My Jeep is in serious need of some attention.  And by that, I mean to say that it is at this point nearly camouflaged by the dirt road I take to get into town.  That I have not been mowed over by the driver of a Hummer thinking I am an attractive dirt mound is a miracle.  And still, perhaps there is time.

I have been actively trying to ignore its sad state, thinking that the minute I wash it, the snow storm of the century will swoop over the mountains and bury my efforts at cleanliness beneath piles of snow.  Or worse.  With my luck it’ll just be some pansy ass storm throwing cosmic spittle.

Nevertheless, earlier today I found myself feeling fidgety with the disapproving glances I was getting from the fine citizens of Boulder.  Not that these glances should mean anything to me.  Not two months ago I saw a man standing on the corner of North and Broadway dressed in nothing but an eggplant colored super hero cape and leather hot pants.  And still, I aim to please – something for which I have my mother to blame, no doubt.

Hence, I headed to the car wash.

With the thought of imminent suds, I began to get happy.  Already, I imagined myself within a gleaming capsule which would miraculously be cleaned inside and out at a discounted rate upon purchase of a full tank of gas.

But I was getting ahead of myself.

To which car wash to go?  To whom did I want to donate my dirt?  It occurred to me then that I really didn’t want to go to a normal, run of the mill car wash.  Wasn’t that just throwing money away?  What ever happened to those kids standing on corners with posters advertising a car wash for a donation?  I could clean my car – and give to a charity – at the same time!

The Free Car Wash was the fund raising activity of choice of my church Youth Group in my teen years.  Our leader, whom I’ll call Richard and whose muscle car outshone the sun in brilliance, adored them.  He’d call special planning meetings before the big day, during which we’d be assigned things like hoses, sponges and towels.  At the end of the meeting, we’d have a totally rad prayer huddle where Richard would ask God for help with our fundraising and that our teens would “be a light unto the world” with the way we washed cars.  Also, if He wouldn’t mind directing a couple of Porsches our way, “that’d be cool, too.”

Since I felt that my bubble lettering ability surpassed  that of the average teen, I volunteered for poster duty.  The night before the big event would be spent tongue-out-of-mouth hovering over the marker-strewn kitchen table while I came up with clever slogans – slogans such as “Clean Up Your Life…with Jesus!” and “Honk…if You Love Jesus!.”  We weren’t just there to wash cars and wish people a good day, after all.  Oh, no.  We were there to help spread the good news about Jesus – one harried driver at a time.

The car wash to help raise money for our mission trip to Mexico was by far the most memorable for me.  We had arrived via the church bus to a local Wendy’s with which we had made prior arrangements only to be told by the store manager that she had never heard of us.  No matter.  Since the car wash was part fund raiser and part witnessing opportunity, we knew what to we needed to do.

While Richard was inside arguing with the manager armed with nothing but a single with cheese and a frosty, we proceeded with our plan in order to do a little early advertising.  Determinedly, several amongst us were chosen on the basis of marketability and were dispatched to the two closest street corners.  Since I had made the posters, I went along to supervise.

The response was overwhelming.  There were three of us on my corner.  As cars would pass, we would throw our sign high up in the air, yelling and screaming as loud as we could.  One of the girls I was with could do a wicked human beat box, which she would let loose at any car that happened to have a window rolled down.  With her over-sized T-shirt cinched at the waist with a 5-inch belt and her tremendous wall o’ bangs, she looked like she had walked straight off MTV, and I think several people slowed way down just to check.  As we had the “Clean Up Your Life…with Jesus!” poster, I was pretty pleased with myself for getting quite a few honks for Jesus, even though people were not implicitly instructed to do so.

After about an hour spent in that manner, I left the sign in the other girls’ keep and walked back over to the Wendy’s to see how things were going. Boy, were they going.

When I arrived on the scene, the place was in chaos.  Thanks to our signs, there was a parking lot full of filthy cars and impatient drivers awaiting our attention. As I watched, Richard broke free from the Wendy’s, a thumbs up on one hand, a plastic spoon in the other.  With one deft movement, he ripped off the shirt which had been required for negotiation and proceeded to uncoil the awaiting hoses.  A cheer escaped from the teens still waiting inside the bus in a supernova of teen spirit, beautiful in all of its sweaty, awkward brilliance.

Despite a shaky beginning, it turned into a perfect day.  Or rather, it would have been perfect had a couple of teens not been deemed missing for over an hour after lunchtime only to be discovered Frenching behind the Taco Bell next door.  But otherwise, all went according to plan and we ended up making almost $600 for our efforts.  And while God never did supply those Porsches, He did throw in a fiery red Transam at one point, which nearly unhinged Richard, rendering him completely useless for a full half hour.

I never did make it to a car wash today.  As it is the middle of February, I suppose I should not be too surprised that there were no eager bands of teens out there with sponges and signs.  And even though I have become a rather lax church attendee in my adult years, I would have to say that given the opportunity, I would honk at any bubble-printed sign out there just on the off chance of getting to hear a sampling of that human beat box.  As for the Jeep, well, I’ll clean up my life another day.


Dear Herman Miller:

I am writing to ask if you would please send me one of your Embody chairs. For free.

Before I proceed, I want to assure you that I realize that the Embody chair is a work of high art and should not be granted to just anybody. With a price tag of $1100-$1600 there can be no question in anyone’s mind that Bill Stumpf’s last design was created for a distinct class of the seated elite. That Backfit frame that adjusts so perfectly to the Pixel-Matrix Support pads could only have been hatched by an ergonomic genius. And with seven different possible adjustments, every conceivable curve and contour of the back is cradled by attentive efficiency, leaving only the soul jonesing for more and left to cry out for the fulfillment of productivity. Well worth the money…I don’t have.

With the success of the uber-popular Aeron chair hatched in the 90s, you have by now no doubt had hundreds of thousands of clients at Herman Miller. I read recently that the Aeron chair itself boasts over 50,000 clients. The fact alone that you can refer to one who sits in a Herman Miller chair as a “client” speaks volumes – as if the person is being served by an accountant or possibly a psychologist. I imagine that a client of the Embody chair doesn’t even need a psychologist, as the chair itself is a psychologist. Have studies been done on this? Do clients of the Embody chair need less psychological help? Does the Embody chair pay for itself in a matter of only a few spared sessions of therapy?

I realize that I am asking for a lot. I am not a particularly lucky person or habitual prizewinner, nor am I accustomed to receiving free things, unless you count coffee or socks. Perhaps you do not care to know about such things, but I do feel it is important to be honest with you if we are going to start off on the right foot. The socks were from an over-zealous store clerk who then wanted, in exchange, my phone number. He was clearly a college boy who did not realize that I was at least 10 years his senior and, by the way, married. His mistake was giving me the socks first and then asking for my number. By the time I set him right it was too late to ask for the socks back. He was brave through his inflamed acne-scarred cheeks and even stammered that, if I wanted, we could still go get coffee (his treat) after he got off work “as friends”. The socks were of the water-wicking wool variety. And comfortable.

At any rate, I do not frequently come across free things nor am I a woman of means. I am a writer, as well as a struggling entrepreneur. When I’m not blogging about what it was like to grow up so religious that I wasn’t even allowed to use a Speak N’ Spell because it contained the word “spell” and talked like the devil, I help run a rural ISP in the mountains west of Boulder from a bulky mess of a chair I purchased over 12 years ago from Office Max. Even as I sit here now, the chair wheezes and swivels habitually to the left toward my bookcase whereupon I am subject repeatedly to the temptation of literary escapism. That I can finish this letter at all in the face of such partisanship is a small miracle.

Even so, in 2008 – in the face of distraction from my left leaning chair – I co-founded a web-based social lending company, which ended up being named as one of Colorado’s most innovative companies in the same year. This was fantastic and would have been upgraded to positively thrilling had we actually been funded as a result of the honor. Unfortunately, I and my co-founders needed to eat so the company is currently treading water. I am not saying that possession of a Herman Miller Embody Chair, or possibly an extra in carbon balance fabric with an aluminum base on a graphite frame for one of my co-founders, would help the company get back in the race, but I am not saying the opposite would be true, either.

Of course, I would never ask for something for nothing, Herman Miller, and I realize that with a free Embody chair would come grave responsibility. I assure you, I am an avid user of several social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and would vow to regularly broadcast praises about the Embody chair while simultaneously typing from the comfort of one. Also, I would commit to end every blog post on TheNervousBreakdown.com and elsewhere with the tag, “This post was written from the blissful comfort of a Herman Miller Embody Chair and is certifiably 100% ergonomically correct.” In addition, my memoir about growing up Evangelical is due out from Emergency Press within the next 12 months, in which I will also happily make an endorsement of comfort.

Herman (may I call you Herman?), I realize it is not your policy to send out a free chair(s) to every person who asks for one (or two). In this case, however, I would like to offer that this could be a mutually beneficial exchange with potential for a lasting and, dare I say, passionate relationship. In other words, I will happily play Anaïs Nin to your Henry, er, Herman Miller.

If you will have me, that is.

 

Warmly (Not to be confused with the warmth that comes from constantly overcorrecting to the right),

– Erika Rae

 

 

PS – Should you decide me a worthy recipient, I will gladly cover shipping charges. Please email me at erae [at] thenervousbreakdown [dot] com or find shipping instructions in a subsequent post entitled, “Dear FedEx”.

 

 

A few weeks ago, I was leaving our little mountain post office when the postmistress herself came flying out of the building at me like Smaug after a Baggins.

“If you’re not going to check your mail for a box key, I’m not going to bother putting it in. I was trying to be thoughtful. I was trying to be nice. But if you’re going to just run off with it, I am NOT going to do it anymore.”

Our postmistress has a frizzled crown of shoulder-length grayscale hair on her head, wears artsy hippy attire and generally looks as if she has been plucked from a medieval mob scene. That is to say that she resembles a librarian. In my experience, all librarians–beautiful or plain–can be easily imagined in Renaissance festival attire and sucking on a turkey leg. If she had produced a rotten turnip to throw at me in that moment, I would not have been the least bit surprised. Unlike a librarian, however, she bears the additional countenance of one who could be packing heat. Had she produced a 9mm Beretta, for example, I would have been equally stoic.

I blinked twice, looked down at my fistful of mail, gave it a shake, and sure enough, a little orange key fell to the pavement.

She shook her head hotly and smoldered her way back into her position of public maintainer of peace and of parcels.

And actually, had she flashed a gun at me, it would not have been the first time for me. As a matter of fact, I have seen down the muzzle of a gun no less than five times in my life. I have been:

  1. Detained outside of a car on the side of a dead-dog-strewn highway in Mexico;
  2. Threatened through a site not to take a step closer to a barbed wire fence patrolled by a tower guard at the East German border;
  3. Awakened to find a gun pointing carelessly at me through the backseat window of a car at a checkpoint entering a still-red Hungary;
  4. Ordered at point blank range to leave a protest in Hong Kong by a mainland Chinese soldier; and,
  5. Startled while doing some target practice to find a man had set up a .50 caliber canon on a tripod directly behind me and my instructor, and was preparing to blast a hole in the side of the mountain in front of us, from about six feet above our heads. Apparently we were in his way.

A few months ago, I walked into a gas station after having filled up my Jeep Cherokee to ask for change for a $5 bill. Simple request.

May I have five ones, please?

The man working the counter was old. I mean, really old. If I have to guess, I would put him somewhere around 97. It is possible he once knew someone who voted against Lincoln. His hair was pulled straight back over his shiny scalp and butch waxed into neat little comb stripes. I could see that he had been tall once, but his shoulders were in a losing battle with gravity. His nostrils and ears looked as if someone had ripped out something electronic that used to reside in there, and left the uncapped wires to the elements, a good 30 years ago.

He didn’t answer me at first, so I repeated my request a little louder. A little more chipper. Irene Zion is always talking about how the elderly and infirm like pets and happy people. I smiled broadly. Cocked my head to one side like a Spaniel.

He didn’t look at me directly at first. When a noise so low and guttural began bubbling and churning in my ears, I thought at first that a faulty air system was trying to kick on somewhere on the other side of the parabolic lighting. He held out a large, gnarled hand at me, edemic and spotted like a giraffe.

“Now, look here,” he said after removing the phlegm from his throat which had nearly initiated an emergency visit from the HVAC folks, “if I give you change, then I have to give every young whippersnapper who waltzes in here change. I’d be doling out change all the livelong day.”

A wheeze ripped through his rusty windpipe like a Sawzall and rearranged the mangled wiring hanging out of his nose.

“No, no,” I smiled even broader this time, imagining Irene and her passel of puppies, “I’m a customer. I just spent $45 on gas out at the tank.”

He began sputtering like a whistle-less kettle and shuffling his feet until a fellow customer saved all of us with his wallet.

“Here. This guy’s not gonna budge anytime before his next Metamucil break.”

We exchanged bills and I was on my way, pushing past the crowd of people crammed into the Boulder Conoco, apparently all waiting to magically multiply their single bills at the expense of the elderly.

I don’t think I look like a threat. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a street rat holding a proverbial can of graffiti. I often wear black, but usually accompanied by something in the color scale. I smile. I make small talk. I have no visible tattoos. I have been known to karaoke. I’ve even tried to look intimidating. Take, for example, the time I dressed up Emo in order to attempt to avoid jury duty. (FAIL.) I am decidedly un-metal.

So, I guess I’m in the throes of self-realization here. I’m gazing at my own navel and what I’m finding isn’t pretty. For one thing, it has the telltale scar of a past attempt at being a badass, or “badlass” as my daughter once erroneously-and-yet-appropriately put it after watching Aeon Flux. I took the stainless ring out at some point during pregnancy when it looked as if it could be used as a controlling device poking out from underneath my shirt. As if someone could clamp a leash onto it and lead me out to pasture.

But also, I’m realizing that despite my numerous attempts at a persona of personal strength, I still come off to the average Joe as a bit of a doormat. A non-event. The perfect person to whom to refuse a simple dollar bill exchange and over whom to attempt to shoot a tank. Also, I do annoying things like making sure that I have no prepositions at the end of my phrases.

But there’s something else, too. (No, look deeper. Past the lint.) And that is the fact that I don’t actually feel like a doormat. Like, when the old guy at the gas station told me he wouldn’t make change for me, I was already composing the letter in my head to his manager, along with a scathing review for the local paper, as well as this very post. That is to say, I’m not as nice as I apparently look. I am occasionally vindictive.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge yet, but I feel I could quite possibly be a dangerous individual. I should not be trusted. If I were a man, I should be out right now perusing the sales lots for a very large truck. I should be practicing my Boris Karloff look in front of the mirror. I should practice my cussing. I should go out and take names. I should become a kung fu master. I should acquire a suicide bracelet. I should tattoo my neck.

I should become a postmistress.

“omg. this girl is a wack-a-doo.”

-The Denver Post


Finally. Somebody has noticed my pumpkin. A major newspaper has mocked my belief that the picture on this pumpkin looks like Jesus.

I have sent pictures of the white pumpkin with the natural growth markings that look like a figure to quite a few media outlets now, with nary a word.


When I was a teenager, I believed I had a special gift. I imagined I could sense the forces of good and evil.

For me, unseen spirits were everywhere: behind the sofa, hiding in corners, perching in rafters, standing at the foot of my bed. Some were good, some were evil. I could feel them watching me. When they went past me, they made my skin ripple into defense mode, shooting my hairs into attention as if they were spiny quills that could function as armor. One of Fear’s cruelest jokes.

Anyhow, angels and demons filled my adolescence, thanks in large part to my radical Youth Group. Based on ancient biblical text, a full one-third of the angels were thrown to this planet from the spiritual dimension after a little disagreement between Lucifer and God. Not knowing the starting number of angels makes it a little tricky to estimate at what count this puts the planetary-based demonic forces, but I imagine they’ve got a fairly hefty camp down here. In the church of my youth, for example, we were well aware of demonic influence in our daily lives. Temptation could occur – and did – nearly every minute of the day.

Wish you had her car * think about sex * don’t be the first to say you’re sorry * you are better than her * wish you had her boyfriend * tell your boss you’re working * watch PG-13 * think about sex with your boss * buy a lotto ticket * (sex) * speed * tell the officer you weren’t * say damn * think about sex with the officer * tell her she doesn’t look fat.

I’m telling you, every damn minute.

If my feelings back then were any indication of reality, of course, that would mean that each person has a demon around them pretty much constantly. Perhaps they are extraordinarily zippy and go from person to person at a rapid rate, but if what we as a congregation felt was any gauge, it stands to reason that each person must have at least one demon next to them at all times. Taking into account that demons probably enjoy other activities from time to time (coffee breaks, bone fire dancing, volleyball, etc.), then it is also reasonable to assume that they rotate around a bit.

For the sake of factoring in a life for the demon, let’s just say that the demon spends on average 50% of his or her existence on matters of human temptation. At nearly 7 billion people on this planet, it is reasonable to assume 2 demons per person for full coverage, making the total demonic headcount somewhere around 14 billion. This does not, of course, factor in any Hell-bound demons—which may or may not be counted in the one-third evicted from Heaven’s gates after aforementioned power struggle—nor does it factor in the exclusion (or inclusion, for that matter) of any sort of union type benefits.

So, at 14 billion demons, the one thing I could count on was that there were 28 billion angels. Which brings to light an obvious problem: The Bible never said how many of those angels resided on planet earth.

Think about it, God threw 14 billion (or thereabouts) demons to the earth, but how many angels do you see in the Bible? There’s the chorus that sings when Jesus is born. There’s the one who wrestles with Jacob. A couple show up in the town of Sodom once and nearly get gang raped. One delivers some sort of news to Mary once. Aside from a few other mentions, that’s about it.

So, what was I supposed to believe? Sure, there could be two angels for every demon here on earth, but there is certainly no guarantee of this. Do half reside down here to match the demonic forces while the other half live heaven-side where they can attend regular choir practice and be on hand for spontaneous profound trumpet blowing? Do some of them simply have summer homes here, but their main residence is up on high?

To make things even more problematic as a teenager, I knew that if I wanted the help of an angel, I had to ask for it. And I don’t mean a general “protect me today” type prayer, oh no. It had to be specific. Please go with me today to the corner of 15th and Pearl and protect me from anybody who may wish harm on me or my wallet and who also happens to be wearing leather chaps and a ballet tutu.

Consequently, I had angels and demons on my mind a lot. I was in tune with them. I felt them. Being from a church born in the Holiness Movement and a close cousin to the Assembly of God, I was pretty sure I knew that angels were all protestant Holy Rollers. When my parents took me to the Notre Dame Cathedral in France, my skin got all jittery when I was surrounded by Catholic demons. Later, at the Hill of Cumorah in upstate New York, an educational pilgrimage to see what the Mormons were up to, I felt the dark cloud of oppression weighing upon me. On the trip to Manitou Springs, CO, passing by a porto-fountain outside a New Age bookshop with Yanni playing over the loudspeakers, my very soul nearly shuddered to ash.

I began to educate myself. I read books like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness in which angels and demons battled over control of the Illuminati’s lair, an unlikely small town in the middle of the US of A. I watched television shows like Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven and Touched By an Angel. I learned that angels don’t always have wings, sometimes wore lipstick and even occasionally fall in love.

But even so, with all of my knowledge and premonitions, I wanted a sign that what I was feeling was, in fact, real. I spent hours on my knees by my bed at night begging God for just a peek.

Please God, I’m going to open my eyes now. And when I do, please let me see an angel. It doesn’t have to be a long look because I think I might wet myself, but I really need to know that you’ve got me covered here. Ready…go.

And nothing ever happened.

OK, God. If you won’t show me an angel, then give me some other sign. I don’t know, maybe a quick look at my dead grandmother or something. No wait, that sounds freaky. How about just a flicker. A flicker of an angel in my room and I’ll leave you alone on this topic for the rest of my life. Deal? Ok, ready….

When that didn’t work, I attempted to find signs in inanimate objects. You know the kind I mean: the Mother Mary on tortillas, Cheetos that look like Jesus on the cross (Cheesus!), paintings that weep blood…things of that nature.

And still, nothing ever happened.

Until now.

All of my questioning and a lifetime of doubts has been put to rest by this one glimpse into the spiritual realm.

Without further ado, I present to you:

Jesus on my pumpkin.

I have received my sign.

(And just to clarify, his face is in the upper left corner – in profile. It is NOT the weird tramp looking guy in center under the hat.)

So why now? Why when my faith has dipped to an all-time low and I’m nothing but a starving writer has Jesus decided to appear to me on a gourd? I don’t know. But I suspect that the question has something to do with the answer.

For more information, please watch this informative video of me and my pumpkin.

 

…and when you’re done with that, please go to eBay and bless a starving writer.

eBay – Jesus Pumpkin

 

(Want more to the story? The Denver Post just gave me quite the endorsement.)





From August 16 – 20, Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, and Slade Ham joined me in Tulsa, Oklahoma to film a documentary about the evolving state of literature and the arts. We also spent a lot of time goofing around like children.

In this short clip, we try to recall TNB authors from memory and struggle to pronounce their names properly. We hope you won’t be too offended if we missed yours. We were very tired. Plus, I was driving, so you can’t blame me.

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.

What kind of man is it who goes to the Rocky Mountains, and through determination, skill, and (I assume) access to a wide variety of power tools alone takes a space where there was no attractive and charming two-storey wooden house with electricity and running water and says ‘Here. Here is where I will build an attractive and charming two-storey wooden house with electricity and running water’?

A kind of man who is a man totally unlike me – that’s what kind of man. Because I would have given up and gone crying down the mountain road before I was even done measuring out the ground with my stride as soon as I realised that there might be a bug in the woods.

Cup of TNB, Episode 15. Featuring author and TNB editor Erika Rae. Hosted by Joseph Matheny.

Lit fans!  TNB fans!  Bookish folk!  AWPers!  Hold onto your hats, it’s time for some TNB served up in a Rocky Mountain oyster stew.  That’s right, TNB’s Literary Experience (TNBLE) is coming to downtown Denver, Colorado!

WHEN: Thursday, April 8th.  Doors at 6pm; program begins at 7pm

WHERE: Meadowlark 2701 Larimer St. / Denver, CO 80205, (303) 293-0251.

Readers will include award-winning author Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night / Edinburgh), Ben Loory (his story “The TV” is in this week’s New Yorker magazine!), Tom Hansen (American Junkie), Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies / My Sister’s Continent), Aaron Dietz, Megan DiLullo, Erika Rae, and poet Erica Dawson. Denver’s own Col. Hector Bravado from DenverSixShooter.com will emcee.

Live music from Hideous Men, Iuengliss and Ryat will follow at 9pm.

Happy Hour goes from 4-7, $1 PBR, $2 wells and domestics.

No cover; $5 suggested donation.

For more information please contact Erika Rae – [email protected].

Don’t forget yer spurs.

I’ve noticed a few silvers in the mirror lately and I’m kind of freaking out. Not in the way you might be thinking. I’m not afraid to grow old. I’m just afraid of grey hair. There’s a difference.

By the age of 30, my dad’s hair was dipped and preserved in silver like a knight’s helmet of radiance. It was beautiful hair and I never associated it with being “old”, per se. He had a youthful heart clear up ‘til the end. His hair wasn’t old – it was dignified.

I like silver hair. I think it’s actually sort of sexy. It shows that a person has earned his or her Scout badges and is probably worth talking to. I have beautiful friends with beautiful silver hair. I love it.

On them.

At 36, I understand full well what’s expected of me going forward. No midriff exposing halters. No Spandex. No more dancing on bars. I’m not saying I’m ready to lie down and let the Grim Reaper have his way with me. I’m a mother. A fighter. I’ve been known to jump out of a plane. I once joined a Chinese protest which ended with me being escorted out at gunpoint. I’m persistent, a lover of fun, and just a little bit scrappy. Let age try and get me. I’ll kick it in the head. In the teeth. I’ll bite age in the ass.

So, why am I afraid of the greys?

It was 1984. That year is all jumbled in my head. It was back in the days before the Wall had come down. Before Perestroika. George H. W. Bush did not yet know he was “not gonna do it” at that juncture. Nobody had a home computer, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Gore had not yet invented the Internet. Phones made a funny series of clicks when you pressed the number buttons and they always had a cord. Adventurous non-Asian Americans ate “Oriental food” like chop suey and Chun King Chow Mein from a can. There were no milkshakes in the yard – let alone a best one. Stretch denim and fleece had not hit the scene yet. Reality television was called “the news.” Life was in muted color, yellowed around the edges and prone to appearances of people with bad hair and even worse teeth.

At age 11, I was more awkward than most. And as this particular Year of Our Lord suggests, I was constantly under the scrutiny of my mother, who strove to keep me from falling into the clutches of unforeseen harm. My mother has a lot of motherly concerns: absence of a coat in winter, inadequate lighting – but nothing sends her into spasms of terror faster than the appearance of a freshly showered coif.

When I was younger, I would be putting the final touches on getting ready for school, when my mother’s silhouette would appear noiselessly at the bathroom door.

“And just where do you think you are going with that wet head, young lady?” She would ask, emphasizing the offense with raised eyebrows. “It is the middle of winter. You could catch pneumonia and die if you go out like that. I had a friend who died of pneumonia because of a wet head. Think about that for a minute. Her poor family.”

My mother has an entire graveyard worth of friends who have died due to unthinkable circumstances. They have fallen off three-legged stools, choked while eating in bed, fallen on screwdrivers while running…and yes, failed to dry hair adequately.

“Mom,” I would say, “It’s 60 degrees out. It’s not that cold.”

“Well, it’s too cold to be traipsing around with a wet head, that’s for sure. I want your hair dry before you leave this house.”

Obediently, I would take out the hairdryer and blast my head for several minutes. Gathering my coat and backpack, I would break for the door.

“Not so fast,” She would call from the kitchen as I turned the knob of the front door to catch my bus. “Wait, please.” She would then hustle to the door where she would proceed to run her fingers through my hair.

“It’s still wet,” she’d report.

“What? Where?” I would ask, trying to feel for myself.

“In the back. You can’t feel it because it’s in the back. Stop trying, you’re going to pull your shoulder out and cause permanent damage. That’s the last thing you need – permanent shoulder damage. Run back upstairs and dry it some more, please. And Erika?”

“Yes?”

“No more morning showers in the winter. Understood?”

At age 11, I was already more awkward than most kids. I was pudgy. I had a face that, according to my well-meaning father, would someday catch up with my nose. My arms and legs were covered in thick, brown wool, and I had a monobrow, the fact of which I was mercifully ignorant. I dressed entirely in outfits from a place called Anthony’s, which was mostly frequented by little old ladies and tired looking women pushing shopping cartfuls of children through the aisles. To make matters worse, my mother kept all of my sweaters in mothballs over the summer, so no matter how new my outfits from Anthony’s appeared, they always had a hint of the geriatric to them.

But most importantly, I had overactive oil glands on my head which made daily cleansing a requirement. Later, in my teen years, this excess oil problem would make a public mockery of my T-Zone. By the time I made it to my junior year, there was so much oil in my face and hair it would warrant the attention of OPEC. Men in robes and turbans would show up on our doorstep and attempt to make deals with my parents for drilling rights.

Regardless, my mother was resolute. There would be no hair washing in the morning before school. No daughter of hers would die of pneumonia from a wet head.

This was, of course, a problem. When I washed my hair before bed, I would wake up with large swirls and bumps, creating the impression that I had a large tumor growing under the surface. I could wet it back into place, but then we were back to square one with the whole wet head problem.

So imagine my relief when one morning my mother handed me a canister of MiniPoo.

MiniPoo, despite sounding suspiciously like something a hamster makes in the privacy of its cage, is a white powder intended for use in one’s hair for cleansing purposes.

When you can’t shampoo…MiniPoo!

Marketed to invalids stuck in their hospital beds, it is the answer to the problem of the wet head on a cold day. Simply shake the talc-like powder in your hair and brush out the oil and dirt. Et voila! Hair like a mink.

And who doesn’t want hair like a mink?

The picture on the canister showed a gorgeous shiny haired brunette who looked as if she had just stepped out of a salon. I’d shake that white powder into my slick brown locks and watch it go to work cleaning up like a baguette on an empty plate of peppers and Italian sausages.

At first, my roots would turn an unsettling color of gray, so I’d brush and brush the dirt and oil away. When the gray would not completely disappear, I would settle on trying to make the color of my hair uniform. It may not have glistened like the girl’s hair on the canister, but at least it didn’t make a cloud when bumped. At some point, I’d start to get frustrated when I would notice that the roots running down my part had attracted the MiniPoo, turning the white powder into a kind of a paste. I’d rub my head with a towel, trying to grind it in and out as best I could. When my hair was somewhat under control, I would notice that my monobrow was a distinctly different shade of brown than my hair. It was nothing that a little puff of MiniPoo couldn’t solve and I’d set to work rubbing that monobrow until the drapes matched the…table runner.

Thinking I had at long last conquered the problem of bad morning hair, I would grab my favorite moth-free sweater and head to the bus stop. Completely oblivious to the strange looks I was getting from my peers, I would take a seat alone at the front of the bus where I would strike up a conversation with the bus driver. Our bus driver was the father of my fourth grade teacher and often had funny stories to tell about when he was a young kid in school.

“Oh, those were the days,” he’d say. “Young Tim was always sneaking out of the house to go down to the dime store. There was a young lady he was sweet on whose father worked there.”

“Those were the days,” I’d nod, flipping my freshly MiniPooed hair back over my shoulder and releasing the sweet scent of an entirely intact sweater.

At school, the kids would give me a wide berth, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until a kid in my homeroom class asked me what my room number at the nursing home was that I began to suspect that my new look wasn’t working for me.

Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t working for me then and it’s not going to work for me now. In a way not entirely unlike Benjamin Button, I’ve already been there, done that. And while I may have been raised under unusual circumstances, I simply refuse to return full circle to that reflection. And while I haven’t yet picked up the bottle of brown elixir and gotten to work freezing my hair in perma-youth, rest assured it is coming. Oh yes, it is coming.

I realize that the years may someday get the best of me. My hair dye may fail or I may get too old to regularly apply. The monobrow will no doubt return and I’ll be sitting in my attic apartment with the trunks filled with old clothes preserved forever with dichlorobenzine and camphor. My family will bring me pureed meals and give me the requested up-to-the-minute reports on the weather. At some point I’ll take permanently to my bed, never again to get up to use the toilet, let alone the shower. In those final moments, I will be transported back to my younger years – back to the fifth grade – and I will know with the wisdom that comes with age: I could lie there and let my hair become a grease pit so that when I die I could donate it to science, or perhaps to the chicken wing place down the street; or, I could MiniPoo, and die…with dignity.


 



When I was in college, I had the bright idea to become a schoolbus driver. For this unfortunate career decision, I blame hairspray and sex.

It was my freshman year. I lived in Oklahoma City at the time and went to a fundamentalist evangelical university. I was 18, had been dating my boyfriend for four years, and was technically still a virgin. I say “technically” in a Bill Clinton sort of way. I might even still have the dress to prove it.

The reason it was important for us to stay virgins before we got married was that premarital sex was wrong. Thinking about it was wrong. Planning for it was wrong. And doing it was definitely wrong. We were supposed to be on fire for God, not each other.

There was only one way around it: Marriage.

In marriage, we could make sweet monkey love every night and it was OK. We could stop feeling guilty for all of those crazy, out of control desires that sent us parking in a steamed over car at the edge of the Nature Reserve night after night.

Yes, Oklahoma has a nature reserve. There is nature there.

The problem with our marriage plan was that we had no money. Neither of us had jobs.

Destined to become a teen bride so that I could stop feeling guilty for wanting to have sex, I discussed the issue with my roommate, who I shall call Gloria.

Gloria was a good southern girl. She dressed in flouncy blouses, had big hair, candied nails and wore Cole Haans loafers on her feet. I was not a good southern girl. I was from Colorado. I wore flannel. I had flannel sheets. I think I even had flannel socks on under my Tevas.

On the day I moved in with Gloria, I pushed open the door to walk into a windstorm of Aqua Net.

“Oh, sorry!” called out the intended recipient. I squinted into the haze as she slowly began to take shape. “I hope I didn’t get y’all in the eye!”

I checked behind me, unaware that I wasn’t alone. With no one in the hall, I proceeded forward with caution.

I attempted to make small talk for the next several minutes while she put the finishing touches on her tightly permed chestnut locks, which basically involved repeatedly blasting them from a spectrum of angles – angles, which I knew theoretically existed from my science geeky boyfriend with whom I longed to make sweet monkey love, but perhaps in a different plane or dimension.

“Y’all should drive a school bus like I do,” she told me one morning soon after we announced our engagement. It was morning and she was getting ready for her own route. The “bus barn” was just down the street and apparently had a lot of college kids on the payroll. Good pay and good hours for students.

She whipped out the can and got to work freeze-framing her locks as she talked. I did the math. It wouldn’t take much to live on if we got a small apartment with student housing. At the time, we could get a place for $160 a month on campus. Sure it was 300 square feet and had a view of the cafeteria dumpster, but we could put up curtains. Curtains to shield us from the prying eyes of the cafeteria workers, friends, our pastor and possibly even God himself so that we could skip from room to room wearing nothing but garlands in our hair.

Lured by the thought of being able to afford a life of marital bliss, one in which coitus came freely and without guilt, Scott and I both signed up for bus driving lessons.

The leader of the bus barn – a Mr. Trumbell – took us on and led us through a workshop on how to drive a schoolbus. Mr. Trumbell was old, had Marlboro stained creases on his face and appeared to have a lifetime of red meat stored in his gut. He walked slowly and with a limp and never failed to have a plastic mug filled with Folgers within three feet of him.

Mr. Trumbell was filled with bus driver wisdom. He taught us about lug nuts and airbrakes. He taught us how to park one of those SOBs backwards into a space with only three feet on either side. He taught us how to keep kids in their seats and quiet under threat of his Folgers breath of doom.

I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so he assigned me to a couple of other drivers who went to our school. There was a girl and a guy. The girl was blond, beautiful and sang constantly. She was the Cinderella of the bus driving world. When she stepped outside the bus, all manner of woodland creatures whirled admiringly about her, but when she was on the bus, she was all business. My other teacher doubled as a security guard on campus where he could be seen patrolling from the front seat of a golf cart. He was a large man and went by the name “Duck” for reasons unknown to me.

“Now put it into third,” she would say before trilling into an arpeggio from the seat behind me. “Good.” Somewhere behind her, Duck would crack a joke about a driver picking her nose in the car beside us. I would grab that giant stick shift that came up out of a shaft on the floor and grind it into submission all the while thinking about how I could use that move on Scott once we were married and in our $160 a month student apartment with curtains.

Over time, I learned my new craft. I could perform a complete safety check on the engine, replace those derned lug nuts when needed and park that SOB backwards into a space so tight it would require a tub of Crisco to dislodge it. Scott and I got our CDLs, passed our busdriver tests, and started our intern routes. Everything was going along smoothly until one day, Scott was turning left at an intersection and crunched the car next to him like a can of grape Fanta.

Mr. Trumbell was level headed about it, but explained to him that he couldn’t have brand new drivers on his payroll who had already had an accident involving kids. He let him go. Scott was real cool about it. He never let on for one second that this might postpone a chandelier swinging encounter or two. No worries, I thought. Scott would get something else by way of work, and I would pick up the slack. With only one month before we could strap harnesses onto ourselves and swing naked like Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski over the canvas of our love, we were not about to let this little roadblock stop us. Finally, the day came for Mr. Trumbell to hand out our route schedules for the following year. He called me into his office and had me sit facing him, his Marlboro scented Folgers breath reaching out to me across his desk like tentacles.

“We just ain’t got nothing for you this semester,” explained Mr. Trumbell. “And anyway, I got plenty of drivers on a waiting list already. Ones who ain’t been in no accidents, neither.”

I sat breathing through my mouth, blinking at him.

“But I wasn’t in an accident. Scott was.” He shrugged.

“If I can’t give him a job, then I can’t give you one, neither.”

I was stunned. I walked away, tears burning in my eyes. Our teen wedding was planned and waiting for us upon our return home and we weren’t going to be able to afford peanut butter, let alone oysters. It was a disaster. What was I supposed to do with all that training? What use were lug nuts and stick shifts without curtains and a front door?

This was all Gloria’s fault. Gloria, with her nails that looked like Fun Dip and her huge hair that had to be held into place by industrial size hair spray cans. I had tried not to inhale, hiding under the sheets in the morning while she got ready to filter out the fumes, but those sheets were only 100-thread count because I couldn’t afford higher.

And who is to say that better sheets would have helped, anyway? Would they have truly filtered out the madness? Would Egyptian cotton have saved my soul? 

99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.

On the night my father died, I was knitting a scarf.

It was a ridiculous scarf, all pink and orange with hairy tendrils exploding from each stitch.  It was like something a chia pet would wear if it were attempting to be extravagantly redundant. I could imagine my niece at Christmas picking up the package, giving it a shake, and then clawing it open, unleashing it from its confines to burst open in her hands like a Pop Rocks sunrise.

Behind me, the door whispered open and the hospice nurse approached my dad’s bedside.  We made eye contact, she clearly aware of her own intrusion and me feeling oddly embarrassed.  I don’t know if I can explain the feeling.  There is something about watching someone close to you die that is extremely personal. It’s like being sick in the bathroom at a party – it should be done behind closed doors with a guardian staged at the outside: she’s fine, she wants to be alone, I’ve asked her already if I can help and she doesn’t want anybody around.

Before me, my father lay stretched out on his back, his face heavenward. His body was more or less catatonic, but I imagine his mind was as active as it could be after a few weeks of pureed nursing home food and the steady application of a morphine patch.

I had a strong urge to make him laugh.

He had always managed to make me laugh.

Once when I got bailing wire caught in my throat in an unfortunate church Youth Group incident, he took me to the emergency room late at night wearing the most horrendous pair of jeans. They were hip-hugging patchwork bellbottoms acquired in Italy circa 1965. It being the early 90s, the world was not yet ready for their return.

Having worked in college administration most of his life, he regularly wore three-piece suits and ties to work — every hair of his silver coif sprayed back into place, his shoes shining like hubcaps. I associate the smell of shoe polish with him. But when the weekends would hit and leisurewear was required, he would apparently become confused and start grabbing anything he had worn at one time or another over the previous decades of his life, no matter how outdated or threadbare.

Those patchwork jeans were evidence of his confusion.

To add to my teenage embarrassment of his outfit choice that night, Dad insisted on ‘cool walking’ down the hall to the examining room. Do not be fooled. ‘Cool walking’ is nothing if not a tragically ironic misnomer. He’d sort of strut, dipping his hips as he walked, swinging his arms. Usually he only did it at home for our benefit, my sisters and me giggling from the kitchen table. But that night, his courage bolstered by his hipster patchwork jeans, he did it in the wide inappropriate open. The teenage bailing-wire-stuck-in-her-throat version of myself should have been horrified. But really. What could I do but laugh?

My fingers gathered up a yard or so of scarf and compressed it into a ball around the needles, little pink and orange hairs sticking out through the creases of my fingers giving me the knuckles of a Jim Henson’s Muppet.  From the bed, his breaths didn’t change with the nurse’s approach.  They barely sounded organic – the deep, raspy mechanical sound of bellows running on automatic.  She stared at her watch, bobbing her forehead to the numbers in her head.

Earlier that afternoon she had stood in the exact same spot with another nurse.  The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs.  Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said.  He doesn’t have long.  It’s one of the signs, they said.  I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.

This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.

They put the sheet down.

“It won’t be long,” she whispered again after recording her secret numbers.  Counting backwards to zero.

I nodded at her with a smile as if she had just informed me that she had spoken with the chef and that my poached salmon was on the way.  She hesitated as if there was more and I reinstated the smile on my face for her clear benefit, my closed lips holding in questions about numbers and time.  Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.

The corners of my mouth went slack upon her exit and I resumed my task.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Breathe in, breathe…

We were in a nursing home – a location I detested.  My mother had put him there when she she could no longer take care of him. There was no choice. He had been wandering the house at night and running into things.  Missing things like corners and toilets. Even then, he did not believe he was dying, becoming more and more disconnectedly zealous as the cancer gnawed away his brain.  Jesus was healing him. He would tell anyone who would listen: restaurant servers, friends, bagboys.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the table beside his bed and turned to examine its contents for the hundredth time:  A bottle of hand lotion.  A glass of water with a sponge.  A hymnal.  A pen and pad of paper.  A wrapper left over from one of his morphine patches.  I took a deep breath in and let it all the way out in deliberate syncopation with his.  Put my hand on top of his.  Looked over at his eyes, still focused steadily beyond the cabinet in front of him.  I wanted to do something for him.  If I couldn’t make him laugh, then at least make it easier.  Tell him that it was OK – that we would look after Mom.  He did not even know about her bypass surgery two weeks before. I told him we would take care of her.  She couldn’t be there, but we would take care of her and her broken heart.

Breathe in, breathe out.

His mouth looked so dry.  Earlier that day, I had attempted to sponge a little water into his mouth much like I imagined the people must have done under the cross with the vinegar for a dying Christ.  Since he didn’t move his lips, I sort of parted them for him and gave the sponge a tentative squeeze.  Nothing happened at first.  I was feeling very apostolic when he suddenly erupted into spasms.  He was choking.  Horrified, I stood there with the sponge poised guiltily in my hand.  It died down as quickly as it had started. I returned the sponge to the plate.

I picked up the needles and sang a little while I knitted.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I had been singing him this song all day.  Earlier in the week, I had a much broader repertoire – maybe a dozen songs that I had been cycling through: It Is Well With My Soul, Swing Low Sweet Chariot… When Doves Cry.

I may have been grasping.

After a week of wracking my brain for something new and interesting, I had finally given up and had settled on Amazing Grace.  It happened naturally.  Nothing else felt appropriate.

I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind but now…

I thought that I could detect something different about his breathing, and stopped for a moment to listen mid tune. I wondered if perhaps he was trying to talk to me through his breathing pattern.

I love you.  Tell your mother I love her.  Tell your sisters I love them.

What if he was trying to tell me that he was sick of me singing the same song over and over?

Knit one.  Purl one.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

I tried to keep up with him so that I was matching him stitch for breath. I had to put the scarf down for a while when at one point, after having fallen behind, I caught myself hoping for a split second that he would slow down so that I could catch up.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

I had begun singing again.  By default.

Somewhere behind me, I was aware of the hospice nurse taking up her station at a chair in the back of the room.  I kept singing, in spite of her.

I finished another row.  Something was definitely different about his breathing now. When I set the scarf down on the table beside his bed, I knew that the end was near.  The hospice nurse said, “Hm,” behind me.  The gap between breaths was widening.  I rested my hand on top of his, wondering if he could feel it there.  And then, the borders of his breath released and his breath became free.

In that moment, it was paramount that I record the time.  Feeling remarkably clearheaded, I stood to my feet and faced the whiteboard, jotting down the time with a red marker that squeaked.  I had experienced a similar level of clarity after a car wreck I had been in once.  I had just totaled the car and all I could do was reach into the center compartment for a Tic Tac.  My breath had needed freshening.  I would be talking to paramedics soon.  I needed fresh breath.

11:55pm.

Five minutes until the next day and I wanted to make sure that nobody got it wrong.  I could imagine the nurse saying that it had happened after midnight.  But it hadn’t.  It had happened then.  Right then. The nurse approached the bed.  Took his vitals.  Nothing. I stared at the numbers I had written on the board.  They were clear.  Completely legible.  There would be no confusion.  I should try to close his eyes.

They wouldn’t close.

I imagined then that he was up there somewhere looking down and so I waved at the ceiling, tearing up as I did so. I reached for the scarf.

Behind me, I did not recognize at first that the sounds I was hearing were coming from him. I turned in time to see him convulse violently three times, shaking the whole bed and knocking the table in the process.  For a brief moment, a smile lit up his face.  He exhaled one last time and then…nothing – the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show.

He had smiled.

I was shaking now, and he had smiled.

I turned back to the whiteboard and replaced the final 5 with a 7.  Two minutes had passed.  There had been nothing and then nothing again.  A pause in the workings.  An argument with God.  Behind me, the hospice nurse said, “Well, now.”

I picked up the scarf from off the floor where it had fallen in the commotion and stuffed it in my bag, knowing even as I did so that I would rip it apart the next day.



“Collarbone” is not a word one expects a two-year-old to whisper in one’s ear in an underground, candlelit cavern. I blame myself. For not asking questions about what was down there. For exposing her to death at such an early age. For taking her down into the catacombs in the first place.

We are in Stefansdom in Vienna, the massive Romanesque and Gothic cathedral at the city’s drizzle-damp center.

Through the yawning arch, the carved columns support a soaring nave leading down to a massive baroque high altar, beside which hangs the Christ child with a three stemmed rose. The scene is framed and set aglow by candles burning to long dead saints, lit by the genuflecting living in the cold, damp air of sacred space.

Oh, but underneath.

Our tour guide rushes in exactly on time sporting a suit too small for him in the shoulders and the careless sandy blond hair of an academic. He has a strong Viennese accent – an outrageous accent hovering somewhere between an Inspector Poirot and a Jar-Jar Binks. He takes our money and leads our group of about 20 down into the bowels of the cathedral.

This is the point where some sort of mothering instinct should have kicked in – the kind where my brain sends the message, “Catacombs are where dead people reside. Huhn. Perhaps this is not child-appropriate.”

But, the truth is I was fascinated. I love dead people. I mean, not in the way that I would like to find one of their kind cuddled under my sheets, but I will admit to a moderate fascination with the other side. Not enough to turn me into a kohl-lined, Rob Zombie worshipping member of tribe ‘Emo’, but, you know, enough to take an occasional peek into the cadaver lab at university and to enjoy the movie “Blade.”

It starts light. We see tombs. Sarcophagi. It is a burial place for royalty and church leaders — the usual stuff one sees under such places. And then, he takes us into the chamber.

The word “collarbone” cuts through the chill of the room and I turn to see what my innocent little cherub is looking at. Behind bars, I see them: the remains of two souls long since passed. They are draped in cloth, which I can only guess must have qualified as garments at some point, but which now do little to hide their skeletal remains.

We move on from there.  Through the earthen tunnels of the lantern lit catacombs, we peek into the various rooms.

Everywhere, there are bones.

We are told that the remains of more than 11,000 people surround us – mostly bubonic plague victims from the 1700s. When the nearby graveyards were filled, the bodies were carted to the cathedral, where they were tossed akimbo into a mass grave deep underground — under the incense and the candles and the Christ child holding the three stemmed rose.

At some point, some of the monks who lived and worked at the church took it upon themselves to give the bodies a more respectable resting place. By then, the flesh was gone and the joints long since severed, so the monks set to work organizing the bones in a most logical way: femurs with femurs, clavicles with clavicles, skulls with skulls.

From a practical standpoint, this only makes sense. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the incorrect reconfiguration of nearly 11,000 pissed off souls.

Through the frigid catacombs we walk, peering into room after room stacked neatly with bones. We hug our own thinly veiled bones for warmth as we approach the pit where the monks had left off their task. Imagine a silo filled with bones. It has been capped off and has peepholes at the top for easy viewing. One by one, we approach it. Grimly, we stare into the dry soup.

I am torn between protecting my daughter from these sights and exposing her to the truth early on.  Handing her off to my husband — and thus my personal responsibility for her well-being — I fall behind the group. I want a picture, but pictures are not allowed.

And still…I want a picture.

I wait for the guide to disappear down the hall. I can see my breath in the lantern light. I am alone. Alone with dem dry bones. I point my camera into a small room, covered with iron bars. It’s dark in the room, and I have no idea what I’m even photographing.

A chill. A rush. Immediately, I am regretting my photo and am racing toward my husband and daughter at the back of the group.

Back out in open air, we huddle by a wall to review the picture I had stolen from underneath on my digital camera. The clatter of horse hooves echoes off the stone street as I find it. There, in the gray, is a dimly lit clutter of bones. These were not among the organized. The respected. These bones were not at peace.

A shudder took me over just as I threw my head back and laughed.

At the time, I could not have told you why I did this. There was something so deliciously terrifying about it all. In retrospect, I think this must be ingrained somewhere deep within – that perhaps these bones are at the center of the writer’s psyche. When we write, sometimes we return the bones to flesh. Sometimes we do the reverse, stripping as we go. Ultimately, we refuse to acknowledge they can be separated at all: the bones from the flesh; the cathedral and the catacombs; the sacred and the profane.

As writers, we peek into the pits, we excavate, we catalogue, we get to the core of our humanity…and if we do it right, we scare ourselves to death.

And we love every minute of it.

As for my daughter, well…if she doesn’t become a writer, there’s always therapy.