Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Three Graces of Mike's Mart

Claudine, Nadine, and Pauline are walking up Hill Street and the oily black cargo train to Durham is rattling along the tracks behind them, the tanker cars of chemicals chatter almost as noisily as the girls. Yesterday was the last day of school for the summer and so now, June and July and August stretch before the three black sisters, triplets in fact, like the banks of an old and winding river. September is as far away as the moon as far as they’re concerned, what matters is now they have days and days to sleep and play and go to Mike’s Mart for candy.

Its the second week of June and already the pavement burns the bottoms of their bare feet as they walk in a wide formation up the left lane of the street. Nadine always walks on the yellow line, she insists its cooler, but Claudine says, “If Mama saw you walkin’ up the middle of the road, she’d skin you.” And so Claudine stays closer to the curb and Pauline always zigzags, sometimes she walks in people’s front yards and sometimes she’s far out on the street, past the yellow line where Nadine carefully lays each step down like she’s on a tight rope.

They are wearing their bathing suits from last summer and their ample asses and new breasts are bursting from the seams of the matching flowered suits. Their mother noticed this in the morning as the girls were playing in their front yard, just below the porch, where their father likes to sit in the evenings and smoke one cigarette and drink exactly two Schlitz beers in the can before he goes to bed. He meditates on the little glowing ash at the end of his cigarette and listens to the murmuring coming from inside the house—the quiet sounds of his wife putting his three daughters to bed. He imagines the girls all curled up in their white nightgowns hip to hip, knees to back of knees, their dark arms around one another as they begin to dream. He wonders what they will dream about as he sips his cold beer and looks at the few stars that are visible in the sky over the train tracks.

But Claudine, Nadine and Pauline don’t seem to notice or care that their bathing suits don’t fit them anymore, they are just so glad to be outside and walking with the yellow sun touching their soft brown shoulders. And besides, they are each wearing something of their own choosing to cover up just a little to go to Mike’s Mart, cause Mr. Mike doesn’t like kids coming into the store with only their bathing suits on -- he has a sign on the door that says No Shirt? No Shoes? No Service. But the girls never wear shoes in Mike’s and he never notices, he just hollers at them when they come in wearing nothing but their bathing suits. So Nadine wears her favorite pink stretchy mini skirt pulled up over her hips and even though its kinda old now and the hem is frayed, she still swings around in it like the day her mother gave it to her.

Claudine likes to wear her father’s work shirts, they are cadet blue and they have his name, Gerald, embroidered over the breast pocket in red cursive letters, and sometimes she gets one that her mother hasn’t washed yet and so it smells like her father—salt mixed with motor oil—the shirt hangs down almost to her knees and she likes how it covers her elbows with its short sleeves that aren’t so short on her. Claudine doesn’t like her elbows, they dimple when her arms are straight and they are as round as tennis balls when she curls her arms around her body to hug herself. She wants boney elbows like her cousin Leazy, who lives in Hurdle Mills on a cattle farm with their grandmother and grandfather. Leazy’s mother died five years ago, and so she had no where to go, except to her grandparents, but sometimes Leazy comes to stay for a night and she’s so thin that Claudine, Nadine and Pauline make fun of her and call her names like Olive Oil and say shit like, “Leazy, yer so skinny that no boy is ever gonna want to dance with you!” But really, Claudine wishes she were skinny like Leazy, she thinks it would be nice to feel more like a bird than a whistle pig.

Pauline is wearing a t-shirt over her bathing suit -- its faded, the color of a dandelion and is emblazoned with the Chiquita Banana logo. There’s a small tear in the back of the shirt that came from a fight Pauline had with a girl at school last year. The girl was a real tall white girl with blonde hair and she called Pauline stupid, so Pauline knocked her down on the playground, and Pauline thought she was done fighting with the girl, but she got up and came after Pauline and ripped her shirt and scratched her arm. Pauline turned around and was ready to deck the girl when a teacher came running and hollering and sent both of them to the Office. There they sat, next to each other waiting for the Principal to talk to them and Pauline was crying and the white girl just kept calling her stupid, cause she knew Pauline could hit her in the Principal’s office.

Pauline, Nadine, and Claudine hold the door for Mizz Pat when they get to Mike’s Mart. Mizz Pat lives in the yellow house with the green door right next to the tracks. She looks older than she really is, her skin looks like puddy against her blue grey hair that’s pulled back in a long braid. She comes to Mike’s everyday at lunch time to buy her twelve pack of Coors Light for her and Mr. Pat, a pack of Marlboro Lites, and she always spends a little time with Mike to talk about the neighbors and this gives her just enough time to heat up a ham biscuit in the microwave, which she eats before she walks home with her beer and cigarettes. “Thank you girls, your mama didn’t raise rude children, did she?” Mizz Pat always says that and the girls always reply, “No Mam!” Pauline watches Mizz Pat walk across the parking lot and she notices for the first time that one of her legs in bigger than the other -- she always knew Mizz Pat had a funny way of walking, but she never noticed that leg before.

“Uh Oh, here comes trouble in a three pack!” Mike says that everytime Nadine, Claudine, and Pauline come in the store and they giggle every time he says it, like he’s never said it to them before. “What’ll it be today girlfriends?”

“I want an ICEE, strawberry!” Claudine skips to the ICEE machine and presses her warm cheek against the picture of the polar bear, “Nadine wants strawberry too!”

“I do not!”

“But?”

“I changed my mind. I want Coca-Cola flavored just like Pauline always gets.” Nadine is eyeing the candy shelves while she says this. Pauline skips up next to Claudine and draws an outline around the Polar Bear with one thin brown finger, “Its true, Nadine and I both want Coca-Cola flavored ICEEs, please.”

“Three ICEEs coming up!” Mike pulls out three large red and turquoise paper cups with the same smiling Polar Bear on the side. The machine grinds away at the ice and the strawberry and Coca-Cola syrup. “What else for my girlfriends?”

Pauline grabs a pack of Skittles and a handful of Fireballs, Claudine selects her Strawberry Twizzlers and two Tootsie-Pops. But Nadine is still thinking about her choice. She wanted Fireballs, but since Pauline got Fireballs, she decides she wants something else. But what? She decides that a handful of Double Bubble and a box of Lemonheads will be just right for the afternoon. The girls pile the candy on the counter next to Mike’s register and Mike sets their ICEEs down next to the sugar loot, “Is this for here or to go girls?”

“Mr. Mike, you know we always get it to go!” Says Claudine.

“But I gotta ask! One day, the day I don’t ask, you three are going to tell me its for here. That y’all are gonna sit at that table by the window and drink your ICEEs and stay all afternoon to eat that candy.”

“No way Mr. Mike. That table is for the old men to come in and shoot the breeze!” Says Pauline

“Shoot the breeze? Now where did you learn that?” Mike leans on his hands on the counter and laughs just a little bit at Pauline.

“My Daddy -- he says that about Mr. Pat and Mr. Darling, that they like to come up here and Shoot the Breeze and get away from their wives.”

“Pauline!” Claudine slaps Pauline on the shoulder/

“Well its true! That’s what he says!” Pauline slaps Claudine back.

“Girls, girls, stop, please. Your Daddy’s right, Mr. Pat and Mr. Darling come up here all the time to Shoot the Breeze and to get away from Mizz Pat and Mizz Darling. That table by the window is reserved exclusively for them. So, do y’all want to pay together or separately?”

“Together!” They all shout and put their dollars and coins up on the counter for Mr. Mike to sort out.

“Okay, so that’s three ICEEs at a dollar each, five fireballs, five Double Bubbles, one Twizzler, two Tootsie-Pops, and one Lemonheads . . . you got a dollar left over here. You want to buy something else?”

“Yessir.” Says Claudine.

“Well, what is it?”

“We want to buy something for our mother.”

“Candy?”

“No. She don’t like candy.” Says Claudine looking sideways at Pauline and Nadine.

“How about some boiled peanuts?” Mr. Mike points to the barrel of Virginia Brand Boiled Peanuts. The girls mull it over, and then they all smile.

“Yes! She would love a bag of peanuts. Can we get a big bag for a dollar?”

“I think so.” Mike moves from behind the counter and scoops out the peanuts into a brown paper bag. He weighs them on the little red scale that has the Virginia Brand logo on it. He adds more peanuts to the bag and declares the bag to be a dollars worth, although he knows its more like three dollars worth, but he wants Josephine, the mother of Claudine, Nadine and Pauline to be impressed with her gift bag of boiled peanuts.

“Thank you Mr. Mike.” The girls take the bag of peanuts along with the three little paper bags he packaged their candies in, the girls peer in the bags and make sure that they get the candy of their choice. Then they each take their ICEEs, after Mike has carefully stuck a straw in each cup and they file out the door.

Nadine, Claudine, and Pauline start the walk back down Hill Street and they hear another train coming, its still outside of town, near the highway, they know its the big train, the one that goes all the way to New Orleans. It will be in sight just about the time they get to their front porch.

My Mother Jumping

Madison Square Garden, 1959
She lost her hat half way through the round . . .

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Wolves

Timber wolves diorama
American Museum of Natural History
NYC

Is it any wonder that this is one of my favorite things in the world? It resides deep within the Hall of Mammals in a narrow and dark passage way in the Museum of Natural History. It is always night in that hallway, always, and the moon is always full for these wolves who are hunting. The first time I saw them was on one of those trips we took from my elementary school in Westport, Connecticut. Perhaps I was ten years old and I had been on the big yellow bus on I-95 all morning long packed in with my school mates in their bell bottom jeans and their Adidas sneakers, with our hair slightly too long, hanging in our eyes and over our softly freckled noses. We streamed off that bus and were loosed upon the Dinosaurs and the Reptiles and the Mammals and Eskimos and the Peoples of the Southwest and Peoples of Asia. The totem poles glared at us and the Rocks and Minerals sparkled like the kosher salt on those warm pretzels we bought from the overwhelmed vendor out on the street. The Blue Whale hung over us, suspended by wire swimming through the dimly lit air above us, echoing and echoing and echoing our voices and we were completely agog with the city and this place that seemed to hold the world within its walls.

When I came upon the Wolves, I was alone. And I was transfixed by them—they hypnotized me, and I believe I have remained under their spell ever since. I sat on the floor and let everyone run past me, to more exciting things, like the Elephants and the Ibix and the Carabou and the Lions. I sat there and imagined I was being hunted by these wolves—I was an arctic hare. And once they had eaten me, even my tidy little ears, I imagined that I was one of them chasing the hare. I imagined the sound of the snow as I skirted through it and the quick breaths of the hare as I caught her and broke her little back.

Its comforting somehow to know that thirty-five years later the wolves continue their hunt in the moonlight and so this summer, on my annual trek north, I think I will go sit with them to renew my ancient spell.

Horse and Hay




Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why I Am Chronically Early . . .

1. I was three weeks late as a baby
2. My father was chronically late
3. I’m anxious and prone to panic
4. I walk fast
5. I drive fast
6. I dress fast
7. I don’t wear makeup and I don’t DO my hair
8. I don’t wear a watch
9. Maybe I have nothing better to do?
10. I don’t have kids
11. I can parallel park
12. I can read a map
13. I can't stand to watch a movie that I missed the first five minutes of
14. I don’t like waiting in lines
15. I like getting somewhere and then taking a few moments to breathe before I have to deal
16. I always know where my keys are, unlike my father
17. I have dreams about being late and missing appointments
18. I like getting a good table
19. I like to read menus
20. I get all confused and flustered when I’m hurrying, which causes me to trip, blunder into men’s bathrooms, or drive on the wrong side of the road.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

From The Spam Drawer Came This . . .

Shine
zi

sun moon stars rain

orange cheek or skin of man

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Five, The Night Visitor

They all went to bed early, all of them and every night. Ida warned me of this, you know Ida, my girl back at ICO, the one who was always threatening to kick my skinny ass? Yeah that Ida. Well Ida went to Belize and Guatemala on the very same trip two years previous to my trip and she gave me a pretty good recon report—she advised me on food to eat, “Anything burned to a crisp. No fresh fruit. Drink beer and Coca Cola in a bottle that YOU opened. Don’t drink anything with ice cubes, stay away from salads. You can eat bananas that you peel yourself. And for god’s sake keep your mouth shut when you take a shower!” I would follow her rules scrupulously and still end up sick. She also told me about traveling with the Senior Set, “Look, they are a piece of cake, they get up early, they bird watch, talk amongst themselves, and they go to bed at 8:30. You’ll eat dinner with them and then they are gone gone gone. Then you can stay up and have some fun!”

Ida was right, none of them stayed up past 8 or 9 pm. And then I stayed up with Nigel and London and we'd throw back a few beers, play backgammon, and plan the next day’s activities. They key here is that while we looked like we were partying it up at the bar, we were still working. Out came the maps and London confirmed our road route to the next destination . . . we stayed in some places on the trip for as little as one night, it was a luxury to remain in any of our destinations for two nights. This made for very tired travelers and lots of bags coming off the bus and then being returned to the bus the next day. Heavy bags too! These people did not know the meaning of Traveling Light. We got to a place and they all paraded off the bus to get to the nearest bathroom, something I can relate to now at the age of 45, but back then, bathrooms didn’t figure so prominently in my travel itinerary. And then London and Nigel and I hauled all those bags into the hotel. We checked everyone in and then carried their bags to their rooms. I don’t know who they thought got their bags on and off the bus, but they surely didn’t know I was doing it, until one bag went missing. . . but that’s for later.

The evening that we got to Chan Chich, everyone filed off the bus and headed for the main lodge to relieve their bruised and battered bladders. When that bus wasn’t breaking down, it was rattling your fillings from your teeth, punching your kidneys, compressing your spine, and tossing you from side to side with its mule like G-forces. I am certain that I started that trip at a good five foot four and returned to the States at five foot three.

So while everyone was peeing and washing the dust off their faces, we started unloading those suitcases. It was after dark, so the expat couple who ran the place agreed to get everyone into the dining room for their dinners and complimentary wine while we got the cabana’s set up. When we were done, we headed up to the main lodge and dinner was half over. We walked into the dining room and Eloise Rockbottom met us at the door. She set her gaze on me like an Aztec priestess ready to cut out my heart and present it to a golden eagle as an offering, “I suppose you have been in the bar.” I looked at Nigel and then at London, yes, we three had beers in our hands, compliments of the lodge management for helping with the cabanas, but I hadn’t even tasted mine yet. Nigel shook his head at me, he telegraphed, “Be a duck, let it roll off yer back, don’t let her get under yer skin Girl.” So I bit my lip and replied, “What can I help you with Mizz Rockbottom?”

“I have a rash.” She stated this fact loudly enough for the whole dining room to hear. She held out her meaty arms and yes, there was a rash. Then she pulled up her pants leg and amazingly, balanced on one leg, and raised a rather big and shapeless ankle toward me to reveal more of the rash. I was sort of happy she had a rash, it suited her. But I feigned intense concern while at the same time remembering her proclamation that came in my trip packet . . . wasn’t I supposed to do NOTHING?

“Mizz Rockbottom, that is indeed a terrible rash. What do you think caused it?” Of course I was ready to take the blame for the rash. I was ready to take the blame for everything by now and we were only two days into the trip!

“I’m not the only one with the rash. Jeanne has the rash and so do the Rittles.” Mr. and Mrs. Rittles hailed from upstate New York, he worked for Kodak and we had found our common ground on the first day when we talked about film. I figured if I stuck to talking about film with him for the entire trip I would be okay.

“Oh dear.” I was not happy that the rash was an epidemic. This was going to tax my First Aid kit.

“Can you DO something about this Miss Wolfy?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I can. I have various cortizone cremes in my First Aid kit. I will bring them to your cabanas after dinner.”

“Dinner is over now. Please come to my cabin immediately.” So I handed my beer to London and ran to get my First Aid Kit. I spent the next hour dispensing cortizone creme and listening to various complaints regarding The Rash. I had to see the rash on everyone. It was hideous. And being young, I was embarrassed by everyone’s willingness to show me their rashes. I was especially surprised by Miss Rockbottom’s penchant for exhibitionism—it seemed to fly in the face of the very roots of Christian Science. And the presence of the First Aid Kit seemed to anoint me as the one to receive confessions regarding other ailments, constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, ingrown toenails and the list went on; it occurred to me that getting old was something I was not interested in. I became temporarily popular when they discovered that I had a bag full of drugs, suddenly everyone was suffering from this disorder and that disorder.

Finally, they were all put to bed—soothed by salves of various kinds. And I headed back to the main lodge to eat a cold plate of Argentine steak and a baked potato. London saved me a beer and a few games of backgammon. But there was work to do, Nigel put the next day’s itinerary out on the bar and we made the game plan. I would accompany the group that wanted to go for the Rain Forest Horseback Riding trip, naturally! And Nigel would lead the other half of the group on an exploration of Chan Chich’s Mayan ruins, most of which looked like overgrown caves and grassy mounds. The really big ruins were coming later in the trip.

We spent some time talking with the lodge owners and I learned that they were a British couple. She looked like Joni Mitchell and he looked like Michael Caine back in the day when he starred in Alfie. They were a fabulous couple and they were expats extraordinaire. He first came to Belize as a mahogany trader, then when the mahogany dried up, he flew airplanes around the country. I got the feeling that it wasn’t just tourists he carried on those planes, and that was something I began to notice about many of the expats that I met in Belize. There was something slightly off-course about them. They were loaded with money and slightly irreverant. I suspected that none of them could return home very easily. They all seemed to be fugitives from something. But we never stayed in one place long enough on that trip for me to really get to know these people, I would get a snapshot of them and then WHOOSH, back on the bus! And little did I know that a year later I would be offered the opportunity to be an expat myself—my short experience in Belize certainly helped me make the decision to live in a foreign land, everyone should be an expat, even if its for just a little while.

So before I turned in for the night, Nigel tells me not to be concerned about the noise in my cabana. “What noise in my cabana?” I ask him.

“Well, the thatched roof . . . you’ll hear rustling around up there, just some anole lizards, maybe some tree frogs. Nothing to worry about.”

“Oh, okay. Anyway, Nigel, I’m so tired tonight that an alligator on the roof wouldn’t wake me up. See you in the morning.” And with that I trundled off to my cabana. It was a beautiful room. I felt sad when I walked in and realized I would only be there for one night. It was luxuriously jungle like. Mahogany furniture and an enormous bed with copious linens that would feel extremely lonely without my husband, who was only my boyfriend back then. I sat on the end of the bed and looked up. A ceiling fan slowly whirred over me whuff whuff whuff and yes, there was some rustling around up there. I heard the peeping of tree frogs and saw a deep green anole lizard slumbering in the space between the thatch and a beam. I breathed deeply and thought, “I like the rustling in my thatch roof. Not a thing wrong with that at all.” I changed into my pajamas and nested into my enormous soft bed. Lights out.

Sometime later I woke up, slightly disoriented, and overwhelmed by the pitch jungle night. I quickly remembered where I was and I lay there half asleep and half awake and emptying my head of anything that might keep me from dozing off again. I heard the rustling in the thatch above me, and I noticed that the tree frogs had gone quiet . . . whatever, tree frogs have to sleep too, don’t they? The rustling got louder and almost frenzied, it was right over my bed now. I considered turning on the light, but I thought, no, just go back to sleep. Nigel told you not to worry, so don’t worry. And the moment I thought that, there was a clamor and then a THUD at the end of my bed. Something had dropped from the ceiling and was now on my bed. Something that was making a whistling wheezing sound. This made me turn on my light. With the click of the bedside lamp came the illumination of the character that had dropped in on me for the night. Standing on his hind legs on the end of my bed was a JESUS LIZARD. Have you ever seen a Jesus Lizard? Well, I had never seen one up until that very moment in my life and I nearly died of fright. He balanced there on his hind legs and used his long tail as a further prop. He raised his little forearms at me in a menacing way and his gargoyle like countenance was framed by an almost opaque fan of skin that seemed to flutter open and closed like an umbrella as he hissed at me.

I brought my knees to my chin. I considered putting the covers over my head, but the thought of him being OUT there and me being IN here was too much to bear. I was frozen. I thought if I move, he’ll pounce on me and then what? He was a good foot tall, but he might as well have been ten feet tall. I decided I needed to get out of the bed. I sidled toward the edge of the bed and the lizard jumped UP and then came down slightly closer to me. This sent me into waves of fear that I had only felt once before, that one and only time that I ate some psilocybin. I tore from the bed and ran out the door of my cabana. My feet were not even touching the ground as I ran through the night to the main lodge. There was a light on at the bar. Two of the Mayan indians who worked at the lodge were on night duty. I was hysterical and barely able to catch my breath, and I was in my short nightie and barefooted. I stood there in front of them breathing somewhat like the Jesus Lizard I had just left. “There’s a lizard in my bed!” They looked at eachother and then at me. Oh dear, I realized, they don’t speak English. So I faked it, “Lizard esta cabana!” They smiled broadly. “Por favor, come with me!” And I motioned for them to follow me. They grabbed a large broom and followed me back to the cabana. I got the feeling I wasn’t the first guest to come up to the lodge in the middle of the night with complaints of wild animals in their quarters.

I cowered on the veranda as they went into my room and had a short battle with the Jesus Lizard. I heard the broom whisking this way and that and I heard my little gargoyle protest. A few moments later they emerged and told me it was, “Okay Okay!" That was the extent of their English. How could it be okay? They didn’t come out with him in a cage! Where did he go? They stepped off the porch and saw me looking at them with fear in my eyes, they motioned at me, somewhat like they must have motioned to the lizard, “Okay, Okay!” and so I went back in the cabana and looked all around. No lizard. But was he back UP THERE? In the thatch? Wasn't he? I got in bed and remained in the fetal position with the light on til morning came with the opera of the howler monkeys. The sun came piercing through the thatch like lasers and the jungle was alive with the sound of all those birds I needed to check off on my list before we packed the bus and left for the next destination. I showered and headed for breakfast.

I arrived at the dining room early, many of our troops were not there yet. I seated myself down at a nice little table and in walked Nigel and London. They smiled and asked if they could join me? "Of course" I said. Nigel began to laugh and London did too. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

“We heard you had quite a night!” Nigel unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. He took his binoculars from their case and neatly stacked them on top of his two bird books. London continued to giggle.

“I’m glad you guys think its so funny. I didn’t get any sleep. Dammit.” Something caught my eye as I lifted my glass of orange juice with no ice, there were no less than four Mayan indian boys standing in the kitchen doorway leering at me, yes leering. One of them came over and gave me a spectacular flower, a jungle flower that was luridly pink. I accepted the flower and the boy ran back to the kitchen, the other boys slapped his shoulder as though he had just made a goal. The waiter came over and he too was leering at me. I tried to ignore the attention and asked for scrambled eggs. The room began to fill up with our rash-infected crew, more of them had developed the rash over night, so of course, I had to see the rash as I waited for my breakfast and tried to fend off the eyes of the Mayan indian boys. Finally my eggs came and everyone had gone to their tables and the sounds of breakfast were overtaking the sounds of the howler monkeys out in the forest. The waiter took my plate after I was finished and left a flower in its stead. This was a hibiscus flower, and I decided not to touch it. I let it sit there in front of me on the white table cloth. I looked at Nigel and London. They were almost in tears they were laughing so hard. I couldn’t take it anymore, “Okay guys, what’s this all about?”

“The Mayans believe that a woman who is visited by a Jesus Lizard in the night has special, well, special . . .” Nigel hesitated.

“Out with it Nigel. Special what?”

“Special sexual powers. It means she is very fertile and hmmm, how shall I put this?”

“Promiscuous?” I ventured.

“That’s it! That’s the word I was looking for.” London collapsed in laughter.

“Oh great. That’s just great. Can we please go birding now?”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ablutions

This morning, while washing a black slip in the cold porcelain sink, my feet bare on the chilly laundry room floor, I remembered my godmother Ginnie. She took me on a trip to Blowing Rock one hot summer in the late 70s. We drove from Southern Pines, NC up to the mountains in a somewhat unwieldy rented RV. I was twelve and Ginnie was in her sixties then. She was a horsewoman of distinction -- Master of Foxhounds of Moore County. She foxhunted on a stallion, not a gelding. And while she was demure in stature, she was grand in her presence. She was raised in Savannah, Georgia, so her voice was probably the sweetest thing on earth—everyone was “Dahhlin“ to her. I was supposed to be named for her, but my mother thought that naming me Virginia Woolfe would be some sort of a curse, so the Virginia was placed in the middle of my name instead of at the beginning. Still, Ginnie called me Wee Gin.

She had promised to take me to Disneyland on several occasions, but instead she took me to the famous annual summer horse show in Blowing Rock. Its a week long affair and the best horses in the South go to Blowing Rock. The horse show was a respite from the heat in the lowlands, the mood was one of relief for the horses and the riders—everyone lingered in the cool mountain air, and competition seemed to be the last thing on everyone's mind.

During the day, Ginnie and I watched the horses go—so many of them to imagine riding for a little girl like me. Ginnie was a great show rider herself and a horse show judge, so sitting in the stands with her was a sublime education. And as we walked around the show grounds, Ginnie was greeted with no less fanfare than a movie star.

But better than the days were the evenings spent in the RV camp on a rocky cliff above the show grounds. Every night was a party with a band of old horse dealers, show riders and me and Ginnie. I was supplied with my own bottle of beer, sometimes two, and as the stars twinkled over the mountain tops and the charcoal grill glowed while magically producing steaks and baked potatoes, stories were told. Horse stories and fox hunting tales and the laughter never seemed to stop . . . do you remember the time Cappy was trying to sell that damn horse to Dicky? And Dicky said Cappy I am not interested in that horse, not in the least, that horse can’t jump. But Cappy insisted the horse was the best jumper in the county! So one night Dicky calls Cappy and says, Linda and I are havin’ a few folks over for drinks, why don’t you swing by? So Cappy gets an idea, and you know it ain’t a good thing when Cappy gets an idea in that big hard head of his. He goes to the barn and tacks up that horse and rides it over to Dicky’s place and the sun is just about to go down and Cappy emerges on the top of the hill on the outside of Dicky’s big post and rail fence—the new fence line he put in round his farm, and he calls down to Dicky and Linda and the guests on the patio, ”Hey Dicky! You watch this now! You watch this horse jump.“ And so everyone watches as Cappy turns that horse back into the woods and disappears to make his approach to that five foot post and rail and they hear him comin’, bada da bada da bada, and out of the woods he comes and he takes three strides and that horse lifts off, hooks his knees under the top rail, and rolls ass over tea kettle down the hill and almost right into Dicky’s livin’ room. Cappy gets up without a scratch on him and says ”Goddammit Dicky, I need a drink.“

And the night would go on and on like that, until finally something reminded us all to go to bed, but me being a little girl, I never wanted to go to bed again. I wanted to live in the RV park and drink beer and tell stories all night for the rest of my life. But bedtime would come despite my wishes and with it, Ginnie’s nightly ablutions. After I brushed my teeth, I would sit on the tiny commode and watch as Ginnie took down her hair and brushed it. Ginnie’s hair was was like white gold and it fell all the way down to the small of her back. She always, always kept it in a long braid and then twisted up and held by pins to reveal the nape of her neck. Until this trip I had never seen Ginnie’s hair down. She carefully untwisted it and then with a silver brush with blonde bristles, she brushed her hair 100 times and then? She braided it up again and let it rest along her spine til morning when she would pin it back up. Once she was done with her hair, she changed into her nightgown and then she washed her face with an amber bar of castile soap. Once she was done putting night cream on her fine featured and small face, she washed her underwear in the sink with the castile soap. She explained to me that she washed her underwear, her bra and her lacy under drawers, in the sink every night. She then hung them on the little towel rack over the commode and turned out the light. I was agog of her beauty and her femininity—I had always thought she was the most elegant woman I had known until that point in my life, her collection of colorful ballet flats in her closet alone were enough to make her a heroine; she was always dressed exquisitely, whether it was to go to the barn and go for a hack, or for an evening of dancing or fox hunting, she was always tidy and elegant. But her ablutions sealed the deal for me, who needed Disneyland when I could witness such a beautiful and zen like habit?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Four -- A Spy in our Midst

I kept a haphazard journal on this trip, but as I read it now, all these years later it loosens the memories and one particular entry makes me laugh: I particularly like Jeanne. She’s from McLean, Virginia and she’s a real pistol of a woman. She’s very quiet and appears grandmotherly, but she likes to toss back a few beers every night before bed and there’s something about her, something I can’t put my finger on. Oh there was something about her alright . . .

I remember Jeanne vividly—she was small in stature and unassuming in every way, except that here she was alone on an eco trip to Belize and Guatemala. She fit the profile though . . . I had four other senior single women on the trip. She adored birds and didn’t seem to care too much for the Mayan temple stuff, she liked the jungle. All she told me about her life back home was that she worked for the government. That’s all. My info from ICO said the same, that she was a federal employee and had been an ICO member for several years. I, being the kid I was, assumed that Jeanne was some sort of bureaucrat’s secretary—really, that was her temperament. Boy was I wrong!

I’m going to tell you who she was long before I found out who she was in this story, because it might make you think about the effect her presence might have had on us. Two months after this trip was over and done with, after I had successfully defended myself to my boss and the ICO’s international trip managers against Miss Rockbottom’s accusations that I was a bumbler of the worst kind, I was watching TV one night. I was watching 60 Minutes, something I rarely did, but there I was watching a piece about Aldrich Ames, you know the American CIA analyst who was convicted for spying for the Soviets? And the story is going along very nicely and then, weirdly, they begin an interview with one of the CIA agents who was key to exposing Ames. And it was Jeanne. There she was on the television, the unassuming little grey lady who I drank beer with, watched birds with, brought anti-diareahl medicine to in the middle of the night in the jungle of Belize—she was a CIA agent. As Mike Wallace spoke to her, he asked her about places she had worked and she said that she had done some work in Central America at some point in her career. This made the hair on the back of my neck stand up . . . I had traveled on a bus full of American tourists in rural Guatemala with a CIA agent aboard.

When I think of it now, I think of Hitchcock’s 1938 mystery The Lady Vanishes . . . if all hell had broken loose, Jeanne, just as Miss Froy did, would have hummed a few notes for me and told me to memorize them because the safety of the Western World depended upon my remembering the little tune. And as Jeanne ran off into the Guatamalan jungle, there I would be repeating the little song over and over in my head as I hitchhiked for a ride on the Western Highway desperately trying to get to the U.S. Embassy in Belize City. But nothing like that happened, perhaps she really was on the trip just to watch birds and have some R&R after capturing one of America’s biggest spies—or perhaps she was there to deliver something to someone, I will never know.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cabinet of Animals

My mother took me to the Bronx Zoo when I was tiny. She knew one of the zoo keepers, a heavy set woman with long thick black hair who cared for the elephants. I remember the day at the zoo so faintly, mostly I remember big concrete moats that kept me too far from the animals. But I still have the souvenir that my mother bought for me at the end of the day. Its made of golden cardboard and a label on top announces Old Fashioned Cabinet of Animals * 20 drawers, each with a different unbreakable animal inside. Children love opening each drawer, playing with the animals and then putting them back. Safe, non-toxic. Made in Hong Kong.

Amazingly, I have schlepped the little box around with me all these years, and the drawers the size of match boxes still contain every animal—a tiger with faded stripes, an elephant with pink ears and eyes, a camel with two humps, a baboon, who is larger than the elephant and has a purple face and red eyes, an alligator with yellow eyes, a luridly orange leopard with green eyes, a lion who cannot stand, a pure white polar bear with red eyes, a hippo the color of rust with his mouth agape, an ibix with horns so delicate they seem to be antennae, a gorilla the color of brick with enormous and slightly obscene breasts with nipples, a penguin with a confused expression, an ant eater who looks somewhat like a yorkshire terrier, a rhinoceros with red lipstick, two unidentifiable creatures . . . one is green and one is the color of grapejuice, they both are low to the ground and aardvark-like, but they are not aardvarks, they look as though they would kill snakes and poison you if you ate them and they probably dwell in inhospitable places like the Australian desert. Anyway, there is also a zebra sporting red eyes and he, like the lion, cannot stand, his legs are very spindly. There is a bear who is grey with tiny pink ears and a red mouth and he looks more like a mouse than a bear, and this leaves my two favorite animals in the collection; an elegant little llama who is the color of caramel and a lead colored worthog who wears the most fabulous tusks.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Three

By the time we got to Chan Chich we had already seen troops of Howler Monkeys, gotten used to the morning skies being filled with Macaws, seen Tucannettes (yes that’s the diminutive Tucan) waddling around like they were normal looking, which they were NOT, checked off at least 50 birds on our bird lists, been to the open vegetable and meat market in Belize City, eaten our fill of Mangos, and the bus had broken down twice . . . we had been in Belize for all of twenty-four hours.

The bus belonged to London, our driver. He was a Garifuna from Dangriga, a southern coastal city in Belize, a city we would visit later in our journey of the country, a city that would be a challenge for everyone to deal with. London was probably in his forties, although he looked like an old man. He had three or four wives and several children. London was a saint, a complete saint. Nothing made him mad, nothing worried him. His bus was an old school bus that had one ambition in life—to be a torture device. Not only was the bus loud, it rattled and shook and jerked and bounced and threatened us with its hard green naugahyde seats. We were the shock absorbers. The roads in Belize are dismal, all except for the Hummingbird Highway, that’s the only stretch of road that was paved when I traveled there. The rest was just dirt and rocks that led from place to place. And as we bumped along parts of the bus fell off -- really. A bolt would go rolling by, right down the aisle and one of us would pick it up and holler to London and London’s reply was always the same, Hooooold on to it and I’ll fix it when we come to a stop. At first I worried about the luggage racks coming down on our heads, but that fear gave way to an obsession that would occupy my mind for the entire trip—the fan belt.

I never cared a bit about fan belts before I went to Belize, never gave them a second thought. But London’s bus gave me a special appreciation for the fan belt -- I learned how it could make or break my day. London’s bus had the sort of engine that depended on a single fan belt for its very survival. Some engines, so I have been told, run with the aid of two, even three belts, so if one belt goes, that’s okay, you’re still in business. But London’s bus liked to live on the edge. So if the belt stripped or broke, we were dead on the road. The bus liked to toy with us and its game was all about kicking its fan belt loose and stranding us. The first time the bus broke down was on our way out of Belize City. . . we hit a bump and there was a pop and a whir and then the silence. We rolled to the side of the road and London and Nigel got out of the bus, opened the hood and started wheedling around up there . . . great mechanical bangs and murmurings, while I sat with the troops. Five minutes later we were back in business and on the road to Chan Chich. Nigel sat next to me and over the din of the road and through a veil of dust coming in the windows he told me the fan belt had popped off, not a problem. And I, knowing not a thing about fan belts, blinked and then offered the troops peppermints from my goodie bag.

Two hours later we were on the Northern Highway and that pop and whir and roll to a silent stop happened again. London opened the door and motioned for Nigel to follow. Up came the grey hood of the bus again and this time I got up and went out to see what the matter was. I found London head down in the maw of the bus engine and Nigel steadying London’s balancing act. Nigel looked at me and smiled, “Never fear, just the fan belt again . . . say, this might take a while longer. Why don’t you tell everyone to get their binoculars and come on out. This is a great place to bird!” I did as I was told and went back in the bus and made a short announcement to my dusty, red faced crew, “Nigel says we’ll be on the road again shortly, but in the meantime this is a lovely place to take a break and bird.” They all pulled themselves up and started digging around for their binoculars and cameras and bird books. As they trundled past me and out of the bus, Miss Rockbottom stopped, breathed heavily in my face and said, “WHAT is wrong with THIS BUS?” I smiled and said “Nothing to worry about, something about a fan belt. I am sure they will fix it and we’ll be on our way.” Of course I wasn’t sure, but that was my story and I was sticking to it. Eloise was not satisfied with my answer, but it was clear by this early stage in the trip that she took nothing I said seriously. She waddled down the steps and out of the bus into the bright sub-equator sun, she was flushed with the heat, and her shoulders seemed tired from holding all of her upright. She disappeared round the front fender of the bus and I heard her boom at Nigel, “WHAT is wrong with THIS BUS?” I heard some pinging about inside the engine and I absentmindedly sat in London’s seat, the driver’s seat, for a moment and turned the great steering wheel back and forth as though I was driving the bus . . . an empty bus, I was headed north to Mexico! The sun was beating down on the trail of dust I was leaving behind me, and I was being chased by Federales—I had stolen the bus! I had abandoned a group of American tourists in the rain forest and taken the bus by force. I was crazed with speed . . . my daydream was cut short, “Hey! Wolfy! We need some sunscreen!”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Pig

Oh to be a pig in a meadow on a sunny spring day . . . grazing with Brother Goat in the barely perceptible shade of a red bud in full bloom. Some pig he was, stout and pink as the flox that's carpeting the banks of the road these days. And his ears were so delightfully sharp that it made us certain that he was tuning into the best local jazz station by some sort of hog radar magic.

Fortune . . .

At least I am not that poor guy who has been wearing the greenish Lady Liberty suit and marching up and down Churton Street since January. He carries a sign saying Honk If You Love Liberty. That’s Liberty Tax Services, the store front that looms behind him as he waves to passers-by. His costume is getting dingier and dingier and the spikes of his crown droop now. I tell myself when I drive past him every day, tempted to honk, just because it might cheer him to think that someone is paying attention to him, that at least I am not him, but I don’t honk. And besides April 15th is coming, his days as Mr. Liberty are numbered.