a briefcase that was revealed to be filled with tools. “How much did you pay?” he asked. “Just the moving,” I replied. “You got a good deal,” he told me. “This is going to be a good piano.” He did mysterious things to it; removed a piece the size of a board and took it away with the black keys. Reassembled the piano and then put new pads on each key. His fee seemed so reasonable; his fingers seemed so sure. He would stop whatever he was doing when my long-haired cat sauntered by. He would “tsk, tsk” for her and she would rub against his compact hands. He told me that he was a dog person himself, “little Pekinese.”

When he left I would rush to the window to see if he had a car, but he would always have vanished. After the restoration work was done, he tuned the piano. That afternoon he suddenly began playing, some classical piece that sounded so beautiful I found I was holding my breath. He didn’t sit down on the bench, just stood above the keys, stopping in mid-phrase to tweak something in the tuning. His playing was fierce, a torrent. Then he stopped again abruptly and replaced his tools with a click of his briefcase. He was off. The piano seemed abandoned; not one note lingered.

How I long to have someone touch the keys of the piano again, for friends to gather round and sing. The piano sits silent, still, dusty, stacked with pottery. My daughter’s hands are full-grown now and she is taller than me. It is still a good piano. But how I wish that I could open my door and find Hak Bo Lee on my doorstep again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


It was one brief paragraph in the Sunday paper. An apparent suicide from the Aurora Bridge in the early hours on Saturday; a fifteen year-old girl, dead on impact in a parking lot below. So anonymous, and brief, like a fifteen year lifespan itself. She didn’t have a name or a face then, no story. Except for the fact that I have a fifteen year-old daughter, and I still go into her room every morning and kiss her cheek as though assuring myself that she’s still safe in the morning, still my little girl tucked into bed with the cat.

On Monday afternoon my daughter came home from school and said, “I guess there was a suicide over the weekend, did you hear?” I realized that although I had read the notice, I hadn’t really heard it; I hadn’t allowed myself to think about another mother’s loss. But the loss of any child has a way of getting close to home. High schoolers may be a demographic that doesn’t read the newspaper or sit down to watch the local news the way my family did when I was growing up, but they have different ways, instant ways, of communicating now. So why couldn’t this girl communicate her desperation before it seemed insurmountable to her?

According to my daughter at least one student at Center School knew the dead girl personally. She went to middle school with her and is visibly mourning. At Ballard High School it is a high tide of grief. For this lost girl was one of their own; a sophomore. There are doubtless those who knew her, those who didn’t, those who thought they knew her well, but didn’t. Students wondering, why? Could I feel like that too? Was her desperation different than mine? Were her problems unresolvable? Were there warning signs? Was she drunk, was she high, was she lonely? Students asking themselves, why didn’t I know her better? Why didn’t I talk to her more in Biology, how could she do it, how could she do it, how could she do it?

Across the city, freshman and sophomores hear about the girl who took her life and wonder why. Former classmates pull out their class pictures from kindergarten and fifth grade. They study her lined up next to them. They look at the picture of her younger self and feel less certain, less whole themselves.

But on Wednesday the name and a newer photo replace the notice of an anonymous suicide. In a paid announcement the family reclaims their daughter as their beloved, they include her first name, middle name and last, they show her smile, her qualities. Their printed words seem to be trying to lift her back up, their words like arms that were not able to hold her before her fall.

Visit from the Gas Man

I’ve heard tales of elderly so lonely that they invent excuses to talk on the phone or have another human being visit. Calling 9-1-1 to generate a visit can lead to a visit to Harborview for psychiatric evaluation and charges of making a false report. At the risk of starting a trend of false reports, there’s another number to call that is sure to produce a knock on the door. This is a call to the toll-free number of Puget Sound Energy Services, formerly known for their flame building on Mercer Street and the simple acronym of WNG.

I really don’t like to call their toll free number when I smell gas because right from the first prompts, it seems to push my phone call into an emergency category that I don’t feel is warranted. I’d like another choice. “If there’s an infrequent, slight odor of gas, press 2 now.” But calling in any odor whatsoever prompts the two hour turnaround emergency service visit. Luckily there are no lights or sirens on this dispatch, just the distinctive hum of an industrial white van with a lot of horsepower. A service man, invariably smelling of cigarette smoke, knocks on the door and gives the relaxed smile of a man who is not expecting to blow up when he descends to my basement.

There should be a prompt for an odor that is so slight that it takes weeks to remember it once you’re away from the water heater and a few more weeks to actually call. “If you have an odor that only you can smell and you’ve been meaning to call for 6-7 weeks, please press 3 now.” In this case, I finally called at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I was smelling the additive odor that they create to warn us of the odorless danger more frequently. The real danger was that the slight odor was giving me an urge to light a match by the water heater just to see if I was imagining the smell. When I actually looked around for matches I knew it was time to call.

“It’s just a slight odor,” I assured the chipper voice at the other end of my phone call.

“I’ll put this report into dispatch,” she said, “and the next available service person in your area will respond. It should be within two hours.” She said service person but I would bet my box of matches that it would be a man on my doorstep. My daughter had reported back on the Women in Trade Day at Seattle Center and although the utilities might have recruited some young women with the pole-climbing in special shoes, the energy companies had not won over any recruits by having the girls move dirt from one side of a ditch to the other. Plus they didn’t have good candy.

“For the sake of caution, don’t turn on any additional lights in the area, but feel free to vent the space by opening a window or door.”

“Okay, okay,” I agreed. Two hours, or less. I’d better get in the shower and get dressed before he showed up. I did consider that taking my hot shower two floors above would cause the pilot in the water heater to light the jets beneath the tank. If there was a gas leak the whole tank could explode. As I shampooed my hair I thought of how an explosion would probably blow the top off of my house. I hoped that the shower stall would stay intact, my own glass elevator into the sky.

There was no explosion. I didn’t really expect one, but then I hadn’t expected the Nisqually earthquake another time that I was beneath the showerhead. The gas man knocked at 9:15 a.m., a mere 45 minutes after my phone call. I was just dressed and my hair still dripped at my shoulders. He smelled of cigarette smoke and carried a big, yellow flashlight. He was downstairs for perhaps five minutes before he mounted the stairs and announced, “you’re not going to blow up. There was just a little leak at the pilot tube, but I’ve tightened it up.” He went to the big white van to complete the paperwork. In the box marked Leak Investigation, he had checked yes by methane present? I wondered if he was humoring me. I signed my name and he was gone by 9:25 a.m.

It takes me so long to check off other things on my list. I’ve been calling for 8 weeks about a billing error with Dynacare and I’ve spent over an hour in the last month tracking down an optical reimbursement. My tax guy is running late on my taxes, he made me do an extension just because all sort of delinquents decided to file this year. But one phone call to the gas company and 45 minutes later there’s a man with a flashlight and a smile at my door. He always comes when I call.

Thirteen Coins for Breakfast

The Elephant Car Wash still washes cars but the Big Pink Toe is no longer where Lincoln tows the cars. At least for now, Seattle is a two newspaper town and the PI writers produce their copy beneath the revolving globe. But there’s a sense of change all over the city; the sounds of change. Every day in Ballard brings the sound of single family residences being demolished. There’s a distinctive crunch as the claws grab the walls and crush the timber and plaster unto rubble. It feels like Chicago after the fire or San Francisco after the earthquake. I happen to live in a house that’s still standing. But for how long? What is our fire?

I don’t take any place for granted anymore in Seattle. One day the Twin Teepees were there, another day they were not. The sign for Thirteen Coins Restaurant, off Denny on Boren had long struck me as another example of an abandoned icon. An old-fashioned sign all that was left of an institution that was long gone. So I was surprised when a visitor from Berkeley, California suggested that we meet there for breakfast. He said the food was good and there was parking. As I made my way between the Seattle Times employee parking lot and the main offices I realized that I had never driven on that particular street before. After eighteen years in Seattle I often wonder what percentage of the streets have I traversed, five percent, maybe even eight? There was the restaurant itself that I had never actually seen.

A heavy-set man was also entering and he held the fortress-like door open for me. I had the impression that I was crossing back in time by two or three decades. I felt slightly out of place as a single woman, probably because I felt like was entering a dark bar that would have been off limits in childhood. Outside it was a cloudless day, 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May. Inside there was just a hint of daylight, as though the interior was waiting out the daylight hours the way that you await the freedom of the evening cool after an unbearable hot day.

There were oversized coins on the restroom doors and a framed explanation by the posted menu of the story behind the thirteen coins on each table. Along the long bar fronting the line chefs there were swiveling, studded, high-back chairs lined like thrones or torture chairs. The chairs looked like they had been designed for the knights of the round table. Along the “window” side there were booths divided by walls that connected with the ceiling. The hostess and manager were both very pale. Not meant to be seen by the harsh light of day.

My host was late. I toyed with the idea, “Stood Up at Thirteen Coins” and felt regret that I might not have an excuse to stay much longer. But then Alan arrived and we were shown to a very private booth. There were absolutely no sounds from other patrons; just an occasional exchange between wait staff and the hiss as beaten eggs hit the surface of a very hot skillet. Our meeting was to discuss the success of the academy model in Seattle Public Schools. UC Berkeley was wrapping up years of support and preparing a final report. I don’t think any other venue could have seemed as distant from public high schools. With its dark leather and dark walls, Thirteen Coins still seemed shrouded in smoke. The high-walled booths seemed to brag of their clandestine histories, the assignations and reporter meetings with informants, the long martini lunches with baked potatoes and sirloin steaks served rare. Thirteen Coins seemed to be its own island within the myth of the outdoor, friendly city of Seattle. Its darkness boasted that Seattle could have its own share of mafia moments, its own political machine, its own dark side. There was no sound from the outside world. For the first time n months I didn’t hear construction or demolition, freight trains or airlifts, jets or sirens. I was at Thirteen Coins for breakfast and if the city was crumbling all around me, I wouldn’t have known for as long as I stayed within its fortified doors.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Giving Up on May Day

Giving Up on May Day

When I was growing up in a small town in New England, my younger sister would fill baskets with flowers early on May Day and leave them secretly on the doorsteps of neighborhood mothers. Seventeen years ago, on my first May Day as a homeowner in Ballard, there was a sharp knock in the late afternoon, but no one at the door. On the doorstep was a bedraggled little heap of flowers. My own rhododendron in bloom was still shaking. For the next hour there were knocks and the sound of children running away; little magic deposits on the doorstep. It was the street of my dreams. When I became a mother my daughter and I would make flower cornets on May Day and deliver them secretly. Emily would arrange the flowers from the time that she was three years old, mingling bluebells with bleeding hearts. For nearly ten years the May Day surprises were prepared with her best friends, two brothers from up the street. Some years they did them before the school bus, other years in the late afternoon, creeping along the bushes. Then other bouquets would appear in turn; a rapid knock on the door, flowers clumped on the welcome mat.

For the last few years I’ve had to coax the kids to make flower arrangements for May Day. The younger brother was the only one willing to deliver last year, although my daughter still enjoyed creating the bouquets, ensuring one lilac for every bundle. I would cut more flowers and watch them wrap stems in wet paper towel and aluminum foil. Every year something different was blooming on the 1st of May. I would remember the year that I was in France and how the French exchange Lily-of-the Valley on this day, their Labor Day. Meanwhile I would cajole the kids into delivering the baskets one more time, trying to rekindle the sense of joy that I’d passed to them and they had held as their own for a few years.

But I’m giving up on May Day this year. The older kids leave for their Metro bus at 7:30 a.m. and the younger brother bicycles to school . They have teenage lives and iPods in their ears. They would be embarrassed to be caught leaving flowers, just as they have stopped participating in the street’s 4th of July parade and talent show. They still have the water fight and play on the traffic-less block until long past the grand finale of the fireworks. But they feel they have outgrown certain rituals. The parade is for the younger kids on the block.

I haven’t outgrown my love for May Day, but I’ll stop forcing it - for now. I’ll call an old friend with a new baby who loves Lily-of-the Valley. I’ll call my sister as I do every year and reminisce on this anniversary of when she learned that she was finally pregnant with twins. I’ll remember the phone call from a neighbor who said that her mother was dying, her two year old had the flu, but that the flowers on her doorstep had given her strength. I’ll remember my first kiss on this day as an exchange student in France; a day when the city workers were on strike and there were no buses. But I’m giving up on forcing the children to fulfill my May Day fantasies of childhood and community. I have a very hard time letting go of the past, and a very difficult time imagining the future. I’ll do what I need to do to celebrate the return of spring, the Worker’s Day. I will try to stop wishing that my daughter still believed that this day was so special that she should wear her angel wings to daycare.

The seeds have been planted; they may not mature for ten years, perhaps even fifteen, but all along the street the seeds have been planted. I’ve had a chance to relive the childhood magic of May Day, and someday so will the children of this street. There will be new traditions just as this year’s crop of babies will be paraded on the 4th of July in decorated Red Flyer wagons. It’s the first of May and throughout the U.S., immigrants are marching and shedding their invisibility and throughout the world, workers are marching. But somewhere there are also bundles of flowers and little baskets being left on doorsteps to celebrate the return of spring. And for all that I claim to have given up on this day, I keep glancing outside my front window to see if there are any flowers on the doorstep.