Today is your 11th birthday. You are our Grand Finale. Our Swan Song. Our Camel’s Straw. You’ve been told that you were a BIG surprise. From that, you’ve interpreted that you were an accident. It is a joke around the house. And while it’s true you were a huge surprise to me (HUGE), I think it’s far truer that you were 100% planned. By God. You were and are a miracle.
As you complete your 11th year on earth today, here are 11 things you need to know about you:
You were allergy tested before you turned 1. You tested as highly allergic to every food except three: chicken, lamb, and white potatoes. I cried all way home from that appointment because you were going to starve and so was I. On your first birthday, we had a party and you ate a banana in place of the cake you couldn’t eat. You were allergic to the banana too, but less so than cake.
At 20 months, you discovered Sharpies and repainted the house black. It only took you 6 minutes to do it. Walls, tile floors, carpets, kitchen table. You colored everything you could contact in the 6 minutes it took me to put away a small stack of laundry.
At 2, Grandmama and Granddaddy named you The Destroyer. You broke more glass trinkets in a year than I have broken in a lifetime.
You sing like a canary but your expression never matches. When you sing, you look angry and vengeful. People are frightened. Maybe you have more of a radio face.
You were so easy in so many ways. Potty training was not one of those. It was a nightmare fit for a docuseries. Potty training you was an emotionally jarring, deeply scarring process. This can only mean one thing for you: you are in for it when I’m old and in my own set of diapers.
You are funny. Very funny. Funny to adults and kids alike. You can play creative social games with adults and keep up like you own the joint. You will get funnier as you age and I look forward to being in the front row of whatever performance you are commanding.
You are creative. Always thinking of your next poem or story or song.
#7 causes a lot of mess trails in my house. I can always tell what type of project you have going, where the project started, and where it ended right before you got up and thoughtlessly walked away from it. You should never try to commit a felony unless prison time is your goal. You’ll get caught by the trail you leave.
You are my most snuggly child. You put up with whatever I toss at you, almost never rejecting me because you are tired or grumpy. That takes away about 1/3 of the pain of potty training you. Maybe we can negotiate forgiveness of the other 2/3.
You get away with far more than you should. This is my fault, not yours. Still don’t commit a felony. Because of the trail.
You are equal parts anxious and confident. You are absolutely fearless in putting yourself out there or being alone or trying new things. You are absolutely terrified of vomiting, or anything even 6 degrees removed from it. Tonight as you were going to bed you said that you are never going to be fixed. To that I say, you will be helped, but you don’t need fixing. You are amazing as you are.
I wasn’t young and fresh-faced when I had you, a fact you remind me of whenever you start doing graduation math or wedding math or anything of the like. And it wasn’t my idea to have my two youngest children be 18 months apart. But if I’ve learned only one thing in life, it’s this: God’s ideas are perfect. And you were His idea. Clearly. So tonight, I celebrate you in all your peculiar glory. Happy Birthday. I hope you enjoyed your banana.
My life has been riddled with catastrophes. Some of them I walked into unwittingly. Some I caused. Some are exaggerated for the sake of a bonfire tale. Some you can’t exaggerate enough. There was a sizable one when I was 2 and another when I was 10. The first of them was definitely not my fault. The second, well, it was also definitely not my fault, though perhaps slightly harder to prove. All I will have to do is tell the story. None of it was my fault. You’ll see.
In September 1973, I was 2 years old. I was closer to 3 really, but still very much an unlicensed driver. My online dating profile might have read something like: Great smile, speaks broken English, recently potty trained, enjoys cuddling, good fine motor skills, especially good with busy boxes.
Who even knows what a busy box is anymore? Now our 2-year-olds can swipe at Netflix and bring up the latest episode of Daniel Tiger. Then, we swiped at busy boxes that had plastic levers and rotating knobs and dials. I had the Kohner 1971 Busy Box. I could drive that thing like a herd of cattle. My parents knew this. After all, they provided me with it. I didn’t have a job.
For a toddler, I was skilled. Sometimes people underestimated my skills. One Wednesday night in particular, I was severely underestimated. And for a 4 minute period, I was also severely undersupervised.
We were trying to leave for church. As usual, I was the only one ready, waiting around for the others to get their junk together. The car had been having some engine troubles, so my dad had started it, popped and propped the hood, and left it idling so it would be good to go. My mom was trying to help my brother get his shoes on and my dad ran back in the house for the BIbles. I was standing on the front lawn waiting. Waiting.
Then I saw the car there. It was idling–waiting just like I was. My legs were kinda tired. I was carrying a little extra weight in the thighs at the time. That vinyl seat looked cozy. But that’s not what really attracted me. The real attraction was the steering wheel. I loved me a good steering wheel. I didn’t know what was taking them so long, but I climbed into the front seat to wait them out in comfort. I was shorter than the average adult, so I had to get on my knees to see over the steering wheel. Even on my knees there was nothing to see, as the raised hood was blocking my view of the house. Still no family. I put my hands at 10 and 2 and pretended to head into town, taking the corners nice and slow. But nothing was really happening and after a couple of minutes, my busy box instincts kicked in. I reached for the gears.
These days, a 2 year old reaching for gears isn’t going to get them far. Your foot has to press the brake to set a lever in motion. In 1973, all you had to have was one free hand and some gumption. I had both. I put my left hand at 12 o’clock and wrapped my right hand around the cool plastic of the knob that was sitting in Park. If they weren’t going to come to me, I could go to them. With a downward yank on the lever, I put my simple plan into motion. It had been idling high for 10 minutes, so the sage green Buick lurched forward with awkward power, racing through the boxwood bushes that were trying to line the sidewalk and hopping the 6 inch lip of the porch with ease. From there, it was a short journey through the plate glass window. I don’t remember the impact, but I’m told it sounded like a train wreck. My mother dropped my brother’s shoe and came running. My father dropped the stack of Bibles and came running. My brother stayed right where he was and screamed loud enough to be heard over the shattering glass. I climbed out of the car, with the door still open, and was walking circles on the lawn crying.
They thought I was dead.
Of course I wasn’t.
Only the plate glass window was dead. And the hood of the Buick. And maybe the boxwoods.
When they found me most definitely alive, they scooped me up and celebrated. And when the celebration settled down from the panic, my dad gave up all hope of making it to church and rifled around for the Insurance Company’s contact info. I’ll bet that was a fun call to make.
Insurance Guy: Wait, WHO was driving the car? Dad: Our daughter was. Insurance Guy: Sir, your daughter isn’t listed on your policy as a driver. Dad: I know that. She’s 2. It was an accident. She doesn’t drive. Guy: Toddler, driving. (he was muttering while writing in his file)
I never saw my 1971 Kohner Busy Box again. Maybe it was because my Dad threw it out, deeming it too dangerous to my development. Maybe it was because I outgrew it, having tasted the raw power of a real gear in a revved Buick. Either way, Insurance Guy replaced the windows, but not the bushes, and raised their premium, citing Gross Neglect and Child Endangerment with a Motorized Vehicle.
I made that last part up, but I know for a fact that I was cleared of all wrong doing. It’s all the in the file.
September 2011 — Wednesday was a really bad day. It was a frustrating, exhausting day full of Whinese and overreactions. By 7 p.m., I was pretty much done with the kids. Done with listening to them whine. Done with answering questions that had no answers (why do I have to read?). Done with requests that were stated as demands. Done.
Wednesday night we had a cataclysmic toilet flooding event in our home. You were there for us. Well, almost. Sort of. I truly believe you wanted to be.
I’m going to tell you the story and give you a chance to improve your products for the next toilet-flooded family. Please do so quickly, as the next family might not be so lucky.
We had only been home from church for a few minutes when I
started trying to route the girls to bed. Lucy, who is still only 12, seems to
think she’s earned a free-for-all bedtime. I feel lucky when she’s down by 9:30.
Jenna goes to sleep at 8:30 but when you don’t get home until 8:20, you can be
sure 8:30 won’t happen. People were meandering toward the upstairs. I
remembered that I had washed Jenna’s sweatshirt and it was in the attic where
we have a makeshift laundry room. I went toward the attic and as I was walking
down the hall, I heard water running in the hall bath. It seemed like an unusual
instance of water running. It wasn’t a bath or shower. It sounded like Brady
washing his hands. Brady is the cleanest person in the house. But his door was
cracked and he was sitting on the side of his bed looking at his phone. No one
was in the bathroom running water. And yet, water was running.
“What’s the sound?” I asked Brady, feeling a little panicked
all of a sudden. “What’s the water source?” Brady got up to check his bathroom,
while I walked around the corner of my room into my adjoining bathroom. I didn’t
have to form the words twice, because I stepped into ankle deep water in my
bathroom. The toilet had overflowed and a kiddie pool was forming in my room. Holy cow. I screamed for Brady to go get
“He’s in the shower,” he answered.
“Get him out. Tell him the bathroom is flooding.” I turned off
the water behind the toilet, which at least stopped the water level from rising
further. Then I went running. Like a gazelle, I ran. Like a gazelle in the Olympics.
It was truly spectacular how fast I moved. I ran downstairs, into the garage,
grabbed two shop vacs and was back in my bathroom in just seconds. Meanwhile, as
I ran through the dining room, double fisting my shop vacs, I heard more water.
My dining room had become the Rainforest Café.
“Jenna, find water. Get pots. Mop dining room!’ Jenna is 10. But she was a rock star during our fiasco. I kept moving. Every time I passed a kid in the hall, I yelled out, “Who used my toilet?!” Upstairs, a massive operation was underway to suck up the water that was flowing onto the dining room table below. I was sucking up water with the shop vacs, towels, paper towels. The dog. Loofahs. Anything I could find. When the towels became too wet, I tossed them into the bathtub and started fresh.
Jenna was downstairs doing her magic. I never saw any of
that, because I was on upstairs duty. Todd was working on the toilet clog that
had caused Bacteria Splash 2019. We aren’t going to talk about that. Ever. No
one has confessed. Some truths are better left buried. Deeply.
But, Shop-Vac, here’s where I want to get serious. Personal.
Eye-to-eye. Here’s where you let me down.
Your CORD. Please. What in the world? Your cord is less than
5 feet long. And unless you have an outlet on the floor, which 99% of the
shop-vaccing word does not, you use 3 of the feet getting from the bathroom
counter to the floor. That left me with about 20 inches of cord. At one point,
I actually got trapped between your machine and my wall, by a cord that was literally
shorter than some of my boot strings.
Is it 5 feet to keep from choking the babies? Babies don’t
hang out where shop-vacs are stored and–news flash–5 feet of cord can still
choke a baby. Maybe not a very, very obese baby, but come on, man. There’s no
logic behind your short cord. And man, when my bathroom is raining sewage onto
my dining room table, I need a longer cord.
After a very intense 90 minutes, I was leaning up against
the kitchen counter to decompress when my 17-year-old son walked in to get a
bowl of cereal. He pulled the milk out of the fridge and casually said,
“What was going on in here tonight?”
“Are you kidding? Just a massive flood from the upstairs bathroom down to the dining room. A fat lot of help you were!” I answered. I wasn’t really serious.
“Well, I’m sorry,” he said in a tone of indignant defense. “Nobody
said a word to me.”
“Did you not hear Brady running through the house screaming
for Daddy?” I asked.
“Someone goes running through the house—esPECially Brady–yelling a name that isn’t mine, followed by a
whole bunch of commotion. How is that different from every other day? That
happens daily around here,” Andrew argued. I paused and thought through his
“Yeah, you’re right,” I conceded. And he was.
It stinks to be us sometimes.
In summation, Shop-vac, thanks for sucking (water) and longer cord, please. Maybe go crazy and do a retractable. Soon.
I wish I had a dime for every time I was told “don’t judge a
book by its cover.” I’d have at least $10 now. If you break the statement down,
we all know what it means. You can’t judge a book by its cover, because
sometimes the cover is ugly. Just because a cover is ugly doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t read the words.
I think the whole concept is a little too participation trophy for me, because
sometimes an ugly cover is trying to tell you something: Don’t waste your time. Then again, sometimes the cover is FANTASTIC
and masks hundreds of pages of misery. I picked up Beartown by Fredrik Backman
(sorry, sir) because the cover was beautiful.
And there was some quote of praise on the front by someone more important than
me. What I got was hundreds of pages about hockey, hockey sticks, hockey
players, hockey towns, drab weather fit only for hockey, hockey-obsessed men,
followed by some punk teens doing things not worthy of hockey’s honor. I quit
before the punk teen stuff (I had flipped ahead looking for a glimmer of hope)
and threw that sucker away. I didn’t even donate it. I care that much about
other people who shop at Goodwill.
I judged that book by its cover and got burned. So I guess
But what about people?
I grew up with a beautiful mother. I heard that I lot. “Your
mom is so pretty.” When I was little, people still dressed up to do everything.
If I had an ear infection, my mom would put on a dress, hose, and heels. She
was never caught outside the house without the makeup that would take her 30
minutes to apply. I was mesmerized by her makeup process, because I loved the
smell of the creams she applied. And I loved that her foundation started as 400
tiny brown dots on her face. She started out like a plague and ended up like a
Then there was me.
I struggled to transition out of the plague thing. I didn’t
want to. I didn’t see the point. My mother regularly offered to take me
“No, thank you, I’m good,” I would say.
“But, Missy, other girls your age…” she would follow up.
My answer usually ended in a shrug. I didn’t want to go
shopping. I had white t-shirts, shorty shorts from the 1970s, slouchy tube
socks with double navy striping, and dirty canvas sneakers. What else did I
need? When I got into middle school, I didn’t ask her if I could shave my legs.
She asked me if I please would. I mean, I guess so. Sheesh. That whole
thing started and ended on the picnic table in the back yard with a single bladed
razor and a garden hose. It took like a week.
But I’m jumping ahead. I didn’t even consider changing my
appearance until 1982. I didn’t make an actual change until 1983. Today’s
Snappshot is from May 29, 1979. I was 8 years old. The school year was less
than 2 weeks from being over, which meant a couple of things: (1) It was hotter
than McDonalds coffee, and (2) they were cramming in the last of the field
trips, projects, and performances.
May 29 was the last day of the gifted program called College
for Kids. Back then, they actually rewarded a person for being gifted. Now it
just means extra worksheets and higher-level testing. We spent one day a week
on the campus of Florida A & M (FAMU). We took a bus there, spent the day
with our best friends, and got to learn about things like exotic animals and
cinematography. I loved it.
I don’t remember much about May 29, 1979. If my mother
hadn’t snapped this photo, there would be no record of the day at all. But this
picture tells quite a story.
My mom labeled the photo with the date and the description
that it was the “College for Kids Pet Show.” And she brought my mutt, Benji, to
be shown off. It’s hard to know what to focus on. The dog is clearly on a
string that we found on the floor of our garage, not a real leash. He is
embarrassingly furry. He never once got
a haircut from anyone but us. As for me, I’ve seen better shoes on people who
live in cardboard enclosures. The tube
socks, though, are the real shining stars here. Two fat navy stripes that just scream,
HEY I’M WEARING TUBE SOCKS. Those socks announced my arrival a good 6 minutes
before people noticed the shorts or the hair. Once my fellow students got past
the cover, I’m sure our book was equally disappointing.
“Hey everyone, I wanted to introduce you to my dog, Benji.
He’s 2 ½ years old. He’s a mutt. We have no idea what mix he is, but we think
there’s poodle in there somewhere. He lives in a cardboard box in the utility
room of our garage, right next to the hot water heater. We got him when he was
a puppy and named him after the popular film star dog, Benji. Are there any
“Does your dog have any special skills or tricks?” one kid
“No,” I shook my head. “No, he does not.”
“Does he shake?”
Nope. Doesn’t shake.
Come when he’s called?
Sometimes. If I’m
holding pork tenderloin.
Does your dog do anything?
He can play dead.
Benji and I deserved each other and I know he was just a
little bit jealous of my socks. But one day in 1983, I looked down at those
socks and saw for the first time what my mother had seen from the regrettable
moment she bought them and handed them to me.
I saw them. And when she offered again to take me shopping, as she had 35
times before, this time I said yes.
I remember my mother’s joy at my response and how quickly
she put together a shopping trip to save my life. She was radiating the glee
she felt. She was thinking about the Christmas cards she could send out next year.
She was getting ahead of herself.
We bought 3 outfits that day that she and I were mutually
pleased with. We bought two pairs of shoes to replace the canvas ones I had
worn every day of my life since my third birthday. I put one of the new outfits
on for the first day of 7th grade spring semester. And I put one of
the new pairs of shoes at the bottom of my picnic-table-freshly-shorn legs. I
looked down at myself and said, YES. This is good.
But my old shoes were sitting in the corner next to my bed.
Man, those things were comfy. I didn’t have a lot of time to make decisions
before heading to the bus stop, so I scooped up my old shoes and shoved them
into my back pack and skipped downstairs to eat breakfast.
“Oh, Missy,” my mom said, clapping her hands together under
her chin. “You look darling.”
Bless her. I did not look darling. But I had stuck my toe
into the land of mary janes and pastel-colored flats, and that was enough to give
a mother like mine hope.
That morning, I navigated some unwanted attention from people
who had seen the generic t-shirts, gym shorts, and tube socks for the last 8
years. I shrugged them off and continued on my way. Before the first bell rang,
I took the most direct path possible to my locker and stuck my old faithful sneakers
on the top shelf. Then I headed to 1st period. All I could think
about in 1st period was my shoes. The ones in my locker singing a melody
of loneliness and betrayal in a tone only I could hear. They were missing me as
much as I missed them. I looked down at the pink plastic flats under my desk as
the teacher rambled on and on about some place in Europe. Those shoes were the
worst. It was like binding my feet up with thumb tacks and duck tape.
All I could think about in 2nd period was my
shoes. The new ones. From the devil.
The old ones. Waiting for me in my locker. Sheesh.
All I could think about in 3rd period was my
shoes. And by then I’d had enough. So when the bell rang at the end of class, I
slung my pack over my shoulder and took off running toward my locker. I ran like I was recovering from a hip
replacement, because one flat kept slipping off at the heel and the other was vengefully
pinching the top of my foot. But I managed. And I kept running. I dodged a maze
of students and staff and yanked open my locker to see those canvas lovelies
sitting there at eye level. FINALLY. I pulled off the pink flats and threw them
into the bottom of the locker. I pulled the canvas sneakers off the top shelf
Wait a minute.
I forgot my tube
Ah, well. No matter.
I wore them sockless.
Thirty-seven years have passed since that initial foray into the tiniest of transformations. And my mother continued to nudge me along as she sent out substandard holiday photos of her family’s fashion eccentricities. And 37 years later, I guess I do believe that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not you can judge a person by their tube socks is going to be entirely up to you.
St. Teresa was my childhood Utopia; a little slice of the Florida panhandle that hugged the Gulf of Mexico just south of Tallahassee. In the summer of 1985, we planned to spend a couple of weeks at our cottage with a few weekends thrown in on the side. I was 14 that summer. We usually split the week-long stays with time at home. Anything longer than a week forced us to the washeteria in Carrabelle. My mother was fundamentally against going to Carrabelle for anything other than ice cream. I tended to agree.
In spring of 2012, while living on a farm in Plant City, I took up subbing at the charter school my children were attending in Temple Terrace. I figured if I was going to be at the school all day, every day, I might as well get paid 62 cents an hour to be there. When the P.E. Coach got married and took a short honeymoon, I agreed to fill in for him and wrote down a few of my observations in a journal.
It was 10:32 on a Monday night In the spring of 1994 when I turned on the hot water in the hall bathroom tub. I turned the knob all the way to the left because I have skin like a Komodo dragon and I like my water hot.
Todd was in his music room with headphones on. The house was quiet. This was my spa time. I climbed into my lava water and tried to read for a few minutes. It only took two questionably written paragraphs to lull me into a coma. I laid my head back against the tile and closed my eyes. The buzzing of a florescent bulb and an occasional ripple in the water punctuated the silence, but not my peace.
At 10:43, my eyes popped open in shock at a sound that was as close to a murder at a county fair as I hope to ever hear again. I expected to see a Blair witch situation in the room with me, but nothing had visibly changed. I listened intently as I gripped the sides of the tub. It happened again and I was on my feet like a cat at a fish fry. What in the world? That time I was fully alert and knew exactly where the sound had originated. It was coming from inside the wall, 10 inches from my face.
I got out of that bathroom, into enough clothes to survive a Michigan winter, and into Todd’s music room in a minute 45. His face scrunched with confusion upon my panicked entrance.
“What area you doing?” he asked.
“There’s something in the walls,” I heaved.
“Huh?” he asked, removing his headphones.
“Something terrifying is living in our walls. I heard it in the bathroom. It sounds like the love child of a donkey and a wolf.”
Todd’s face registered raw bewilderment and he followed me into the bathroom where we heard nothing but daffodils and rainbows. Of course there’s never proof when you need it. But an hour later as we tried to go to sleep, I heard it again. We both did. Todd jumped up and turned on the light. But again, the creature was inside the wall. Light was no help.
At 8:01 the next morning, we called our pest control guy. We communicated our desperation. He’s told us we had a rat. He then told us to go buy a tray of DCON rat poison. He said one night of that would be all it would take and the rat would run out of the house and die.
Ok. Good plan.
We bought the DCON pack on our lunch break and stuck it just inside the utility closet door. On Wednesday morning, after a night of hearing the rattled spirits in the walls, we raced downstairs to see if the rat had eaten the poison. Sure enough. High five. It was empty. But that wasn’t the only thing the rat had eaten that night. The inside of the closet door was chewed up and out to the point that the rat had almost made it to the guest quarters of the house. And who’s to say he didn’t? What if he pulled an Ethan Hunt during the night and flattened out, spread eagle, and then slipped under the door? Good thing he’d be dead 12 hours from now.
I carried my relief with me that day like a pashmina. But that night I was forced to set my hope aside, because we heard him again. He was angry and clawing the insides of my wall with an unrelenting energy. Was this his manifesto? His 95 theses? I laid there awake for a long time, thinking about creative ways to destroy a rodent. The following morning I bought more poison and placed it in the closet on my lunch break . Second verse, same as the first.
He ate the poison. All of it. He did not die. Not at all. Nothing was dead. His limbs were all working. His voice was working. The only thing dying was my soul, little by little, night after night.
“I can’t take any more,” I announced to Todd before getting in bed Thursday night. “We have to move. Tomorrow.”
“Obviously we aren’t moving,” he answered. Why was that obvious? It was all we had left. “Just check the tray in the morning and surely this time, he’ll be dead.”
We laid in bed that night like wooden planks with googly eyes. Listening to our friend frolic in a townhouse we were making hefty payments on. Ridiculous. Maybe I will be the one to die, I thought. Or maybe I’m dead already. One of us has to die. Me or the rat. Tomorrow there would be a final showdown.
I woke up ready for a showdown, and tiptoed downstairs with a fly swatter. I stopped quietly at the door of the utility closet. Listening. When I didn’t hear anything, I opened the closet door and looked down at the poison tray. It had been disturbed, but not devoured. I tiptoed back up the stairs to get ready for the day and wondered if maybe I had just seen my first sign of progress.
Todd and I worked at the same company that year. He had a real job. I peeled labels off of floppy disks in the shipping department and made $5.25 an hour. I looked forward to lunches at home with Todd in front of Days of Our Lives. Don’t judge. I was young. And Carly was buried alive with a mic system in her casket. I had to know what was going to happen. When we walked in just before 1, I was greeted by a smell I wish I hadn’t recognized so easily. Death. In this particular case, it was a pungent welcome wagon. A fruit basket sent from long lost friends. It was Christmas. We were able to set the smell of death aside for our show (priorities) and spent commercial breaks looking for a carcass. There was the very real possibility that the fella had died in a section of wall we’d never have access to. But before I had time to again suggest moving, Todd uttered some sort of life changing exclamatory sound from inside the closet. Then he came out and shut the door behind him.
“I found him,” he said. “He’s dead alright.”
“And?” I asked. “What else?’ He looked like he’d seen Carly get up out of her casket, so I needed more details.
“He’s huge,” Todd replied. “I’m getting a shovel. Open the sliding glass doors.”
Now. I was very confused by this last statement, but I got the doors prepared while he went for the shovel. He went in with a flashlight in his teeth. There was a lot of knocking around in the closet behind the hot water heater. And then, they emerged. Todd, the shovel, and the largest white rat I have ever seen in even in national geographic articles of rat infested places. It was a foot long. Twelve inches. It almost didn’t fit in the shovel. Todd carried it out in front of him, holding the shovel as far from his body as he could. I was pressed up against the kitchen wall.
“What are you going to do with him?” I asked.
“Throwing him over the back fence,” he answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to heave a rat over a fence. OK, sure. Dead rat on conservation property. Circle of life. I followed Todd out because it isn’t a common thing to watch a rat get tossed like a javelin. Todd reared back, carefully keeping the rat level, and flung.
The rat went up.
The rat did not come back down in the other side of the fence. Todd and I looked at each other.
“Whoops,” he said.
“Where’d he land?”
Todd pointed to the sycamore tree in the neighbor’s back yard. Our dead white rat with stiff legs in the position of a sky diver, was hovering on a branch next door over the Millers’ back deck. Hanging over their propane grill like a piñata. The gentlest nudge from gravity or a single puff of wind would be just the thing to bring that sucker down and liven up their 4th of July barbecue. We both stood there for a second, thinking through the impacts on karma, neighborly relations, property values. And Todd motioned toward the door.
“Go inside,” he whispered. We slid the door shut behind us and saw that Carly was still in her casket and Vivian was still threatening to actually kill her. “Maybe moving isn’t such a bad idea after all…”
It’s a sign of adulthood when you pull every muscle in your body painting the family room. So, clearly I’m an adult. But in so many ways, I’m operating on a 7th grade level. Fortunately for me, my friends are no better. I have a friend we used to call the Organizer. But it’s weird to call people by titles like that unless you’re in the mafia, which we aren’t. So we’ll just call her Matilda. Matilda and I have always competed. At everything. But it’s always friendly and all in good fun. And you never really know who’s going to win, because we are both insanely obsessed with victory. (At the end of the post, you can watch a YouTube clip where I was clearly not the winner.)
This morning was a little unusual in the sense that I had to stop by Todd’s office to deal with some documents. While standing around waiting for a page to print, I started throwing darts. I was just killing time, chucking darts at the board like bricks. It was more like a shot put contest. Matilda saw my form and in my form she saw an opportunity. She’s pretty good at darts. And again, she likes to win. So she piped up.
“I’ll play ya,” she said, with a game on tone to her voice. Well, duh.
“OK,” I said. “But I’ve never played an actual game of darts.”
“I’ll teach you as we go. We’ll play 501,” she said.
She sniffed fresh game. She was on the hunt. I went first. My first three throws were nothing special. I was mediocre with a technique that could get its own reality show. Matilda went next, throwing just enough better to worry me. We traded turns, whittling down our 501 and trying to be the first to 0.
When you get to the end, you have to be precise. If you are 20 points from 0, you have to get precisely 20 in your turn. She got down to 7. Bummer. That’s hard to do. I got down to 30. And in one fell swoop, I hummed up a beauty and it landed in 15. I hummed a second one and it landed in 15. 15 + 15 is 30. Booyah. Guess I don’t stink at darts even if I do look like I need a horse tranquilizer while I’m playing.
So Matilda did what any 40-something would do when they lose. She threw a tantrum and invited me to stop by tomorrow morning for a rematch.
I taught middle school English for one year in 1995. One year is all it took to run me off. I was good at the subject but not at the kids. I enjoyed the kids but not stuffing poetry into the kids. Note confiscation was my area of expertise. Reading the notes during lunch break was my joy. Laughing at the contents of the notes and sharing them with the teacher friend next door–well, I should have been fired. Ironic, really. Because it hadn’t been so long since I’d been the one pushing the pen across the paper to create the masterpiece that got confiscated. Or almost confiscated, I should say.
It’s funny what kids think they are getting away with. Every kid tries it and every kid thinks they’ve escaped notice. I certainly thought so. My sophomore year in high school led me to Spanish II under the tutelage of Josephine Bourgeois. I was immediately confused upon walking into the room, because her name was Bourgeois. She was the Spanish teacher with the French name. But she confirmed we were in the right place and launched straight into a language we remembered none of after a long summer break.
I knew from the first 6 minutes that I was in for a ride with this teacher. I wonder if she knew the same thing with me. We were made for each other. And she was smarter than I was willing to admit.
Mrs. Bourgeois was small enough to fit in my backpack and had a voice like loose gravel. I don’t know if she smoked. I don’t remember smelling it on her, but she sure sounded like the habit. Her eyes told stories and held secrets and I loved walking into that classroom every day. I walked in daily, trailing my chorus buddy, Cathy Thursby. We were a problem. We were a problem in chorus and a bigger problem in Spanish. Mrs. Bourgeois kept those eyes on us far more than we wanted. And though we didn’t get caught for everything we committed, I’m now convinced she just got worn out and let about half of it go.
As with my 3rd grade brush with the Citizenship police, my problem in Spanish was talking. Cathy and I loved to talk. Any topic would do, as we were not picky. But our favorite topic was other students and the teacher herself. She was funny. She said funny things in two languages. We liked responding to those funnies under our breath. In English. Or Pig Latin.
“Miss White!” She would call from the front of the classroom, so loud it would sometimes be followed by a cough. One would think that the frequency with which I got in trouble would take the edge off the fear, but I never got over the panic of hearing my name pop like an expletive. My name was always followed by a punitive statement. The most common of these was a seat move. There were 3 empty desks in that classroom that she used to shift her problem children around.
“Why don’t you grace this seat with su topetazo (that was my butt) and make this your desk from now on…” she would say, pointing to my new location. I always gathered my things with an air of shame and moved away, leaving my cohort behind. Soon into the year, I learned that Mrs. Bourgeois was a tad soft on her enforcement of “from now on.” The next day, I would return to my old desk in front of Cathy and no one would say a word about it. I fancied that she forgot. But as I’m solidly standing in middle age now, I’m certain she forgot nothing. She knew I snuck back to my roots. And she just let me do it, because she was a little bit awesome that way.
When Cathy and I weren’t having terribly conspicuous secret conversations about inappropriate gossip, we were writing those conversations down. Note writing was a religion in high school. We were very religious. One day, Mrs. Bourgeois was on fire about something, telling animated stories about pet squirrels that she raised to adulthood. I was amused enough to put some commentary into a note, along with a rather unflattering picture of this beloved teacher. I was putting the finishing touches on my picture in gloppy ball point ink when I heard that name again.
“MISS WHITE!” Oh, sweet Davy Crockett. Busted. I looked up from my sure downfall. “I think you’re working on something I’d like to see.” Oh goodness me. Oh no.
“No, Senora, I’m not,” I said politely, trying to throw some Spanish in for grace.
“Oh, I think you are,” she said again, smiling with every wrinkle in her face. “I know I want to see it. I think the class might want to see it too.” She paused and addressed the class. “Class? Would you like me to read what Miss White has been working on so diligently?” Well, of course they said yes. Every person in that room was rooting for a bloodbath. I was shaking my head no. This time, my confidence was gone. I was cornered. Miss Thursby couldn’t save me. Mrs. Bourgeois was sharpening her sword. It was over.
“OK, class she doesn’t seem to want to share her work today. So Miss White, you have two options. One is, pass the note and we have a class read-along. The other is, you eat it.”
“Eat it?” I asked. “Like, swallow it?” I asked, stalling.
“That’s the typical result of eating something,” she answered.
I looked at my picture. And my commentary. And back at her. There was only one viable option. I crumpled up the note, inwardly grieving that Miss Thursby would never see such a glorious and artistic display of wit and whimsy, and shoved it into my mouth.
“All the way in,” she said, enjoying the show. I pushed until the sharp corners poked past the roof of my mouth and I gagged, chewing as I went.
I chewed. And I chewed. And I chewed. I was drooling blue Bic like a dog on his deathbed. Mrs. Bourgeois crossed her arms and sighed with the satisfaction of a champion.
There were still 15 minutes left in that period. 15 minutes to eat note. Parts of the note disintegrated and made their way down to my stomach. Parts of it just stayed in my mouth until I could spit into a bathroom trashcan after the bell rang. But the words of that note hung deep in my consciousness for years. 30 years.
I hadn’t thought about it much until my brother called last week to tell me he had been reading the Tallahassee obituaries and Jo Bourgeois had passed this life on January 4. Never mind that my brother reads obituaries from other towns. That’s another post for another day. When he sent me the link, I sat down from what I was doing and read the life story of this woman that had the number of every student that walked through her door. This woman who could wield words like weapons but was as warm as a patch of sunlight on the June grass. This woman who literally made me eat my words. I felt a tinge of sadness. Followed by a surge of happiness. Which ended in my pulling out a piece of notebook paper and writing a quick note in blue ballpoint pen.