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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Carolina Christmas

1. Driver Safety

I am bopping along interstate 85, headed north into the Carolinas. A virile black Chevy pickup is my front door, a maroon Camaro is my back door and I’m in the rocking chair.
In my opinion, this is the safest place to be when a state trooper is lurking, ready to award a speeding ticket to a passing motorist, because he will either ticket the truck that is the pace-setter or the muscle car that is last in line and easiest to pull over.
In the world of fossil fuel spending, I know I am part of the problem, not the solution, because I love to drive – anywhere, anytime, and fast. I should feel guilty, but the pleasure of motion, sunlight and music overrides what I know is wrong about my behavior. Strangely, when I am in this heavy machine of steel and burning gasoline, I feel at my most weightless.

2. Not an Original Idea

Such a dry cold envelops these old mountains. I steer carefully through a hairpin turn on my ascent towards Asheville, N.C., aware that the pressure in my ears is changing. I should be living here, I think. I deserve to have this beauty every day. I catalog the reasons I love North Carolina which include, but are not limited to: music, four distinct seasons, rushing water, wildlife, a sense of wonder, BBQ.
As I count the number of Lexuses and Mercedes around Saluda and Flat Rock, I am mindful of the fact that everyone with a generous retirement income feels the same way.

3. A Stranger Here

“Them two boys just been saved. As for me, my soul at this time remains unaffiliated.” – O Brother Where Art Thou?

Although I have lived in the South for more than three decades, I still do not understand South Carolina. Nowhere do I feel more out of place, more “unlike” the culture around me, and I tend to think it has to do with religion and politics. But there’s something else, something I can't name, that causes me to feel like a different species.
My cousin Pamela, her husband Garry, and I drive to Landrum to hear music in a small, cozy bar called Zenzerra, where Garry will sit in with the musicians and add his mouth harp to their string band. It turns out that I know all the songs, and with the help of a shot of bourbon, I start to relax. When the band plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it strikes me as funny that they are playing a song (written by a guy from my home town) that sounds holy but really is about carnal love with bared fangs.

4. My Fault

Sometimes I don’t know where I belong. This short visit with Pamela underscores how lonely I am much of the time in Alabama. I miss being with people who sound like me, share family memories, laugh at the same ironies. But those people are thousands of miles away or, in many cases, dead.
This is my own fault; I can’t go home because I’ve stayed away too long, and I’ve failed to assimilate where I now live. I fall asleep in my cousin Rachael's bed, humming a childhood lullabye that only my late mother knew, and now I am its only singer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jared's Xmas Card for Isa

Our Jared made this for his beloved Isa, and if there's a better present anywhere for anyone, prove it!
Can't wait to see them this Christmas!

The Late Show at The Argo

The Argo Drive-In late show ended at 11:30. When the last car had gone, Marti doused the sodium vapor spotlight, slipped on double latex gloves and rolled the trash trolley through the semicircular theater lot. An empty pint of Courvoisier, an unfurled Trojan, and a baby’s sippy cup joined the usual popcorn tubs and soda cans. Nothing special, not like the previous week’s find of a South Sea pearl ring and umber calfskin gloves. She heard the cough of the projectionist’s truck about to leave; Avner sounded a see-you-later beep and rumbled out the exit toward Cooley’s Package Store before it closed at midnight. In the distance Marti could see flashing blue and red emergency lights where the road bent sharply west. Silently she wished Avner a safe detour around the latest crash.
She remembered to check the speaker wires at Slot 23. She’d had to disable that speaker earlier; best to reconnect its parts while it was fresh on her mind. The couple in the car at Slot 23 had not been ugly about the speaker malfunction, especially since she’d moved them quickly to Slot 88 at the darkest corner of the parking rows. They hadn’t come to watch the movie, anyway, Marti knew. The woman had been all over the guy, humping him in the front seat and the back. They’d been oblivious to everything around them.
Marti stretched and craned to see beyond the Argo’s fence. On tiptoe she was 5’10” even. To the west, the red and blue still strobed. To the east, a quarter moon was rising.
Marti moved on to Slot 88. It was the Argo’s newest parking slot, created when the need arose one day. She checked around for any trash or unusual leavings. In the weak moonlight, it looked pretty much like all the other slots with their yellow numbers, speaker stands and call buttons, which patrons pressed in case of problems. Its special feature, though, was something she and Avner had created.
“I want a pit in the ground, like the one where the mechanic stands under your car, when you go for an oil change,” she had said.
He’d caught on in a blink. “But with a roof over the dugout part so it somehow blends with the parking lot.”
He had rented a backhoe to dig the pit one morning when the Argo was closed. Marti reinforced the sides with timbers; four by fours at the corners, two by fours to brace them. They ran PVC pipe downhill away from the pit to drain off water. The bay was big enough to hold a man of Avner’s size plus a toolbox and a folding ladder. It was narrower than the wheelbase of any vehicle. Marti drove Avner’s Silverado over the hole, then her own Acura to check. He practiced sliding under the vehicle’s chassis, into the bay and out again. He could reach every part of a vehicle’s underside while in the bay, especially hydraulic lines and brakes.
“No cutters, no cutting,” he’d told Marti as he selected the tools that would stay permanently in the bay. “Lines have to be damaged, but any neat straight cuts can be detected. That way, no blowback.”
“I’ll blow-back you,” she’d laughed, and they’d had sex in the bay.
The roof for Slot 88 had been a challenge, Marti thought as she rolled the trash trolley back to the concession stand. She turned the popcorn kettle off and rinsed out rags. Impossible to create an asphalt roof over the bay, they’d realized, and no way to camouflage it totally. They had given up on making Slot 88 perfectly identical to the rest. The roof just had to be strong. A flat steel grate slid over the opening, not soundlessly, but quietly enough. Slot 88 had no other parking slots next to it; no lights illuminated it. By the time the late show started, it was a shadow box.
Cleanup over, Marti exited and locked the drive-in gates. She liked this quiet time after the late show when she was sole custodian. Her employers, an elderly couple from Birmingham, left the Argo’s management to her and Avner. They didn’t update the sound system to digital, keeping, instead, old-fashioned in-car speakers that broke easily. “Just replace what breaks,” the man had said. “And keep a good electrician on call.” At her interview, she had told the owners, “I’ve always loved drive-ins. They’re an American tradition, and I want the Argo to survive.”
Two shows nightly – the early shows all PG-rated family fare, the late shows adults-only – meant a short workday for Marti. Twice weekly she completed paperwork or refilled soft drink canisters of CO2. Easy-peasy. Her pay, direct-deposited, was not the point. What counted was the opportunity afforded by the Argo.

It was nearly 1 a.m. when Marti pulled up to St. Vincent’s Hospital on Birmingham’s Southside. She rode the elevator to 3 North, the surgical intensive care waiting room. A haggard older woman, a sleeping child, a nervous-looking man were occupying chairs below a silent TV screen. The man rose quickly and walked to Marti’s side. “Shelley’s still in surgery,” he whispered. “The guy, the driver’s dead.”
“And that’s your…?”
“Mother in law,” he answered. “Shelley’s mom.”
“Lorne, let’s get coffee,” Marti said and drew him towards the corridor.
“We’ll be right back, Mom,” Lorne called out, then followed.
“Cameras are everywhere, so here’s what we’ll do,” Marti said. “When you buy the coffees, take a few extra napkins. Hand me my coffee and put the envelope in my hand, as naturally as if it was a napkin. Keep to natural movements. It’s all good; keep talking to me about Shelley and the crash.”
At 2 a.m. Marti entered the apartment, showered fast and slid into her side of bed.
“Mmmmm,” came Avner’s welcome. “Go okay?”
Marti fitted her front to his back. “Your half is on the dresser. It’s more than ever.”

The first client had come to Avner, actually. A plumber checking water lines at the concession stand had griped about his cheating wife. “Bitch probably comes here to fuck in the guy’s car,” he’d said. “Bet you see a lot of cheating bitches here. I should come over and catch her. Damn, I could kill her.”
Avner, joking: “Hey man, I could use some extra cash. Let me take care of it.”
Plumber, not joking: “Do you know how to fuck up the brakes on a car?”
Marti, hearing about this later: “Well, do you?”
Avner did, although he didn’t have the stomach for the aftermath. Marti had the job of visiting the hospitals. She was okay with that. Each one got easier. Cheating Shelley had been their fifth.
The routine was beautifully simple: The paying client told Avner what make and model car and license plate to look for. Marti passed by the cheaters’ slot and, with a practiced swipe, loosened a speaker wire. The cheaters complained and got moved to Slot 88. Avner slipped into the secret bay under their car as soon as the feature started; the couple drove away at the end of the show. They crashed sooner or later, often with fatalities to the woman cuddled up against her lover.
Money changed hands, lots of money. Time went by. Late shows played seven nights a week. People made love in darkened cars as if they were invisible, the last to copulate on earth.
Marti smiled against Avner’s back as she drifted toward slumber. Yes, her future was secure. The world would never run out of cheaters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Love Songs in Kandahar

I. That woman who followed me home had nothing but trash to talk.
But you worried for days with a stubborn jealousy, refusing to touch me.
Late last night you went into the street and came home smelling feral.
You turned your back to me and twitched with restless dreams.
In the moonlight, your shoulder blades shone like vestigial hinges for wings.
I looped my arm around you, and only when I found a breast could I finally sleep.

II. This life is difficult. We hide from phantoms, phones go unanswered, you threaten to shave your head and wear men’s clothing. You worry that the mullahs suspect us, but that cannot be.
We never touch in public. You weep and I shake when a neighbor knocks on the door, fearing the Mujahideen.
Here, where no light penetrates ten thousand shades of hatred, how will we find our way?

III. What tiny dances your hand makes on my skin.
My heart climbs the trellis of my ribs when your mouth moves over mine.
In this moment when nothing else matters, where nothing else gets in, I fear we might carve into each other.
My blood courses in a thicket of channels that empty into yours, and back again, to mine.
I sink into you, entering your bones. Such is my hunger that I suck your marrow.

This is dedicated to women who love women under the Taliban.