Something Wicked This Way Comes

I have lots of Halloween stories I like to tell. Here's one. Though my mother attests that I went as Punky Brewster for three Halloweens in a row as a very young girl, the first costume I remember was the Queen of Hearts. Maybe I liked her demanding aesthetic, maybe Alice was just too much of a wimp, maybe I just wanted a crown and a big ass dress and a scepter heavy on the hearts. At six years old, I suspect it was entirely the last.

My parents, being the clever and thrifty folks that they were, put a lot of time and effort into my costume and it was a secret to me until the day before the Halloween parade at school. While the other girls would be wearing flimsy plastic masks and store bought tunics that tied like hospital gowns over their school clothes, I would have an ensemble. I'd seen the crown my parents had made for me, adapting a New Year's Eve party hat, hearts bobbing and glittered gold letters in my mother's hand announcing my title. What I hadn't seen was the sandwich board to be affixed above my shoulders, the Queen of Hearts painstakingly rendered by my dad, a damn fine likeness of your standard Bicycle playing card. I was mortified, but it was too, too late to do anything about it. My rebellion against the costume extended only so far as refusing to take off my jean skirt at the school parade, for leotard and tights or no, my modesty would not permit me to go about with nothing but cardboard and a layer of red nylon between me and my classmates.

In retrospect I find their efforts brilliant and wish I had the costume still, or at least a photograph of it. We made our costumes every year, later favorites including a ghost from a story I'd liked on Unsolved Mysteries, a gypsy draped in my mother's shawls from high school homecoming dances, and, taking advantage of my wild hair in early adolescence, the Bride of Frankenstein.

My brother and I would run from house to house in neighborhoods much nicer than ours, always prepared with two pillow cases for when the first one became full. No paltry pails for us. I had no patience for cousins when we suffered trick or treating in groups, when they became whiny or tired or refused to commit to our breakneck speed. Clearly, they did not understand that we had only three hours to acquire as much free candy as we could. Each street we failed to visit was one less house with a fog machine and grave stone dotted yard that we would miss, a teenager leaping from a leaf burial to  make us shriek, a porch veiled in black garbage bags promising mystery. And candy. Did I mention the candy?

Halloween always was and still is my favorite holiday. What's yours?

Happy Father's Day

For me being a Daddy's Girl meant spending my Friday evenings at home watching The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, watching my dad play The Legend of Zelda and muttering into my chocolate milk when the dodongo narrowly dodged a bomb. It meant having no lecherous Captain Kirk to compare with the virtuous Picard, and nodding as vehemently as my nine years would allow at Mulder-inspired conspiracy theories offered on drives to the park where we'd throw frisbees or dig for clay. My dad understood time travel and the many ways one hapless crew could violate the prime directive. My dad had theories about aliens. Once he asked me, when had I realized that Luke and Leia were brother and sister? With an assumptive sniff, "Always, dad."

In the summertime when it was so hot we couldn't sleep, my mom and dad and brother and I slept all in the same room with a wall-mounted air conditioner, J and me on the floor on a cloud of comforters and sleeping bags. Out the window at night I could see stars and planes and once, I thought, a space ship. I woke everyone howling, convinced that I was or we were all about to be abducted. How they got me back to sleep I don't remember, but I found what I was sure were crop circles in the yard the next day: dead shapes where ten-gallon barrels full of copper wire from my dad's work truck had been left out in the sun. We spent our next Friday night with the same science fiction, proving my parents hadn't learned what I'd tried to tell them when I was a preschooler and they had to stop me watching Scooby-Doo: I have an overactive imagination.

Weaned on Skynyrd and Pink Floyd, my brother and I would bounce anxiously in the back seat as my dad quizzed us on each song - artist, song title, album - that aired on the classic rock radio station, especially Sunday nights on The Jelly Pudding Show. Aerosmith's 'Dream On' really threw us for a loop until Steven Tyler began shrieking. Every Thanksgiving we had Alice's Restaurant. When my dad put in his ZZ Top cassette with 'La Grange,' J and I played air drums and air guitar, respectively, and considered it a favorite second only to Alabama's 'Song of the South' and The Grateful Dead's 'Touch of Grey.'

After the divorce, my dad stopped listening to all of his old music, and it was like he'd stopped listening to me, too. I was twenty, too young to understand, the same as my mom had been when she'd married just a little younger. We didn't talk and when we did we shouted. It was as though the stubborn, free-spirited heathen that was my dad hadn't figured he'd raise an equally stubborn, free-spirited heathen; that the years I struggled to find myself - well after when it seemed everyone else was doing it, in high school - meant I struggled with what it meant to belong to my family, to own the things they'd given me in material and spirit.

What I'd loved as a girl, though, I loved still: my dad. The temper he'd given me. A rejection of Data's cool logic and an incalculably flawed emotion chip. I wouldn't have it any other way. We both try every day to be more human.

Unwives Tales

This morning a cardinal alighted on one of our patio chairs, his feathered tail bobbing like a lure. As a girl I would've held my breath, beginning a silent recitation of the alphabet. I'd read in an enormous tome of American folklore - one of many acquisitions from school book sales, where I'd find the book with the best amount of pages for my (mother's) buck - that when you saw a red bird land, the letter on your lips at the moment he flew away again was the first letter of the last name of the man you were going to marry. I would never have admitted to cheating, but the haste with which I spoke my As, Bs, and Cs or the languid lines of L and M and N and O and P had everything to do with the unlucky classmate I fancied and nothing with the familiar melody of the alphabet.

My romantic superstitions were not restricted to girlhood. In high school I bent the tabs off of Dr. Pepper cans while repeating the same, and kept a chain of letters on a cord around my neck, spelling the name of my beloved. Why pearls when you can have aluminum? K and I also revisited the book, our Avonlea sensibilities satisfied by the sweetest temptation of them all: swallow a thimble full of salt before bed, and dream of the man you will marry bringing you a glass of water.

I imagined, so ardently did I love at sixteen, that he would bring me whole lengths of rivers in his arms.

And so we did just that, of course, not the stupidest thing we'd ever done but certainly the thing with the farthest reaching consequences. Though I did not learn to cook for years, it was many years even after that I would consent to season anything with salt. We didn't see anything, and none of these boys grew up to be the man I married.

No matter how much growing up I do, there are still so very many ways to be foolish about love.

They Say She's a Crone

January isn't entirely to blame for the milk-pale light that fills my house, but is responsible for how few hours I can enjoy before darkness falls and all of my motivation with it, limp as a body in sleep. M covered the windows of our most frequented rooms with plastic. I didn't like it a few years ago when he insisted upon it because it was something my father always did to the windows in our trailer, and the door in my bedroom that wasn't really meant to be used. It made me feel like we weren't living in a real place, or a pod. And I liked using the door.

I never sneaked out to meet anyone, but I did leave my room on stormy nights, climb onto the porch and straddle the flag pole like a broomstick. The wind tossed my hair and pajama bottoms like they might that of a witch, or her hair, anyway. No witch worth imagining would wear pajama bottoms.

It's the strangest time of year. I want the sense and clarity of glass but everything is uncertain and all of my planning and dreaming seems to be about what won't happen for months, at least. Winter will get away from me still if I keep on letting my afternoons expire too soon into evenings.

Cancer, More Than a Crab

When the vet lifted the hackles on my cat and we watched together as they retracted slowly back to her frame, I didn't need him to tell me that this was a sure sign of dehydration. I remember when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, when she refused to eat and when in the hospital finally, too weak to feed herself, the nurses didn't seem too keen on the act, either. But what did I know. I was fifteen, and couldn't see much through my tears. He used words like 'critical' to describe her condition and when I finally cut through his clinical attempts to calm me with a request to have my cat back, the vet patted my shoulder like he might lay his large, soft hand on the head of an obedient dog. Good girl. Stay.

I remember the last proper summer I spent with my grandmother, lying on the floor of her air conditioned room in my aunt's house, reading 1984 while she napped in the middle of the day. She'd wake up and I'd have a Cup of Ramen and we'd watch a baseball game or Silk Stockings. I don't remember now if she ate meals with me, only that when she had a snack, it was something soft so she wouldn't have to put her teeth in: fig newtons or cheese doodles.

Maybe the holidays are to blame for my ignorance but it seems to me I've only in the last two weeks not had to fill my cat's food bowl as often, only in the last two weeks has she lost interest in chasing ponytail holders or yowling her demands while dinner is being cooked. I can feel the whole of her spine down to her backbone, two points like saddle horns. She was always skinny.

Grandma, too. I didn't think women in the thirties and the forties punished themselves enough to suffer from anorexia, nor would I ever have imagined that a woman in her sixties would continue to do so. I liked to look at photographs of her as a young woman, one in particular with high-waisted shorts and a gingham top tied just above her waist. Slim even as an older woman, I own some of her clothing, but I'd never be able to wear it.

I think I never knew her, really, and I don't know now what's wrong with my cat. I fed her bits of ham all the same, and I ate what she didn't.

Home is Where the Heart Is, Unless You Haven't Got One

I work near one of the more affluent shopping districts in Cincinnati - in my budgeted opinion - and while I very rarely entertain the thought of actually spending money there - I usually end up in tears sitting in my car outside of Anthropologie, feeling chubby and poor - I do pass through on my way to the credit union. Today I'm stopped at a light with ten crisp twenties in my purse intended to pay off Christmas purchases on my credit card, and through the slop of flurries I see a young woman holding a sign outside of the gas station on the corner.

Single mother. Homeless. Hungry.

I so rarely have cash, and my credit card bill is so very due, that considering giving her a twenty is out of the cold-hearted question. But I have to go the bank inside of the grocery store so I think, I'll buy her some warm soup and bread and fruit. Before I reach the grocery, however, I see another woman with another sign, visibly shivering with her salmon pink fleece pulled up to her nose. I want to buy her lunch, too, and I do, filling sixteen ounce containers with beef vegetable soup and placing them in my basket along with two-for-three sourdough bread loaves, two big fuji apples and navel oranges. I want to tell the gentleman ringing The Salvation Army bell in the lobby of the grocery that he can't make me feel guilty for having deposited my cash in the bank, but of course, I feel guilty anyway.

My hysteria began when I find that the woman outside of the grocery store has been joined by a gentleman, and I don't have enough lunch for him because I have to return to the woman a mile away. I apologize and she blesses me all of the same when she takes the bag, and I hope they shared. I hope they liked beef vegetable and I wasn't sure if they would like apples or oranges or if they really wouldn't have rather had the twenty.

Around the corner from the first homeless woman I am stopped at yet another light to witness a man unfolding a sign of his own, and him I have to pass. I've slipped uncertainly into a place where I can't even be sure what I'm doing is doing anything at all, and when the first woman thanks me before depositing the plastic sack of hot lunch at her feet and faces the street once more, all I can think is, her soup is going to get cold.

When I return to the parking lot at work and call my husband in tears, I remember going on a picnic with my family when I was a kid and my mom insisting that my dad pull over the car when we passed a father and son begging on the side of a rural street. She gave the boy a bag of Doritos and some of our picnic lunch besides, and she was crying even after we'd driven away. I didn't understand. At eight, I felt good about what we'd done. At twenty-eight, I know that tomorrow is just another day to be a single mother, homeless, and hungry.

Black & Blue Friday

The day after Thanksgiving is the one day each year when my usual temper is all but absent for the thrill of people-watching, deal-grabbing, and account-draining activities. The woman who loosed her cart upon me in Walmart? I'm sure it was full of toys for orphans. The patrons who scoffed at the lines in Target? Starry-eyed amateurs. Tomorrow they'll be bitches all, but today I've acquired Dutch ovens and all three seasons of The Big Bang Theory on DVD and stories, besides. I have a theory for why, when I rarely wish to bust down any doors - or, as aforementioned, faces - I love to shop on Black Friday. When I was a kid my parents used to cart my brother and I to the flea market on Sundays in the summertime to buy and sell, though the latter required early and absurd hours to get a whole family together and into my dad's work truck. Mom would bundle us into shorts and t-shirts and then sweats and jackets, and there was something absolutely magical about the drive and the market in the wee hours, the prospect of spending my allowance on pogs or selling enough of my unwanted plastic costume jewelry to buy someone else's unwanted plastic costume jewelry. I spotted a rabbit once in the early morning mist and descending into the Ferguson flea market - which used to be a drive-in and is now, ironically, the site of a Walmart - was a bit like tumbling down some sort of second-hand rabbit hole.

My brother and I would sit behind the table with our stuff, eating chocolate donuts out of little packages and drinking milk from paper cartons and fairly bouncing out of our plastic lawn chairs for the opportunity to look and poke and covet everything. Shopping was disorderly and it was social. Contemporary flea markets, like department stores, are just too damn clean and there's too much mass-produced junk instead of what somebody raked out of their basement or attic and just wants gone for a dollar or best offer. Digging through a bin of half-nude Barbie dolls or Guess jeans and coolats was the closest I had ever come to treasure hunting, and I'm still of a mind that finding that one perfect, dirt-cheap thing is a purchase pre-ordained. First-world problem? For sure and trust me, I'll be ashamed tomorrow.

Maybe I'm nursing a coffee instead of whole milk, but it feels the same now as it did then. I love getting up early and getting lost in it. There's nothing classy about shopping on Black Friday, and I don't want there to be. I mean, I was raised in a sophisticated kind of style, and celebrating that once a year is not such a sorry thing.