Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Day I Went to Alabama

Have you ever been driving down country road, perhaps through the middle of a little country town, and seen a shirtless old guy, leathery brown skin all puckered around his belly, riding an inappropriately small kids’ dirt bike? His knees bow out to the sides to keep them from hitting his wrists while he pedals, and every so often he spits out to the side as if to mark his way, like Hansel and Gretel did with the gingerbread crumbs. Have you ever wondered about this guy’s life, and how he got to a mental place of feeling comfortable weaving all over the country road, sucking on a plastic Sprite bottle and riding an uncomfortably small kids’ dirt bike? Well, over in Alabama this guy works for the Department of Transportation. He’s their road engineer.

Because I love cheap junk and odd people, a student who knows a bit about both suggested we head over to Collinsville and check it out sometime. Collinsville is not that hard to find—just start out toward Centre, Alabama, find a truck with a bed full of puppies, chickens, or rusty farm equipment and then follow that truck. You’ll wind up in Collinsville, along with a good number of tough-looking country folks who look like they could kick the swine flu’s ass. Along with the livestock, farm equipment and grown things, trade day in Collinsville also offers a variety of “things that fell off the back of the truck.” Rows of white socks stacked like marshmallows, industrial size rolls of commercial toilet paper, and poorly shrink-wrapped DVDs and video games cover aged plywood tables. Husband and I talked our trusting son out of a few “bargains,” but we did spend $4 on used books. Books. How elitist are we?

After Collinsville, we got back in the van and headed towards Lake Guntersville to meet some friends. According to the shiny, only moderately grammatically correct brochure on fishing in Alabama, Lake Guntersville is the largest lake in the state. I wonder, then, why the heck it is so hard to find? At the largest lake in the state, one would think we’d just keep driving that direction and eventually fall in the damn thing. Apparently the old guy on the dirt bike had other plans, and his roads took us every direction except toward the lake.

After giving up on GoogleMaps and our 1998 state map of Georgia with a tiny sliver of Alabama on the side, we stopped somewhere on 227 and asked a couple of guys working on the side of the road if they were familiar with the largest lake in the state, and whereabouts it might be located. They were extremely helpful tanned gentlemen who I guess also work for the Department of Transportation—they seemed to be working hard to take down every road sign at the intersections along 227. One of them gave simple directions like “go up a hill and then down a hill and turn where the car dealership used to be,” while the other preferred an alternate route. He suggested we backtrack some, then look for the signs to some other town, then go through that town until we came to a road that could be 431 or 441 or 414, he couldn’t remember quite which, and then turn one way or the other on that. Again, he couldn’t recall, but he was pretty sure it was a left turn.

After a few more turns and several up-and-down hills, we came up to an intersection with a traffic jam the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the Collinsville Trade Day parking lot. Three or four cars in each direction, and all we could see were red lights flashing. I assumed an accident had occurred, as I think most drivers would, and I slowed down out of concern. In fact, it wasn’t an accident at all. With two fire trucks parked on the embankments, the local VFD had stopped traffic in all directions to ask each car for donations to their cause. Worse than Shriners! I pulled up and started to get out some money, because even though I resent this type of fundraising, when you are lost in Alabama the last people you want to offend are the firefighters. Since we seemed to be paying for it anyway, I asked the woman firefighter holding her boot for further directions to the Lake. “Lake?” she said. She had a fluff of gauze hanging out of her right ear, and a trail of what looked like yellow betadine solution dripping down her neck. “LAKE GUNTERSVILLE?” I repeated.

After some back-and-forth, with several lines repeated due to her compromised hearing and the honking of cars behind me, we headed on to the lake based on her revised directions, which involved “heading over to the four way stop and then turning left.” I like it when people say things like “four way stop” when giving directions. It clears up any confusion that might come with phrases like “major intersection,” or “the corner where Pappy used to sell his vegetables before he died back in ’93.”

We finally did make it to the largest lake in Alabama, and once there enjoyed several other adventures which I will share at a later date. My fingers grow weary, dear reader. Of course, once there, we had to make it back. Since we did not have any real clear idea of how we got there to begin with, we decided to go home a different way. We asked a camper in the park for suggestions. That camper asked her neighbor, who consulted with a friend, who suggested another map, which lead us to a ranger station, then a Sheriff’s deputy, then, at dusk, on our way on 227 with directions to “stay straight.” Whatever we did, we were supposed to stay on 227 going straight back to Collinsville.

Who ever heard of a guy on a kids’ dirt bike heading straight? There is no straight. Straight isn’t even an option.

Eventually we gave up, ate dinner in Gadsden, and followed a federal highway up to a familiar road. The feds can’t do much right—we all know that. But when it comes to roads, they’re doing a lot better than the guy on the bike.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Don’t Put Your Trash in My Garden, and I Won’t Grow Food in Your Garbage

I am on my way to ObamaArms. Michelle Obama, that is.

A friend of ours, a very dear friend, the kind of friend who can also be very useful, dumped a truckload of mulch in our driveway. Due to recent events in our household, the task of carting, shifting and spreading the rich black stuff landed on my list. Husband and I figured the pile to be about five tons. Maybe ten. Okay, let’s call it 50 tons—my job to spread over the little seedlings and sprouts who want to grow and become our food.

A bit about me, for those of you who don’t know me: One might describe me as a willowy blonde, if by willowy one means reminiscent of a willow tree, i.e. arms hang limply by sides and do not appear to have lifted anything heavier than the remote for several decades.

50 tons of free mulch. All me.

That Saturday morning I selected my weapon of choice, a slightly rusty pitchfork, and began to shovel from pile to wheelbarrow (and by wheelbarrow, I mean the back of Husband’s truck). I shoveled for hours or maybe minutes, gritting my teeth against the burn, GI Jane-like, when my pitchfork struck metal.

Dear Reader, are you missing a CD of harmonic tunes? How about a flattened can of Pabst Blue Ribbon? Your empty can of wintergreen dip?

Someone concerned enough about the appearance of their yard decided to rake up their leaves in the fall. Perhaps it was a clear October day, one of those sharp and cool afternoons when the sky is as blue as the default Windows desktop. The unknown raker recognized the need for neatness and order in the yard, yet midway through task he decided to toss his 16 oz Mountain Dew plastic bottle into the leaf pile punctuating the edge of his property. WTH, our unknown raker thought. The city will pick it up, they’ll put it through the big grinder, and it’ll become compost.

Not so, Mr. Raker. The big grinder is no match for your Mountain Dew bottle. Nor can it masticate orange twine for those bales of hay that have somehow become part of the requisite yardscape for autumnal decorations. It does not destroy Dollar General sunglasses, spoons, spare burners from an electric stove, or those extra-long plastic red straws that flare out into a spoon on the end—like sporks but with a straw component replacing the fork. Spraws.

So, Mr. Raker, even if you toss your job-well-done can of Bud into the leaf pile you spent all day raking this fall, you are still a litterbug. (Which reminds me, did we not already have this discussion about how “litterbug” is much too cute a term for the filthy, self-centered, ignorant act of presuming one’s trash belongs anywhere other than a proper waste receptacle? Instead of “litterbug,” how about “Mr. NastyAss”?)

I took care of that mulch pile, and sorted through all the unwanted detritus of your life, Mr. NastyAss. If you need your spoon back, check the county dump.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What My Mother Can Do Like Nobody's Business

Dominate a game of Scrabble.

Befriend any child, instantly, anywhere.

Grow green things.

Make a Beef Bourguignon that turns your knees weak.

Turn a sterile, impersonal hospital room into a cozy safe nest.

Put any employee of the hospitality industry into a trancelike state where they believe they exist to give her the very best deal on the exact room she wants in their hotel, and they want to bring her cookies and treats throughout her stay.

Make any guest in her home feel like long lost relations who should really take a seat on the screen porch swing and visit for six or seven days.

Get teenagers to talk.

Work magic with travel reservations.

Program not only the VCR, but also the DVR, her iPhone, her computer, and any other technological gadget that may intimidate others of her generation.

Navigate every Target in the land. Probably blindfolded.

Intuit a better arrangement for the living room, and if there is at least one person in the room who looks like they might could budge a couch, that couch is moving.

Navigate a city with almost Jason Bourne-like accuracy within 24 hours of arriving.

Be at home in a city as busy and fast as New York, New York.

Be at home in a city as sleepy and slow as Greenwood, Mississippi.

Remember interesting stories. Or make them up. Who cares? They’re still interesting stories.

Talk me into it. Whatever it is.

Talk you into it, too, probably.



Friday, May 1, 2009

The One with the Machete

The men in my life find some amazing ways to injure their hands. On a camping trip, my father once tried to pull down a dead limb by hooking it with some kind of handsaw and jerking it down—you can imagine how that ended. Stitches, hand surgery, scar tied like a pink ribbon around his pinkie finger. My son used his pocketknife to jab at the force field of plastic packaging around a GI Joe figure. Stitches, blood trail, scar like half-moon in the soft flesh from thumb to index finger. My brother manages to get himself hurt in a wide variety of ways; he could write an entire book of “Drama in Real Life” articles for Reader’s Digest. Recently he skipped a meal and thought he could make one last cut on his table saw. Stitches, hand surgery, scar turning his thumb into a cloven paw.

Eric joined the list last month.

We expanded the garden this year, and keeping out the deer and dogs requires some sort of fencing. He knew where to get some bamboo, so he took a machete and his truck on a Saturday morning and drove out to hunt and gather. I knew where he was going, and I knew that vacant lot also had an abandoned well on the overgrown property. I worried some about the potential headlines: City Employee Stuck in Old Well; City Employee Accidentally Hacks Up Squatter on Abandoned Property with Machete, Then Falls in Old Well.

People with active imaginations sometimes get stuck in a loop of fantastical worries.

But nothing happened, at least not then. He brought me a healthy stack of clean, whispering bamboo stalks. We finished the garden work; I went inside to wash off and left him outside to finish up one last task.

He was splitting some of the thinner bamboo stalks with the machete. It was starting towards dusk—that kind of purple light right before a rainstorm. When I heard him come in, I grumbled about him coming in the front door when I knew his shoes must be covered in dirt, so I went to fuss at him good and proper. Found him in the bathroom, standing over a sinkful of pink water, looking a mite pale.

He’d sliced his right hand to the bone, just below the thumb joint.

The cut looked clean, so we pulled it together with a butterfly closure and wrapped it up. As the week went by, the pain subsided but he became more bothered by it. I suggested he go have somebody look at it. He said “I will if I need to.” He said it he couldn’t move his thumb. I said “Why don’t you have somebody look at it?” He said “I will if I need to.” He complained about it feeling funny. I suggested perhaps somebody could take a look at it. He said “I guess.”

A week after the injury someone besides his wife suggested that he have somebody take a look at it. He went to see the hand surgeon that hour.

Now we know he severed three tendons. Surgery, stitches, cast, physical therapy, and a frown shaped scar staring up at him from his hand, as if his own appendage refuses to forgive him.
For each hand injury, the wives and mothers add to their supply of hand injury stories. My mother drove like a demon out of the woods and into the local Podunk medical center, where she watched inexperienced nurses and doctors poke and prod her husband till he finally passed out. I tell the story of the Battle of Packaging whenever Aj needs reminding about using good judgment. My sister-in-law could make a mint on a comedy tour titled “Guess What My Husband Did Next?”; she spins good yarns and my brother’s insistent corrections for accuracy only make them more hilarious.

I dragged my feet on submitting this blog, on telling this story. While my dad was still recovering from his hand surgery years ago, my mom wouldn’t even stay in the room when he explained the injury to curious friends and neighbors. Now she can unravel the entire episode in riotous detail. She knows he’s safe now, the crisis over. Meanwhile, Dad is the one who turns away from the scene now—wincing at his own momentary stupidity and the risks he took in his youth.

It took a while to feel inspired to write about this one. Even that tiny little bit of my husband being not quite right makes me edgy and worried—he feels so solid and healthy and invincible to me. I needed my crazy mind to stop spinning up horrific tales of possible ways this could go wrong; I needed some normalcy before I could face it in my own way—writing.

Yesterday Eric came home from work and announced he was sick of talking about his damn hand. Just tired of fooling with the whole business. He popped opened a beer and went to see about grilling something, one-handed, for dinner. He seemed fine, just tired of the burden of telling about his own split-second accident. He seems fine.

Now it can be my turn to tell the story.