Thursday, October 29, 2009

One Hot Day On The Porch -A Tale of Chuckapaw County

Note: the blog is still on vacation this week as I am re-grouping from a writer's conference. So.. here's a story instead.

“She is just trailer trash in brand new shoes!”

My cousin Lyannie was incensed. Outraged. She stomped her foot on the porch, drew herself up to her considerable height of just under five feet and glared at my sisters and me. I looked at Darlene, who looked at Arlene, who looked back at me as if to say “here we go again”.

“Can you believe it? That Siddalou Udderly just insinuating herself right into the Miss Chuckapaw County Pageant?”

I thought she might spontaneously combust right there before our very eyes. As the porch was wood, and dry wood this far into the summer on top, it might present a hazard. Now, none of us liked Siddalou, and liked the fact that we were related to her even less. The familial relationship between the Bodines and the Udderlys was not something we talked about, but they were family all the same. Lyannie, being a Boudreau and all, found the family ties unmentionable at best and roundly intolerable in the main. She adored us, though. I wondered sometimes if it was just because we were the only relatives nearby who were from the right side of the tracks. Granted, we were from alongside the tracks, but at least on the acceptable side. It was mutual adoration too, which was an odd thing, since neither my sisters nor I had much tolerance for the perpetually pretty and perky types.

“It is supposed to be about Beauty, Poise, Elegance and Charm-the Essential Qualities of a True Lady.” You could hear the capital letters in her voice.

Darlene, Arlene and I mouthed the last three ‘essential qualities’ in silence along with her. Of course, none of us had any of them, but we were well versed in Lyannie’s philosophy, since she constantly tried to instill the said 'essential qualities' into us. A day out with my cousin always included some ill-fated visit to a dress shop or hair dresser where one or all of us would wind up assaulted by some shade of pink, as pink was Lyannie’s all purpose miracle remedy for the “underachievement of feminine potential”. Thankfully today nothing more painful than sitting on the porch yakking was on her agenda.

Arlene was the only one of the three of us who liked pink. But, as Darlene would remind me: “She was the one Daddy dropped on her head.” I’m pretty sure that explained a lot of things about Arlene, including her insistence on spelling her name “R-lene”. But, family is family, as I’ve often said, and you can’t just deny them for convenience sake. Darlene once accused Arlene of having “aspirations of Boudreaucity”. I think Arlene just likes pink.

Any-hoo, Lyannie was in a fine fit over Siddalou’s impromptu incursion into what has always been my cousin’s milieu. (I like that word, milieu). Why, over the years, she had held (in order) the titles of Little Miss Possum Prairie, Pre-Teen Queen of the Bovine Days Parade, Junior Miss Sweet Pea, Princess Nell of the Liberty Bell (twice, and that was just unprecedented), and Miss Nayshan’s Car Wash. Her picture was up in several places at Jake’s Highway 29 Hash 'n’ Dash. Something of a local celebrity, really. But then, the Boudreaus have put the glamour into this part of Chuckapaw County since forever, I think.

“Lyannie.” It was Darlene speaking. “Siddalou Udderly doesn’t have a snowball’s chance. She has no talent, unless you call excelling at irritating people talent. She’s homely, and that’s me being generous on the ‘count of her being family, and her ass is so big it’s like she’s hauling a double-wide around with her all the time. I don’t know what the fuss is.”

She lit a cigarette, scrunched the now empty pack into a ball and set it on the porch railing. I watched it unscrunch itself and slowly stretch like a cellophane inchworm. Darlene smoked in front of Lyannie, even though she knew how much Cousin Boudreau hated the habit. I never did. It was an unspoken agreement. I pretended she didn’t know I smoked. She pretended she didn’t know either.

“It's the principle, Darlene, and I'm just not having it. Marlene,” Lyannie looked at me in exasperation. “Tell me you understand what I mean by the principle.”

“Sure,” I said, trying really hard not to reach for my own pack of cellophane-wrapped relaxation. I had no idea at all.

“Maybe you can explain it to me then, Marlene, 'cause I don't see what difference it makes. Siddalou's a cow, and I'm sorry to say that, since it insults cows and such, but she is, and folks are only going to wonder what the hell she's doing. Not like they're going to take her serious as a candidate for Miss Chuckapaw County. No sir.”

Lyannie looked at me expectantly. I shot Darlene the death gaze and waited for her to topple over, but nothing happened. Arlene just looked genuinely interested in what I might have to say.

“Well,” I said, then took a long pull from my icy cold can of Coca-Cola while I frantically tried to come up with some reason why it should matter what Siddalou Udderly decided to do with a Saturday afternoon in late August. I had nothing.

“Do any of you know who handles the address changes at the post office?” Arlene suddenly piped up. It was out of left field, but I was saved for the moment.

“Uh, no, Arlene. What does that have to do with Siddalou?” Darlene asked.

“Nothing. But I was over to the Hash 'n' Dash with Bobby Jack Petrie and on the way back I saw the announcement sign at the church, and I couldn't believe what it said.”

“What did it say, honey?” Lyannie turned to Arlene, and I was forgotten for the moment. I said a prayer of thanks.

“It said 'Jesus lives here'. Pretty thrilling huh? I don't remember Him ever living here before. So I got to thinking, how's He going to get His mail now?”

Silence fell.

Lyannie opened her mouth once, twice, a third time, but no sound came out. Darlene looked at Arlene like she'd suddenly grown a second head. I know my eyebrows were up near my scalp.

“I don't think Jesus gets mail, Arlene,” I finally managed to say.

“Well, sure He does. Everybody gets mail, Marlene.” Somehow, she managed to make that sound reasonable and I felt like an idiot.

“But Jesus doesn't need mail. He's all knowing and powerful and stuff.” I wondered why that sounded lame to me.

“I know better.” Arlene sniffed. “Jesus gets mail and unless He changed His address He's gonna be missing some. And it might be important.”

“I'm trying to remember now, Arlene,” Darlene said, “Did Daddy drop you just one time on your head or was it two?”

“It was just the one time, Darlene, and I wasn't damaged. Well, just this little dent back here.” Arlene touched a spot under her hair at the back of her head. “But my mind is just fine, thank you. I can't help it if you don't know about Jesus' mail delivery problems. Maybe if you went to church more often you would.”

At least it had the effect of getting us off the subject of Siddalou Udderly and principles.

“Are you sure she's related to us?” Darlene asked me.

“I'm the youngest. I wasn't around for all that. I have to take it on faith.”

“Arlene, do you think maybe you'd like to go in and get a cold cloth for your head? It’s punishingly hot today.” Lyannie looked hopeful.

“I think I would, yes.” Arlene got up from the swing bench and looked at Darlene and I. “But not because there's anything wrong with me. I know what's what when it comes to mail.”

Lyannie and Arlene disappeared into the house. Darlene and I looked at each other.

“Well,” she said.


Then I began to laugh.

“What's so darn funny, Marlene?”

“Oh, I was thinking. What if there was some sort of heavenly post office? You know, sorting parcels for St. Peter, letters for St. Lucy. Think of the bureaucracy of that. Would they have 'disgruntled' workers like us? I can see them, changing the postage meters, stamping everything return to sender. God: addressee unknown. Laughing maniacally.”

“I'm beginning to think Daddy must have dropped you on your head too, Marlene.”

I grinned, and took out my nicotine comfort sticks. “Daddy was a butterfingers, that’s a true thing. So maybe so, Darlene. Maybe so.” Lighting up, I took a long delicious taste of tobacco. It would be worth whatever pink penance I’d have to do later.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Absurdity and Insectoid Drones

On the absurdity scale, with one being “slightly askew” and ten being “no really, tell me, where are the hidden cameras?” a recent happening in my life hit about an eight. A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from the human resources department at my job, informing me that there was a “mismatch” on the information they had and what Social Security was telling them. Or at least what a Social Security computer was telling them. Namely, that according to Social Security, I was a man. Oh really. News to me. Very big news to me. How come I never noticed this about myself before? The other thing was, oh yes, I needed to provide documentation that Social Security no longer believed I was a man or my employer would be forced to remove me from my job. Apparently Homeland Security has a vested interest in being absolutely sure that women of a certain age really are women.

Once I managed to get my eyes unstuck from where they had firmly lodged when I had rolled them, I called the local Social Security office listed on their website, since a perusal of said website did not reveal any online way to get a sex change. The faceless, and ultimately brainless woman I talked to (of course, how do I know if she was really a woman or not) asked me all kinds of questions about previous addresses. I was not prepared for this walk down Memory Lane, this stroll along Recollection Boulevard. I mean, who really remembers all the addresses of the places they’ve lived? Well, maybe some do, but I don’t. I managed to remember enough to convince her I was really myself and she clicked keys on a computer for a while. Eventually she told me that the “paperwork was started” and that the situation should be resolved within thirty days. I wanted to laugh about any government process taking only thirty days, but I figured I’d better keep my levity to myself.

I should have known better. Somewhere deep in my subconscious I probably did. Time passed, and one lovely fall day I received another e-mail reminding me that I had “x” number of days to resolve the issue regarding my Social Security mismatch. In other words, to prove I was not a man. It was kind of like a non-musical, unfunny, non-dancing Victor, Victoria experience. Sort of. Maybe not.

I decided to call the people at Social Security again “just to be sure” all was going as planned. Notice I did not say “faceless insectoid drones”, but I thought about it. This time I talked to a man (or was he?). I explained my issue and what I had been told before and I could hear him looking at me like I suddenly grew a second head. If you know what I mean by that completely incorrect sentence. I was informed that things could not be changed over the phone, but that I needed to present evidence in person at the Social Security office. Present evidence? Like what, I wondered, yank open my blouse? Ohhhhhhh… bring my birth certificate. Ok. Then the faceless insectoid drone asked me “Were you born a man?” I wonder if he heard me look at him like he’d suddenly grown a second head. A second insectoid drone head with a huge proboscis and waggling pincers. I shrieked “No!!!” This whole thing was just too bizarre. Then he asked me “Will it say that on your birth certificate?” I was so astonished at the question. “Yes!!!!” I shrieked again, finding all of this a little horrifying. I imagined the conversation continuing:

“Did you ever wish you were a man?” asks Insectoid Man.

I thought about this. Technically yes…like when on a long trip and the sign says “1000 miles until the next Rest Area”, or when the monthly Festival of Femininity makes its visit, but I get over it.

“No.” I say firmly.

I was brought back to the unreality of the reality by Insectoid Man telling me that he did not know of any documentation that would be available after I presented my birth certificate, that maybe the other Insectoid Drones would know when I visited the hive. I mean office.

Later that day I continued my part in this circus act by jumping through the hoops necessary to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. Then I waited.

It only took about a week to arrive, and so I girded my loins and prepared to meet the Insectoid Drones in the hive. Office. Office. Office.

Surprisingly, the Insectoid Drone was a very pleasant person who clicked merrily away at the keys on his computer with his waggling pincers. He examined my birth certificate, and thankfully that was indeed all the proof I needed to provide. In a short time I was finished. I asked about “documentation” and this time I could actually see the reaction to the second head that had to be growing out of my neck. He told me that there really wasn’t anything for “documentation”, and that the folks who needed to see the documentation could look at it “on the computer” because that is how they would have been informed of the Gender Question in the first place. He gave me a waggle of his pincers in farewell and I was on my way, a new (albeit the same) woman.

At least until some other Insectoid Drone decides otherwise.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sometimes I Have To Wonder What The Thinking Is

Every once in a while, I come across a book that is so mind-numbingly dull, so lackluster in execution, so obvious in plot, that it makes me want to heave it across the room in a fit of gall. No, I’m not going to name names, though I could. What boggles me is a question I have no answer to: how the bloody h-e-double hockey sticks do the things get published in the first place?

Yes, sometimes, I know, a title can be published on the strength of an author’s selling power. Yet I have to say that not every word that comes out of someone’s head needs to or should be published. Myself absolutely included. But, it’s my blo-og and I’ll write what I want to, write what I want to, write what I want to. You can blog too if it feels right to you… Ok. Enough of that.

I have talked to agents and other people in the business, and the talk is always about how quality is looked for. So much competition for so few opportunities. Impress, show them something different. Is just plain BAD so different that it passes for something new and interesting? Or is it that culturally we have become so dumbed-down that mediocre writing is the level expected? Some might say that writing to a “certain level” is fine because “at least they’re still reading”. Maybe, but I wonder if it keeps the culture from sliding any further down the road towards pond scum. Perhaps if expectations keep being lowered, it could send us cart wheeling all the way down that same road.

To be honest, I’m not impressed by books written to impress either. I suspect that some titles that have made the NY Times Bestseller list actually just spend a lot of time on coffee tables (note that I say some … I am not denigrating literary fiction, I happen to like literary fiction unless it is so self-consciously literary that it makes my nose bleed). Nothing “impresses” like a book neither the owner of the coffee table nor the guest have any intention of reading but can appreciate for the air of sophistication, sheen of “cool”, or cachet it gives someone who bought it. Personally I have better things to do with my book-buying budget.

So what do I want? It might seem like all I want are books that fall into my own defined sense of art and interest. Not true. I want well-written books. Books that enchant. Not in the Disney sense necessarily, one can be enchanted by a dark as well as a light tale. I want books that don’t send up flares illuminating the plot so that it can be seen 100 miles away. I want books that are not so ponderous and weighty that they make me seriously wonder if their real purpose is as a doorstop. I want books full of real characters, not carnival cardboard cutouts. I want neither heavy-handed fiction nor feather-handed. I don’t want to see the hand.

Most of all, I don’t want to read another piece of refuse book and marvel at how it exists in published form while I still toil to get it right so that I don’t throw my own book across the room before turning it into a doorstop.