Dang Llama

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I passed a llama on the road today. I was in my Jeep and it was in the back of a pick-up truck. It all happened in a moment: it looked at me, I looked at it. We made eye contact.

***

It startled me at first to see a face up there, hovering Cheshire-like over the cab. Ears bent back stiffly in the wind; fuzzy, cleft granny lips.

The sides of the pick-up had been built up with plywood to form a stall of sorts. It was tall, but not so high that the llama couldn’t see out the top, riding around like it was peeking out of a sunroof in a limo. Beneath him, Snoop Dogg was sloshing around in a hot, nekkid lady and llama soup.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought us back a llama carpet from a trip he took to Peru. In the center of this wall-sized masterpiece was a design inlaid to resemble the animal from which it hailed. The perimeter was bordered in alternating brown and ivory diamonds, which gave way to long tufts of shag at the ends. My parents saw fit to hang it in the den, behind the ping pong table as a sound dampening backdrop. In the middle of summer when I was taking a break from building log cabins out of fallen branches or digging up arrowheads from the red, Oklahoma dirt, I would sneak into the den in the cool dark and bury my hands and face in the carpet. It was plush and soft like a ridiculously shaggy rabbit. For several minutes, I would pretend that I had actually rotated 90 degrees and was lying down on the floor with it, pressing my thighs stomach ears into the thick fur.

We pronounced it the Spanish way, although none of us spoke Spanish. Yama. Not Llama. As in, como se…. I don’t have much of an explanation for this other than the fact that my family has always had an above average interest in languages. My mother, for example, spent some time before I was born in Iran engaged to an Iranian man. She may not have come home with a wedding ring, but she did manage to bring back his pronunciation of the word “hummus”. To this day, she will ask me if I would like some “chch-hoomoose” with my carrots.

My grandfather was a straight laced man who believed Jesus’ return was imminent and that figs were a divine fruit. He was an engineer by trade and designed several of the dams in California back in the day. At some point in the 50s, he built a small bungalow style house on U Street in Sacramento for my grandmother and painted it pink. When I was little they shopped at Trader Joe’s and ate baked white fish sprinkled with kelp five out of seven days of the week. The fence around their yard was thickly draped in concord grapes, which he pressed once a year and bottled under the attic stairwell. Not for the purpose of making wine, mind you, but as grape juice. Pieces of masking tape displayed the original bottling dates on each.

Once when my grandfather came for a visit to our house, I was setting the table for a meal and dropped a fork on the floor. “Dang,” I said. I was about 12 years old, awkward with hairy arms and legs and a big, squishy nose. As a prepubescent primate growing up in the turquoise studded Bible belt of Oklahoma, it did not occur to me to say anything harsher than that. “Dang” worked, and it was accessible. Everyone else I knew said it. It was innocuous. My grandfather did not agree.

“What is that language coming our of your mouth?” He demanded to know from across the room, where he sat reading the newspaper on the sofa. He was wearing his gray three-piece Sunday suit and had his hair slicked back neatly with a comb. “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again. Foul language from a young lady. I’m going to have a talk with your mother.”

For a man who lived in a house the color of Pepto Bismol, he didn’t have a very pronounced sense of humor.

I like to imagine him carrying the huge llama carpet back to us from Chile, fur exploding through the rolls and dipping down to occasionally scrape the street. Pushing it back up again to a proper cylindrical state. Folding back down over his shoulder. Suitcase in the other hand. Grandma walking helplessly three feet behind him, fretting over missing their airplane home.

I wonder if he swore.

Dang yama.

***

I passed a llama on the road today. I was in my Jeep and it was in the back of a pick-up truck. It all happened in a moment: it looked at me, I looked at it. We made eye contact.

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ERIKA RAE is the author of Devangelical, a humor memoir about growing up Evangelical (Emergency Press, December, 2012). She is editor-in-chief at Scree Magazine and nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. Erika earned her MA in Lit­er­a­ture and Lin­guis­tics from the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong and to this day can ask where the bath­room is in Can­tonese, although it is likely that she will not under­stand the answer. In her dream world, she fan­cies her­self a kung fu mas­ter clev­erly dis­guised as a gen­tle moun­tain dweller, eagerly antic­i­pat­ing dan­ger at the bot­tom of every latte. When she is not whipping one of her 3 children and denying them bread with their broth, she runs an ISP with her husband from their home in the Colorado Rockies.

73 responses to “Dang Llama”

  1. Brin Friesen says:

    I’ve never had a fig. What’s the back story on them being divine? So far it’s a compelling selling point for me.

    • Erika Rae says:

      They do produce in abundance – and I think they’re an ancient Roman symbol of fertility – but I doubt that was why Grandpa loved them so much. Mostly, I think it was because his neighbor had a fig tree which hung over into the alleyway between their houses and was free for the pickin’. Figs are good, though. I’ll give him that. Little seeds that pop when you bite into them. They’re strange though – if you’re not used to them.

    • Irene Zion says:

      @Brin,

      I’m here to tell you.
      Grampa got that one right.
      Figs are divine.
      (Also, if possible, all grandmas should have pepto-pink houses.)

  2. Wow, I’ve been saying “Llama” and “hummus” wrong my whole life. That’s embarrassing. Luckily I’m Scottish. I can get away with such things.

    Llamas are the dang weirdest looking creatures. There are a couple of them in a field near my parents house and have been there for years. I have no idea why they’re there. Maybe the couple that owns them has a house full of luxurious rugs.

    If you think that image of your grandparents is bad, listen to this: For the past five years my grandparents have been smuggling giant pieces of beef back from Portugal. Seriously. Huge hunks of meat. Except instead of my grandfather doing it and my grandmother trailing shamefully behind, it’s the other way around. And yeah, this wasn’t back in the day, when you could carry weird shit on an airplane. This was in the post-9/11 can’t carry nail clippers or wear a beard on an airplane world.

    • Erika Rae says:

      How does one smuggle huge chunks of meat? In a suitcase? Wrapped up in plastic wrap? In dry ice? And why from Portugal? Is beef more plentiful in Portugal? Help me understand.

      Some people keep llamas with livestock to ward off coyotes (llamas apparently have a natural hatred toward dogs), but I can’t say I get why anyone would keep a llama for the sake of keeping a llama. People do this down the street from us, too. You can’t cuddle with a llama. They don’t keep burglars away. You don’t eat a llama. (Do you??? Perhaps you should ask your grandmother this.) They quickly go through everything green, so they’re not a proper method of lawn care. Do they hike a lot and require the use of a llama to carry their belongings? Is it just that they’re cute?

      Yeah, it’s a good thing you’ve got the Scottish card. I’ll bet that comes in handy with a lot of mispronounced words.

      • In a suitcase, I believe. Portugal is well known for a kind of meat called picanya (sp?) which I think is actually Brazilian in origin. It’s really, really outrageous tasty, and my naive/scheming gran decided “Oh, I want some of that, I’ll just stick it in my suitcase.” Every year. We are just waiting for the day UK customs call and say, “Er, we’ve detained two confused elderly relatives of yours…”

        I’m not sure what you do with Llamas except write about them and sing songs:

        Calm a llama down
        Calm a llama deep down
        In the ocean blue
        Like a barnacle
        Sitting in the tight place
        Laughing at the monkey arm
        Pulling like a china boy

        Kara-way
        Kara-way
        Kara-way noise

        Boing si ka semala
        Boing si ka semala

      • Irene Zion says:

        @Erika Rae,

        Did you hear the news story about a month ago about the traveler who carried on his own dinner on the plane and before the plane took off the people sitting under his carry-on, which was placed in the lockers above, were being pelted by maggots?
        (I swear I’m not making this up.)
        The meat he brought on was alive with maggots and it got through the check-in just fine, thank you very much.
        People started screaming and running and the plane had to be emptied of people and, um, cleaned out.
        Everyone went on another plane eventually.
        (And every time I fly they put ME through the naked scanner!)

  3. chiwan says:

    meat is probably most often smuggled in pants. no data support this. it just feels true.

  4. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    beautiful piece, Erika, and I love the absurdity of making eye-contact with a yama.

    • Erika Rae says:

      I have made eye contact with several strange animals now. I don’t know what it is about me. I once had a staring contest with a leopard at a zoo. Quite possibly one of the freakiest experiences of my life. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose. There were bars separating us. And still. It was raw and completely filled with something intangible. It wasn’t hate, it was…hunger. He was looking at me as food, I suppose. Like the wraith on Stargate Atlantis. I kept thinking, “I won’t look away. I just won’t.” But I did.

  5. Aaron Dietz says:

    Love this story! Especially the “as in como se” – ha!

    I was driving through New Mexico at night once, and saw a dark blur up ahead, and I slowed down and thought, “What on earth is THAT?”

    And then all of a sudden I sped past a black dog who was crossing the road. If I hadn’t slowed down, we would have collided. In a bad way. There was no eye contact. No llama.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Behind every black dog there is a llama. Or maybe not. It just sounded good.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Aaron, what are you wearing? And holding? Awesome.

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        Ha! Thanks for noticing, Judy–it’s a prototype of my Superhero costume, for appearances related to my novel that’s coming out–and I’m eating a bowl of cereal. This particular photo is the author photo for the back of my book–the idea is to convey the idea that even if you’re a Superhero, you still spend the majority of your life doing normal things….

        • Judy Prince says:

          Aaron, your Superhero costume is beyond weird and wonderfully funny, and the premise of your novel just as weird and funny. Any more hints about your book you can give without compromising its whole cloth? (Which, of course would have to be an Afghan blanket……)

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Ha! You’ll never forget the royal Afghan, will you? Sadly, it doesn’t appear in the book, except maybe as an implied cape.

          The book, called Super, is a novel about Superheroes that really isn’t about Superheroes. It’s about the reader–the reader is the main character, and Ben Loory gave me a really nice blurb that I’ll sum up very poorly from memory, here: “Something something most fun! Something something Superheroes teaching Zen or something!”

          (Ben Loory’s blurb is fantastic, by the way, and the real blurb can be found here: http://aarondietz.us/super )

        • Judy Prince says:

          DUDE-AARON! Your debut novel, SUPER, sounds SUPER!!!!

          I love the descrip of it on the link you gave (though I’d suggest lighter background to make the print easier to read). And yes, you’re right (though your memory seems to be adearth) that Ben Loory’s blurb’s great. I also like Alexa’s blurg (oops, blurb), and the last person’s blurb: There is going to be a fiercely loyal group of readers that will enjoy his work.”

          I will be one of those fiercely loyal groupies, Super Dietz. oh yes.

          Yours,

          Royal Afghanly Prince

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          I had great help with that synopsis–Alex Reed wrote it (watch for him in two years), and a few choice edits were made by my editor at Emergency Press.

          And yes–I’ve got a volunteer helping me with the site so it’ll be easy to read by the time the book is available for pre-order. Let me know if anything else is out of whack and can be improved!

          Alexa’s comment was awesome to get–she’s a content strategist at a very influential and strategic place.

          Thanks for your comments and your enthusiasm, Judy Prince. You are much appreciated!

          Oh, and Erika Rae happens to be on the same publisher as me–isn’t that sweet? It’s like we’re book siblings or something! Erika’s book looks fantastic, too!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Makes sense, Aaron, that you and Erika Rae would be erstwhile book siblings. (Hope she forgives me for hijacking her comments for these several responses to you.)

          Emergency Press must be a whacko publisher if it’s taking on you and Erika Rae. Awesome.

          Oh, and you simply must tell me what a “content strategist” does or is. Either Alexa is way laidback (“content”) about strategising, or she’s telling you how to write your book. Pls xplain! In either case, I want her for my mommy, tout de suite.

          Back to my Royal Afghan and angel spiders.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Content strategist–I’m not really sure, but I think it involves essentially knowing the future of the entire Internet. So, yeah, content, as in stuff. Pretty big stuff.

  6. I once made eye contact with a llama at a zoo. I was probably like 12 years. But no way did I ever have your types of wonderful tangential revelations, Erika. I think I just went and got some more popcorn or something mundane like that. I’d like to think that with the passing of time I’m much wiser now, and were I to make eye contact with a llama at this point in my life things would be very different. But I’m not so sure. I guess time will tell…

  7. jmblaine says:

    Am I the TNB Theologian?
    Ok, then.
    Figs (& Fig trees) in the Bible are
    symbolic of Israel.
    And some say
    whenever the Bible
    says “Israel”
    you can put your name
    in their as a chosen one.

    So your grandfather was right
    in both regards.
    Figs are Divine.
    Jesus’ return was imminent.
    For your grandfather.
    He’s there now.

    Did that make sense?
    I probably should have
    said it in Greek.

    I am so ready for your book,
    friend.

    Agape Aions,

    JMB

  8. Erika Rae says:

    From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.

    Oh yes, I remember.

    For my grandfather, I believe that back alley fig tree meant so much more than met the eye. He was a mid-tribber, though. He was bracing for the pain.

    He’s at peace now.

    And I sometimes have an unquenchable thirst for plain grape juice.

  9. Jude says:

    I’m glad to hear it was only eye contact you made with the llama – they have an awful habit of spitting the contents of their stomachs – which is usually green!

    I’ve never thought of llamas as being Cheshire-like until now. I agree with your description. They do have the funniest looking faces.

    And yes, fresh figs are a joy to eat.

  10. Tawni says:

    I loved the way you shared the spark of the memory, and then led the reader to the place it took you in your head. My mind works like that all of the time (much to my patient husband’s dismay/boredom), so I could really appreciate how one thing can lead you down the mental path to something different. From present llama eye contact, to past llama rug from grandfather and his dang angst. Then back to the llama stare-down. So smoothly traveled. Great writing.

    I haven’t been able to eat figs since my little sister told me about a nature show she watched. Apparently there are certain wasps that pollinate figs, and sometimes when they are crawling inside to pollinate them, they can’t get back out, and the figs absorb them. “So sometimes when you eat a fig, you’re eating dissolved wasps. Isn’t that disgusting?” she said to me. After that, every crunchy fig bite was the crunch of an insect exoskeleton in my brain. I looked it up to make sure, because I am the gullible one in my family that they all mess with, but it’s a real process called caprification. She ruined Fig Newtons for me, DANG it. (:

    • Erika Rae says:

      And now, you have ruined figs for me. Hahaha.

      Thanks so much for your sweet commentary, Tawni. I am SO SAD we didn’t get to catch up with you in Tulsa. I told Richard I would help you watch your little one so mommy could have some grown up time – I have a few of those myself, you know. ( : Next time!

  11. Judy Prince says:

    Totally hootable, Erika Rae:

    “It startled me at first to see a face up there, hovering Cheshire-like over the cab. Ears bent back stiffly in the wind; fuzzy, cleft granny lips.”

    “The sides of the pick-up had been built up with plywood to form a stall of sorts. It was tall, but not so high that the llama couldn’t see out the top, riding around like it was peeking out of a sunroof in a limo. Beneath him, Snoop Dogg was sloshing around in a hot, nekkid lady and llama soup.”

    Girl, it’s now official bcuz of you and Dang Yama: Rodent and I and a llama and a sheep will get married, and we will serve chch-hoomoose (with carrots) at the wedding reception.

    You’ve also, you beautiful sweet weird thing, led me to the topic for my next TNB post.

    I sooooo needed good gut-flopping laffs today, and you supplied them. I will marry you as well as Rodent and Dang Yana and a sheep!

    • Erika Rae says:

      I feel like we have just developed a whole new verse to the Froggy Went a’Courtin’ song. Hahaha. Nothing better than a Judy hoot. See you at the ceremony!

      • Judy Prince says:

        “Froggy Went a’Courtin’”———-HAHAHAHAHAHA!

        I keep envisioning Dang Yama’s lips and goofy head peering out from its perch. Oh dear, I have to stop now; I can’t stop giggling!

  12. Dana says:

    Erika – I adore everything you write. Everything.
    You’re hilarious!

  13. Joe Daly says:

    Dang Yama would be a fantastic name for a band.

    “Hey! Dang Yama’s opening up for the Dandy Warhols on Saturday. Wanna go?”

    “Baby, who sings that song you were playing in the car last night?”

    “That’s Dang Yama. Now shut up and let me get back to my crossword.”

    “Go to hell!”

    “You go to hell! I hate your sister and her bratty kids!”

    “Fuck you!”

    Wait- what?

    Oh yeah, Dang Yama would be a great name for a band.

    I’m jealous that you made eye contact with a llama. But it’s a groovy kind of envy, so I’m looking forward to rolling around with it for awhile. 🙂

    • Erika Rae says:

      Joe Daly, please start a band named Dang Yama – if not for any other reason so that I can listen in on the segues it would cause. And if you are really jealous, I think you need to take a trip down to your local petting zoo. I believe llamas offer eye contact rather freely. They’re sort of whores that way. Or maybe that’s just with me. I don’t really know. It’s possible that my animal familiar simply takes the shape of a llama so we have a natural connection. Now I want to know if anybody else has had this experience. Great. My animal spirit guide is a llama. This does not bode well for my future. Go back to your dang crossword.

  14. Zara Potts says:

    I love your stories. That’s all.
    xx

  15. Brin Friesen says:

    I lost a goodly portion of coffee through my nose reading your 43 children in your bio.

  16. Irene Zion says:

    Erika Rae,

    When is your book coming out and how can I get one that is actually signed with a pen by you and not by a machine?

    • Erika Rae says:

      Book comes out in the second half of 2011. Not exactly sure of the month yet. I’ll definitely be jumping up and down with excitement at that point. You won’t be able to miss it.

  17. Irene Zion says:

    Oh.
    Erika Rae,

    I love your new picture!

  18. Richard Cox says:

    Hmmm. I am most intrigued by your opening and ending with the same lines.

    Most intrigued…

  19. Elizabeth says:

    Hey Erika,

    Loved this piece. My dad, who is Iranian, also says “chch-hoomoose.” I suppose now that I realize it’s a cultural thing I’ll have to stop making fun of him.

    Can’t wait til your book comes out! 🙂

  20. Meg Worden says:

    Erika! This is so good…I love your Grandpa here: “For a man who lived in a house the color of Pepto Bismol, he didn’t have a very pronounced sense of humor.”

    Your telling is precise and engaging, your language just flows and flows. Love it.

    And figs. I fucking love figs.

    They grew in my cajun mawmaw’s backyard and it left me with what could only be described as a religious zeal for em.

    mmmfigs.

  21. Real figs are like real rhubarb, oft impersonated but rarely tasted. My grandfather once told me “if you ever meet a woman who can properly prepare a fig, or knows how to play harmonica, marry her immediately.” Of course, he said it in French, so that may be a mis-translation.

    Great stuff, cleft granny lips.

  22. Matt says:

    Aw man, this one went up while I was on vacation and everyone already dropped all the disgusting tidbits about llamas and figs!

    Ah well.

    Llamas DO have practical uses. You can sheer them for their wool like sheep; you can milk them (I’ve had it – kind of like goat’s milk); and yes, you can eat them (haven’t done this – yet). Plus, I bet they’d be really fun at kid’s parties. I mean, who wants a dumb old pony ride when you can have a llama?

    • Erika Rae says:

      I’m so glad to hear that their wool can be shorn and that they don’t have to be slaughtered for purposes of, oh I don’t know, a rug. Ugh.

      And llama milk, eh? That is so awesome. I want to try yama yogurt. Trader Joe’s would make a killing on that stuff.

  23. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    This is awesome. I pretty much laughed the whole way through.
    Also, it is abundantly clear to me that your family, despite the flamingo paint job, is far classier and more cultured than mine.

  24. Marni Grossman says:

    I spent a semester abroad in Israel and also developed a taste for “chch-hoomoose.” But I had to stop saying it because my friend Lacey told me it sounded hopelessly pretentious.

  25. Love and acceptance, pass the message and keep up the great work here

  26. Etta Summa says:

    Way cool, great site!

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