Privilege

key
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jody Mace

The day that I returned a loaner car to an auto dealership, I didn’t know that I had become a stooge in an automobile heist.

Here’s how it went down.

A recall was issued for my car. It was a safety issue. It turned out that the airbag’s inflator, a “metal cartridge loaded with propellant wafers,” sometimes ignited, spraying metal shards throughout the passenger cabin.

Lots of cars were affected, and the replacement part was in short supply. It was going to take weeks to get it. The dealership offered me a rental car, on the manufacturer’s dime, until the replacement part could be obtained.

The rental car was a lot nicer than my car. It was a Honda CRV with just 1,500 miles on it. I’d never driven a car that new. I know there’s new car scent that they can spray in any car but this new car smell was legit. Straight from the factory new car smell. Like the sweet smell of a baby’s head. Only car.

A couple weeks later I got the call that the part came in for my car. I parked the CRV in the lot. When I went into the service area to return the key, the service advisor made a joke. He showed me the invoice for my car and said, “I hope you brought all your money, cause this is gonna cost you!” And then he pointed to the amount due, which was zero. I laughed politely.

I handed him the key to the CRV and he handed me the key to my car, along with the invoice. I went out to the lot, got into my car, which was parked across from where I had parked the CRV, and drove home.

This should have been the end of a story too boring to retell, but here’s where things got weird.

Around a week later a manager from the dealership called me. He had some questions.

“Do you remember where you parked the rental car?”

I told him.

“What color was the car?”

This surprised me. They didn’t know what color the car was? They were having a little trouble finding the car.

The next day he called me again.

“Do you remember who you gave the keys to?”

“I don’t know. A woman,” I said. Then I thought some more. “No, it was a man.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“No, I never knew his name.”

“Do you remember what he looked like?”

And it was at this point that I realized that I’m the most visually unobservant person in the world. I am not face-blind but I’m at least face-visually-impaired.

“Well, I think he was kind of tall. Maybe thin. His hair wasn’t really dark. Or maybe it was dark.”

“Did he have facial hair?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

But I had a feeling I was making that up, inventing a face. I thought of that toy where there’s a picture of a clean-shaven bald guy and you use a magnet to drag little pieces of metal around to give him hair, or a mustache or a beard. A lot of times he ends up resembling one despot or another, depending on the shape of the mustache. Then you shake it and the metal shavings fall to the bottom and you start over again with a clean slate. Mentally I gave him a mustache, a goatee, a five o’clock shadow. I had no idea. The more I thought about it, the more removed I was, mentally, from the actual face of the service adviser. He had been replaced by any number of versions of him, all created by my imagination.

“You know what I can tell you? He was a white man. He was a joke-cracking kind of guy. Does that help? Do you have a jokey white man who works there?”

A few days later there was a third call. This time he told me not to be alarmed if a police officer called me to ask some questions. They still couldn’t find the car and had to file a police report so that they could put in a claim with the insurance company.

I started to get worried. Nobody had seen me return that car. The service adviser, whoever he was, hadn’t gone out to walk around it and check for scratches. I got out the invoice he had given me and I discovered that the paperwork was just that: an invoice. It was just for the repair done on my car. There was nothing about the return of the rental car. I had no proof that I had ever returned that car.

It was crazy, right? That I could be a car thief? But I had recently watched a lot of crime dramas on TV. And I realized that I could legitimately be considered a person of interest. I was pretty sure I could not be convicted. But still. It was disconcerting to think that someone might consider me a potential criminal. I’m pretty harmless looking. People tend to trust me.

A week passed and no police officer called me so I mostly stopped worrying. Then the service manager called me again, asking the same questions as before. This time the police officer was at the dealership, taking the report.

“Do you want me to come in?” I asked. “I could show you where I parked.”

When I got to the dealership I sat in an office with two service managers and the police officer, a young, stocky guy with straight dark hair. (At this point I was making an effort to be more visually observant.)

Again, I was asked to describe the service adviser who I had talked to, and I just repeated what I said the first time. I didn’t think I could identify him, but maybe he was tall and thin, with light to medium colored hair, and with no facial hair.

I said, “He made a joke when he gave me the invoice.”

The police officer wasn’t too interested in that bit of intelligence, but one of the service managers, Jill, was playing detective.

“What was the joke?” she asked me.

“He said ‘I hope you brought all your money because this is gonna cost you!’”

The two managers looked at each other and then one said, “We only have two white guys working the service desk.”

He stuck his head out of the office and called for Matt.

“Is this him?” he asked me.

He was short with a solid build, with dark hair and a beard. Pretty much the exact opposite of my description of him. I didn’t recognize him at all.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What joke do you make when a customer gets the recall done?” Jill asked him.

“I say ‘I hope you brought all your money because this is gonna cost you!’”

“That’s him,” I said.

“That’s my schtick.”

The working theory, I was about to learn, was that Matt had dropped the key on the rental counter and someone walked away with it. That’s why Matt had been so forthcoming with his seemingly incriminating joke. He wasn’t the prime suspect.

I went outside with Jill and the police officer to show them where I had parked the CRV.

I still had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t in the clear yet. They had their theory about how it happened, but based on my experience watching TV, it’s the most unlikely suspect who probably did it. Not the new employee at the rental counter, or a shady looking customer, but the suburban lady pushing fifty, who hasn’t even been pulled over for speeding in fifteen years. She looks like your mom, not a criminal.

I finally asked the question that had been on my mind for weeks.

“You’re not thinking I did anything, are you?”

“Oh no, sweetheart!” Jill said and laughed as if it was the silliest thing she’d ever heard.

The officer said, with mock seriousness, “I believe you’re innocent!” and then he laughed too.

We all stood in the parking lot laughing at the idea that they could have suspected me of being a car thief. Because in real life you don’t do something totally innocent like drop off a rental car and then find yourself embroiled in a criminal case that you knew nothing about. That’s something that just happens on TV.

So the story had a happy ending, just like deep down I always knew it would. Me, the service manager, and the cop, outside the car dealership, underneath the cloudless Carolina sky. Just three white people having a good laugh.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

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Car Troubles

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jody Mace

I was run over by a school bus once, but it was the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.

I was sitting in my Honda Civic in a school parking lot, waiting for my son’s bus to show up, and a different school bus was right in front of me. Then it started backing up. When a school bus starts backing up into you, it’s a little surreal because your mind doesn’t understand it all at once. It can’t. School busses don’t just back up and run over your car.

So everything felt like it was in slow motion. I laid on the horn, released the parking brake and started backing up to get away from it, but there was no escape. That school bus was dead set on running me over. When I finally was able to pull away I heard a noise that sounded like the ripping of metal. It turned out to be the ripping of metal. Something was hanging off the back of the bus and I thought, “That must be part of my car.”

But when I got out of my car and noticed that it didn’t have a hood anymore, I was still a little bit surprised. The entire hood was attached to the back of the bus. It was such a clean break, like peeling the lid off a sardine tin. Nobody was hurt. That’s what made it the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.

When I retell this story, friends always ask if it was scary. It was not. As soon as I heard the bus come into contact with my car, I knew that my day had just gotten a lot more complicated. I knew that my evening plans were in jeopardy. I knew that I’d have to deal with a repair shop, with the police, with the insurance company. I knew it was going to be a pain in the ass. But it wasn’t scary. Not then.

In general, I like when things happen. I like things to be interesting. Zoos, for example, are boring to me unless something goes wrong. I don’t want things to go too wrong, but maybe a zebra could escape. Or two chimpanzees could copulate in front of a group of children on a church preschool field trip. Or a gorilla could throw his excrement at the Plexiglas wall and glare at the onlookers. Otherwise, what’s the story? It’s just a zoo.

So during the school bus incident, a part of me realized right away that something unusual had happened, that it was a story, and I began collecting details:

  • The fact that, since I didn’t expect to get out of the car, I was dressed in clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas. (But which were not pajamas.)
  • The way the middle school children on the bus thought the accident was the greatest thing ever and also mocked me as I walked past them in my clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas.
  • The fact that they pissed me off and I said something to the effect of “You think this is fucking funny?”
  • Which made it funnier to them.
  • The way the school safety officer assured me that the school district has good insurance because the buses get into accidents all the time. It’s true, too. All the time. Ever since this happened, I’ve noticed that.
  • The way the police officer was surprised that, when he arrived, the hood was still hanging off the back of the school bus. “You didn’t get it down yet?” he asked. “No, I left it there,” I said. “For your investigation.”
  • There was no investigation.
  • This fact that I learned: It’s legal to drive a car in North Carolina without a hood, as long as it has two working headlights and one taillight. My car had a taillight to spare.
  • The way that after a minute of driving without a hood, you kind of forget that your car doesn’t have a hood. It’s a little loud but you can’t see the engine from your vantage point behind the steering wheel. So you stop thinking about it. It’s surprising, really, how quickly you can get used to something like that.

The silver lining of things going wrong is that there’s something to talk about. I don’t like being bored, so I’m always grateful when there’s something to talk about. It’s a break from the ordinary.

And getting run over by a school bus actually wasn’t that big of a deal anyway. The car got repaired and insurance paid for the work. I drove a Hyundai SUV while the car was in the shop, which I thought was fun because I’d never driven an SUV before.

But as part of a bigger picture it was a little unsettling. It was the second of three car accidents members of my family were in with very large vehicles within an eighteen-month span, and the only one that didn’t result in our car being declared a total loss by the insurance company. In the first accident an eighteen-wheeler swerved into my daughter’s lane and pushed her VW Beetle down the interstate for some distance before she was able to steer to the side of the road. She was fine. Later, she said that she absorbed the power of the truck, superhero-style, and it made her stronger. But the Beetle was history. In the third accident, a young woman turned in front of my husband, lost control of her SUV and spun out and hit him twice. He was driving my Honda Civic (with a brand new hood) and that was the end of that car.

The problem is that when enough things go wrong, like members of your family being run over by large vehicles, you start wondering what the ordinary actually is. Is the ordinary state of the universe such that at any moment someone can make a thoughtless decision and put your life in jeopardy?

Actually, it is. We’re trusted to navigate massive pieces of metal at high speeds in close proximity to hundreds of other people doing the same thing, sometimes within just inches of each other. Think about how little you have to move the steering wheel to effect a significant change in the direction of the wheels of your car. That’s mechanical advantage happening right there, aided by a bunch of magic engineering stuff that I don’t understand. The margin of error is too small and we are too powerful. In the best of situations it seems insane to drive a car on a road.

Add to that the distracted, intoxicated, and impatient drivers. And the assholes. And the kids who haven’t quite learned to judge time and distance yet and don’t have the life experience to know to be afraid. And the elderly driver whose middle-aged offspring are debating if he should still be driving, and how to stop him if he shouldn’t, while right at this very moment he turns the key to his Buick to drive to Publix and buy a loaf of rye bread and ice cream sandwiches. And the school bus drivers who are so annoyed and beat down by snotty, defiant middle-schoolers that all they can think about is getting through the day and working enough years so they can retire. It’s not being dramatic to say that we’re putting our lives in these people’s hands every day. Maybe we are some of these people.

Our trust in each other’s judgment, attention, and adherence to the law is an amazing social construct. Our safety is a flimsy fiction. Yet we put ourselves in the path of this potential disaster every day, because if we don’t, then what? This is the world we live in. Driving to work without fear requires the suspension of disbelief.

The danger is real.

It becomes even more real when my own kids drive. I may be able to inflate my confidence in my own driving, my ability to out-maneuver the cars gunning for me, but I don’t have that same confidence in my kids. Not enough anyway, not when measured against the potential loss. They’re seventeen and twenty but I’m not sure it would matter if they were thirty-seven and forty. No matter how competent they are, I remember the times they got their heads stuck in the bannister or busted their lips by trying to fly off a stool. It’s not fair, I know.

So every time they leave with car keys in their hands, I tell them to be careful. They’ve stopped replying, “I’m always careful” or “Do you think if you don’t say that I won’t be careful?” because they’ve learned that I won’t stop. The words are a talisman I hand them as they step out the door. Like a coin I slip into their shirt pockets as they prepare for battle. As small as it is, it might absorb a bullet. I say it every time.

I don’t leave it as just “be careful.” Every time, I try to impress on them the specific dangers of that point in time.

“Be careful. With the change to Daylight Savings Time, people are tired.”

“Be careful. It’s the last day before a holiday weekend. People won’t have their minds on driving.”

“Be careful. The roads are wet.”

“Be careful. People were up late watching the Panthers game. ”

“It’s Saturday night. Every single driver out there is drunk. Be careful.”

Sometimes I can’t think of anything specific dangerous, so I say, “Statistically, today is the most dangerous day of the year for driving.” I say that several times a year.

The fear of your kids getting hurt is a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true. It’s the one truest, deepest thing that all parents share. It’s a fear so real that letting the thought percolate in my head for even a minute causes a stabbing pain in my gut.

Things are going to happen. They will have stories to tell, which is good, because I like to be entertained. But parts of their life narratives will be awful, and there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can hope for is that when they’re run over by metaphoric or real school buses they’re okay enough to tell the stories and that the stories are eventually funny, or at least bearable. I hope that their hoods always come off clean.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

 

The Population of Me

nut
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jody Mace

For most of my life you’ve been the size of walnuts. Nuts and other produce are standard measurements for small bodily organs and glands. The prostate gland is also the size of a walnut, but by the time a man is forty sometimes it’s as big as an apricot. The pituitary gland is the size of a pea. Whereas we measure hail by sports balls. When hail gets to be the size of golf balls that’s when it starts to get serious. Someone’s going to take a picture of that hail.

When I was born, stored inside the two of you, ovaries, was half the genetic material for a million people. That’s about the population of San Jose, California. I’ve never been to San Jose, but I’m imagining it populated solely by those people, the potential humans whose blueprints you harbored. Tall men and short women. Dark-haired, with poor eyesight. If I were thinking of starting a business in that alternate San Jose, it would be an optical shop. There wouldn’t be a lot of audience participation at concerts, as my people don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but the shows would be well attended. The population would have to pay special attention to sunscreen. It would be a snarky San Jose.

But amid all those brown-eyed wallflowers, maybe there would be a few blonde-haired, blue-eyed standouts. They would be the product of long-forgotten recessive genes that give them the ability and inclination to be cheerleaders or to complete layups in a graceful fashion.

Those million people, though? They’re only a fraction of the story. When I was a fetus, you held seven million eggs follicles. That’s the population of New York City, minus the Bronx. But to be brutally honest, most of those potential people didn’t have a lot of, well, potential. So you performed a culling, keeping only the most promising million egg follicles. And of those million, throughout my lifetime, maybe 500 will get even a shot at the big show.

I think of my San Jose with affection, all those ghost people, the artists, the bricklayers, the teachers, the petty thieves, the bureaucrats, the scientists. The odds were against them, were against all of us. But we made it. How can we ever look at another human being without a sense of wonder? Every person who takes a breath has scaled the Kilimanjaro of biology, has won the Powerball and is standing there with that big check and the shit-eating grin, or should be. We should be embracing each other as comrades, as survivors. Just showing up on Earth at all means we’re winners.

I know we can’t always get along. We need to argue about important things like the environment and the economy. We also need to argue about things that don’t matter, like the Oxford Comma and whether leggings are pants, because written into our blueprints are brains that want to make sense of things, that want to nail down the rules. Also written into our blueprints is the desire to have the last word.

But still, every so often I meet someone and I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I exist and that she exists and that we’re in the same place, having a conversation, and we understand the words that the other says. And I feel a connection to her. When I read about a crime, I sometimes think about both the perpetrator and the victim and feel an almost unbearable sadness that there are perpetrators and victims, after all the work that was done behind the scenes, within the warm, dark factory of the human body, to bring them into the world. I think about my ghost San Jose, and all the other ghost San Joses, and about how we’re the ones who made it into the outside world. We should be a little gentler with each other. We should be gentler with ourselves.

But back to you, ovaries. Of those million egg follicles you kept in safe keeping for me, two of them became living, breathing people. There’s no mystery like that of a newborn baby. I never saw my job as molding my children, but more as letting their mysteries unfold. Deep in the genetic makeup of my son were instructions to curl his toes under his feet when he sits, like one of his uncles does. How far back does that go? Maybe five hundred thousand years ago there was a Homo heidelbergensis sitting on a rock in what would eventually be Germany, sharpening a stone point for a spear, with his toes curled under his feet.

Etched somewhere in the DNA of those two well-timed eggs were determination, a love of music, sharp wits, and a great capacity for kindness. Also (between the two of them, not naming names) stubbornness, perfectionism, a habit of telling jokes at the wrong time, and difficulty with time management. You did your part and I’ve tried to do my part. I tried to help them find their paths, but to also do a lot of staying out of their way so that they could become who they actually were and not who I imagined they might be. I didn’t do much, but I think I didn’t mess up your hard work. They’re adult and almost adult, and so far, so good.

I’m grateful that these are the two I got, although I guess that I’d feel the same if I’d ended up with two of the ghost children in San Jose instead. I know I’m anthropomorphizing you way too much, ovaries, but you did a good job and I appreciate it.

Of course, you’re only half the story. Testes are nothing to sneeze at either. They stay busy, cranking out genetic material on an as-needed basis, at an incomprehensible rate, like 1,500 sperm cells a second. It’s survival of the fittest when it comes to sperm, and the culling is even more cut-throat than that of the egg follicles. In heat after heat in the race for life, almost all of them lose. Forget about my San Jose or even my New York City without The Bronx. We’re talking twice the population of the earth every month. You, ovaries, are the students who prepared ahead of time. You read the syllabus and did the assignments the first week of class, and then just waited for the due dates. Testes are the students who goofed off all semester and then crammed the night of the test and still pulled off a pretty good grade. But don’t resent the testes. It takes all kinds.

So, with all this talk of eggs and children I want to point out that I’m much more than a mother. I’m a writer, I understand at least ninety percent of the rules of football, and I’m a highly competent parallel parker. Reproduction is only one of many facets of me. But you, ovaries, are unabashed in your single-mindedness. Everything you do is to advance the cause of extending my genetic legacy. I’m going to tell you something, but I think you know it already, if you’re really honest with yourself: no more eggs will become people. For a while now, you’ve been acting as if nothing has changed, but really you’ve just been going through the motions, like a bookkeeper in an abandoned office. There’s no new business, nobody’s asking for the report, nobody’s reading your emails, but you’ve still been keeping the books month after month.

At some point, though, your job will be done. Remember when you were the size of a walnut? Ligaments strained under the weight of the future generations within you. But eventually you’ll be the size of an almond. I wonder what size nut you are now. A pistachio? Or maybe a cashew?

There’s not too much plot to our story, and that’s a good thing. You haven’t been stricken with any diseases or major dysfunctions, although there’s still time, I guess. Most likely one of my organs will eventually do me in, but sentimentally, I hope it’s not you. You’re my connection to the future and my link to the past. Just about every other part of my body could, theoretically, be swapped out for someone else’s, or replaced by a machine. They just have their jobs to do. My heart pumps blood, my kidneys clean that blood and my lungs supply that blood with oxygen, but they don’t do their job differently from anyone else’s heart, kidneys, or lungs. But you took pieces of me, of my mother, of my grandmother, of my great-grandfather, and offered them as possibilities to the future. You know the secrets of who I am and who I could have been. I’d like you to be with me until the end, like two old friends, side by side in rocking chairs, sitting quietly. They know each other so well that they don’t have to say a word.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

Jacket Required

brunch
By Charles Kim/ Flickr

By Jody Mace

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.

He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”

I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”

He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:

  • The line was too long.
  • Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
  • Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
  • Undisclosed reasons.

As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

“Are you with all these men?” she asked.

“I am.”

“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”

Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”

Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.

While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.

“We need new sopranos,” one said.

“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”

“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.

“What?”

Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.

“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.

We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.

I texted my daughter:

Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.

Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”

Me: That’s just one option.

When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.

“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”

“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”

This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.

Those people were pissed off.

Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.

I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.

As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.

“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”

This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!

There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.

God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody liked it.”

“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”

“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”

“You think?” I asked.

“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

Frederick Does D.C.

frederick
By Jody Mace

By Jody Mace

Most people dislike Frederick at first sight. To start with, he’s ugly. His gray hair and beard are tangled and dirty. He wears what looks like a random piece of fabric as a shirt and he has no arms or legs. I should mention here that Frederick is a puppet.

Worse than his bedraggled appearance is his personality. He speaks in a high-pitched voice and he doesn’t pull any punches.

When he met my friend, Lynn, for the first time, she introduced herself in the tone one uses with a small child. “Hello, Frederick. I’m Lynn.”

Frederick screeched, “I don’t like your name!”

He has a checkered past. With little prompting, he tells the story of how he was in Alcatraz, and how he “escaped, knocked out a guard, and swam to safety!”

When asked why he was in Alcatraz in the first place, he scolds, “Well, that was rather ruuuude.”

I can’t blame Frederick for his behavior. When I found him at a children’s theatre costume and prop sale, I thought he looked charming and grandfatherly, if a bit raggedy. He had been passed over at the annual costume sale for years but he caught my eye. He cost just three dollars.

It was only after he met my eleven-year-old son, Charlie, that he developed his personality problems. Charlie is a nice boy, a polite boy. But when Frederick is on his hand, a dark side emerges. Frederick has no respect for people’s personal space. He frequently perches himself on people’s heads, his greasy hair brushing against their faces, or gets within an inch of their noses during conversation. Frederick voices the thoughts that Charlie knows better than to say.

“This song is boring!”

“I’m your ruler! Bring me a popsicle!”

Once, for a joke, Lynn kidnapped Frederick for about an hour. It was not funny to Charlie.

“How would you feel,” he asked Lynn, “if I took Cooper?”

Cooper is Lynn’s two-year-old son. A human. Not a puppet.

His reaction made me realize that Frederick meant something to Charlie. That’s the only reason I didn’t ban him outright. But it worried me a little. There’s quirky and then there’s just disturbing, and having a misanthropic puppet permanently affixed to your hand is at least a little disturbing.

So before we left for our Thanksgiving trip to my sister’s house in Arlington, Virginia, a six-hour drive from our North Carolina home, I laid down the law. “Frederick stays home.” Thanksgiving is the one time of the year that our whole family is together. We were used to his oddities, but the rest of my relatives deserved to have family time with us, not with a rude, cranky puppet. We were going to be meeting my brother’s fiancé for the first time. What would she think? So the puppet stayed home.

It was only after we passed Raleigh that I saw a shock of dirty gray hair slowly rising to fill up the rear-view mirror. My husband I exchanged exasperated looks. “Frederick!”

“Put him away,” my husband said.

“But Frederick loves to travel!” Charlie protested.

“I’m serious. If I hear Frederick’s voice on this trip, he’s going to end up underneath a truck on I-85.”

So Frederick reluctantly returned to Charlie’s backpack. He emerged only briefly in Arlington. He greeted my two-year-old niece in that loud, screechy voice.

“I not like Frederick!” Gia announced.

“Yeah, me either.” I glared at Charlie. “Put him away.”

He came out again to meet my brother and his fiancé, who was too sweet, and possibly shell-shocked, to criticize the puppet. “No, really, he’s cute!” she said.

“It’s nap time for Frederick,” I told Charlie.

So Frederick retired to Charlie’s sleeping bag. He slept through Thanksgiving dinner. He slept the whole next day when we met up with some cousins in Baltimore. We walked the dogs, watched TV, videoed Gia dancing to some garish electronic toy. Frederick didn’t make a peep.

Without Frederick, Charlie was delightful and charming. His voice was not grating. He didn’t insult people or plop on their shoulders. He was a perfect eleven-year-old gentleman.

But with Frederick in his forced isolation, there was just something missing. Kind of like that relative who drives you crazy. You may complain about his boring stories and tasteless jokes, but Thanksgiving isn’t the same without him. Also, what if by next Thanksgiving, Charlie had relegated Frederick to the floor of the toy closet, among the army men and pirate swords? It wasn’t so much a sappy “every moment of childhood is precious” feeling, but, rather, that maybe we should value the un-precious moments too, because they’re part of who the child is for a short time, and that means they’re part of who the whole family is, too. That year, that Thanksgiving, that November night, we were the parents who had a son who had a possibly unhealthy attachment to a hideous puppet. Our family, our son, our ugly puppet.

It was our last night and we hadn’t yet visited the monuments in Washington, D.C.

The words came from my mouth like someone else was speaking them. “Hey, Charlie, want to take Frederick on a monument tour of D.C.?”

So we piled into the car, me, Charlie, his dad, and my sister. The first thing we did was buy Frederick an “I love D.C.” t-shirt, size 2T, from a vendor, who didn’t quite know what to make of a puppet ordering a shirt. Then we hit all the high points, taking Frederick’s picture with each. The White House, the National Christmas tree, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument. The few other tourists smiled at Frederick, at the happy boy holding the puppet high.

Charlie, laughing, skipped beside his dad, with Frederick sitting on my husband’s shoulder. At that moment there was nothing odd about the tattered puppet. I didn’t feel annoyed, just thankful. Thankful for my funny son, who is like nobody else I know, and for my family, who embraces and accepts him no matter what. Thankful for this cool, clear night, and this beautiful city, with its white monuments bathed in light. Thankful for a holiday that asks nothing of us but to spend time with people we love, even people like Frederick, who might not deserve it.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. This essay was written several years ago and rumor has it that Frederick is on the bottom of the toy closet. He’s missed, a little.

Animal House

dog curtain
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

It’s been a couple months since my dogs started wearing diapers.

So far just a few people know, mainly the people who have visited my house since the diaper regime began. I’m guilty of the worst kind of Facebook hypocrisy. When I post pictures of my dogs (and I do it a lot), I employ angles that hide their diapers. It’s kind of like that studied angle that many women use for their selfies—the camera slightly elevated from the face so that the face is looking up. It’s more flattering, but everyone knows what they’re up to.

Before one friend came over, I texted her, “I should tell you, we’re making both dogs wear diapers now. You will know soon enough.”

I didn’t want things to be awkward for her. There’s not a polite way to ask about dogs wearing diapers and I feared that the silence would feel weighty.

My dogs aren’t wearing diapers because they have a medical problem or because they’re old. It’s because they are acting like jerks.

My first dog, Shaggy, is an elegant little creature. He’s a schnoodle, a schnauzer/poodle mix, and sometimes I think he’s not really even a dog. He’s got this meaningful way of looking into your eyes as he tries to speak English. He can say “hello” and “I love you.” My husband, who is not as skilled at listening as I am, disputes this, but trust me.

Our second dog, Harlow, is not a specific breed exactly. He’s a medium-sized, white hairy dog. Someone found him abandoned in a nature preserve and for reasons I don’t understand, we took him in. He had clearly been neglected in every way for some time. His coat was a matted mess. He wouldn’t take food from people. He didn’t know how to walk up steps. He was distrustful of everyone.

We took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I took him to a behavioral trainer, one that looks beyond commands like “sit” and “stay,” and, instead focuses on building his confidence and decision-making skills. I kept him by my side every waking hour, for months, at first on a leash, until he learned to follow me around, to come when I called. The change was like a miracle. He’s relaxed now, and he bonded with us. He’s got a sweet temperament. He’s almost the perfect dog.

Except he pees everywhere. Everywhere. If we put a bag on the floor, he pees on it. He pees on the furniture, on the walls. Once my husband Stan was lying on a couch downstairs and Harlow parallel parked next to the railing in the upstairs hall and launched a perfectly aimed stream of urine onto Stan’s head.

If I’m going to be totally honest—and at this point, what do I have to lose?—I’ll mention that Harlow has also, on rare occasion, pooped in the house, too. It’s a measure of how troublesome the urine is that I have no particular emotion when I find a pile of poop. It doesn’t happen often and is fairly easily picked up. One time he left a pile that was perfectly formed into the word “HI.” Since it was kind of a miracle, I took a picture of it before cleaning it up and posted it on Facebook. Then I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who is disgusted by pictures of dog poop, no matter how literary, and the kind that suggests I create a line of greeting cards featuring messages spelled out in dog feces.

We had this idea, before we adopted Harlow, that it would be good for Shaggy to have a dog friend. That if he spent time with a dog and not just us humans, he would learn to be more dog-like. It turns out that he didn’t learn much from Harlow. Except peeing. Our graceful, intelligent, little dog-person was now lifting his leg and peeing on the side of the couch. There really is such a thing as a pissing contest.

We worked more with the trainer. I don’t want to relive it all here, but trust me when I say that we did all the things. All the things. Finally she dropped her voice and said, “You could try belly bands.”

Belly bands are just what they sound like. Cloth bands that wrap around a male dog’s middle, attaching with Velcro. When my kids were babies, I thought it was sort of weird the way some moms went nuts over cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers. I don’t mean in a utilitarian way, but for the aesthetics. When I heard them gush about the cute patterns I thought it was a little pathetic. They’re diapers! They’re just going to be soaked in urine.

Now I get it. I started out utilitarian with the belly bands, buying just a plain white one for Harlow. But it made him look like an old man in tighty whities. Or like Walter White, cooking meth in the desert. So I bought a belly band with a cute peace sign pattern. And another one with stars. And one with tiger stripes. It made it all a little bit less sad.

I’m convinced that they have no idea why they’re wearing diapers. They don’t like them but they’ve come to accept them. When they come inside they wait in a little line for me to put the diapers back on them. If I could have just five minutes during which time they’d really understand English, I would tell them one thing: “Don’t pee inside.” That’s it. I believe that if they really understood that I wanted them to never pee inside again, that they’d make their best effort to avoid doing so. They want to please me. And yet they do the very thing that pleases me the least.

Since we started the diaper regime, our life has gotten better. The dogs don’t have to stay glued to my side. We’re not cleaning the carpets all the time. Speaking of cleaning carpets, now I’d like to share with you the secret of getting dog urine out of carpets. This is a bonus, a takeaway from this essay, if you will. It’s a process that’s very inexpensive but time-consuming.

First you need to find the spots where the dogs have peed. If your carpet is tan like ours is, it may be hard to see the spots after they have dried. That’s why you need a black light. Wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights, and walk around, shining a black light on the carpet. The urine spots will glow. Some other fluids will also make the carpet glow, but that’s your own business and who am I to judge? Once you’ve found the spots, mark them by surrounding them with masking tape. Turn on your lights. Then spray a mixture that is 50/50 white vinegar and water. Soak those spots. Wait for them to dry. If you’ve saturated them sufficiently, this will take a day.

Next spray them with hydrogen peroxide that has just a little bit of dish liquid mixed in. Really lay this stuff to the stains.

When that’s dry (and it will take overnight at least), sprinkle baking soda on and then vacuum it up. This gets out the odor and the black light test will verify that it did the trick.

So compared to that process, diapering a couple of dogs several times a days is not a big deal. Their diapers are almost always dry. The belly bands discourage them from peeing inside because there’s no fun in it. So it could be worse.

But still, I can’t help but consider the complexity we’ve added to our lives. Our kids, at sixteen and nineteen, are old enough to be pretty self-sufficient. I can forget to cook dinner and nobody is going to call child protective services. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese. Things have gotten simpler for us from the days of busy, demanding toddlers who were hell-bent on electrocuting themselves and breaking all the eggs from the refrigerator. From those days, life has, year by year, gotten simpler. And yet, instead of taking advantage of the simplicity and lack of demands on our time, we did this thing that has made our lives infinitely more complicated.

We brought animals into our house. Sometimes when I think of it, the whole concept of pets seems bizarre. We do all these things to insulate ourselves from the unpredictability of nature and the outside world. We build houses, we seal the doors and windows. We avoid building a house on a flood plain. We install locks on the doors and a security system. We buy homeowners insurance in case there’s an act of nature.

Then once we have this safe, controlled environment, we bring in animals. I believed all along that Shaggy was kind of a person. But people don’t pee on the ottoman. They just don’t. When the whole peeing thing started I’d sometimes look at these dogs and think “My god. They are animals.” They seemed like just one step away from raccoons. Once I hired an expensive pest control expert to lure a raccoon family out of our attic. But we invite the dogs into our house. To live. We say, “Yes, you are a being who likes to chew on a beef bone that’s been buried and left to rot in the ground for a week. But by all means please live in my house, which up until now, has been kept in a fairly sanitary condition. Here, sit up on the couch with me and I’ll scratch behind your ears and possibly kiss the side of your face.”

And they’re unpredictable. When we adopted Harlow, we didn’t consider the possibility that he would be an unrepentant urinator and that he would get Shaggy started too. But it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d do some things that would bring complexity into our lives. Dogs do all kinds of things. They run away. They bite. They bark at the nice couple pushing a stroller down the street as if their baby was the antichrist. They tear up cushions, leaving the cushion carcass surrounded by mountains of fluff.

I think about entropy a lot. I mean, I think about it on a superficial level, the way non-scientists do, because as soon as I start reading words like logarithm and microstate and quantum thermodynamics, I find that I need to quickly click on Youtube and watch a video of a chimpanzee riding a Segway. But the idea of entropy is that systems naturally move from order to disorder. If you put an ice cube into a cup of hot water, the water doesn’t freeze; the ice cube melts. The molecules of the ice cube, which were frozen into a rigid order, are freed to move around as a liquid.

So is there also a sort of entropy at play in our personal relationships? When things become too simple, do we have a tendency to add elements that complicate them? In a sense, any time we take on the responsibility of caring for another being, we’re opening ourselves up to complications that we can’t predict. How do we know that the child we bring into the world won’t have a disability that will require us to reshuffle our lives? Or that the man we marry won’t have a stroke a year later? We don’t.

The issue of nurturing is all mixed up in this idea of personal entropy for me. I took in these dogs and that means I made a promise to take care of them, even if they brought chaos into my life.

I think we have pets because at a very fundamental level we have a need to nurture. And with that nurturing comes all kinds of risks. In the scheme of things, the diapers aren’t a big deal. But every time I put a diaper onto a dog, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. Dogs, healthy dogs, wearing diapers. But I’m also sometimes reminded of the bond we share with these animals, and the promise we make when we teach them to love us. When Harlow learned to trust us, to sit by us and awkwardly lean against our bodies, looking at us as if to say “Is this how it’s done? This love thing?” we lost the choice of letting him go. He was ours.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

A Year of Dreams

dream2
By Jody Mace See more at I Draw My Dreams on Facebook

By Jody Mace

Once I was involved in a political revolt. The situation leading up to the revolt was horrifying. I’ll just mention the worst of the atrocities. The dictator was sawing people in half at the waist. Led by a wise, bald man, we succeeded in overthrowing the autocracy. My personal heroism was as follows: I rescued a baby from a river, and after we restored a peaceful democracy I contacted a dentist, because many children had lost their retainers during the struggle for freedom.

This was a dream.

The only reason I can describe this dream, three years after it occurred, is because for one year I drew every one of my dreams in cartoon format. I’ve been asked why I did this, and I’m not sure why I started, but I continued because when I shared the first picture on Facebook, it got lots of likes and my friends said it was funny, and I will do almost anything for a laugh. So I created a Facebook page.

It turns out that I had very few dreams in which I was a hero. In fact, the dreams exposed the worst of myself. I did things that I wouldn’t do in real life but might think about. I cheated in sports and I called small children “bitches” (and then lied about it: “Tell their parents I called them ‘witches.’”) I went ape-shit on a college professor who said I wasn’t listening, throwing desks around the room in an uncontrollable rage.

In my dreams I examined what I would do if presented with situations I was unlikely to face in real life. I learned that if I were a soldier, I would avoid injury by finding hiding spots whenever the shooting started. Also, after a rampaging hippo at the zoo was shot and killed, I looted its cage and stole its toiletries. (“This shampoo looks good!”)

Everyone knows this about dreams: they’re fascinating for the dreamer to talk about but boring as hell for the people who have to listen. Try telling someone your dream from last night and watch for the exact point when the listener’s eyes glaze over. It won’t take long.

But that’s not because dreams are boring. It’s because our storytelling is boring. We don’t know where to start the story and we sure don’t know where to end it. The interesting parts are buried in mundane detail. If I were to describe the political revolt dream but started at the beginning of the dream, where a tour group was packing into a bus and the driver said something a little weird and I looked out the window and saw someone selling hats, nobody would be listening by the time I got to where the dictator was sawing people in half, and that’s when it started getting interesting.

If you were telling someone a story about a close call on the freeway in the afternoon you wouldn’t start out by describing brushing your teeth in the morning. You probably wouldn’t include what kind of shoes you were wearing. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a part of the story.

Because I was drawing the dreams, I was forced to boil each dream down to its essential elements, maybe five or six frames. It also helped that I can’t draw. So everything that happened had to be depicted in the simplest manner possible, which made it impossible to include extraneous details. The cartoon me had maybe three distinct facial expressions during the course of the year, but I learned to draw those three facial expressions convincingly. My “angry” expression was particularly iconic.

My poor drawing skills did occasionally call for some explanation, so there are a few notes here and there, like “Third arm is an accident,” “Not really this tall,” “This is not a penis,” etc.

The exercise of identifying the interesting elements of a story, and figuring out where a story begins and ends helped me in my other writing as well. I became more ruthless, slashing words, sentences, paragraphs. I think that drawing badly made me a better writer.

Drawing my dreams also made me work harder at the visual aspect of storytelling. Sometimes the dream could be told with hardly any words, just pictures. In one dream I had read a book on caring for chickens and it said that it was good for chicks’ social skills to spend some time every day with a rooster. So the picture consisted of several frames of little chickens climbing all over a rooster, and finally a close-up of the rooster with a pissed off look on his face and the words, “The rooster is not amused.”

And maybe being creative in a medium for which you have no skill or talent helps your creativity as a whole, because you can’t rely on any skill you might have developed. I don’t know the “rules” of drawing the way I know the “rules” of writing. If there’s a grammar to illustration I don’t know what it is. So I had no filter, and it felt good to create with no filter.

Sometimes I drew other people’s dreams as well. They’d tell me the long, boring version of the dream, and I’d boil it down to the essentials. Several times I drew my husband’s dreams. They were interesting to me because of what they said about our relationship. Like this one: We were climbing around on a cliff. We got to a dangerous part and Stan said, “We should stop,” but I said, “No! Let’s go!” Then I fell off the cliff into a body of water. Stan had to jump into the water to rescue me, risking his own life, but I was dead. Only I wasn’t dead! I jumped up and said, “That was fun!” What this dream says about our relationship is that I’m the fun one.

I also drew my friend Christie’s dream in which she and Stan were driving a truck through the mountains, hauling several refrigerators wrapped in towels. The interesting part of the dream is that Christie and Stan were flirting with each other. Later Christie claimed that I misinterpreted her dream and that they were not flirting, but when you ask someone to draw your dream, the artist gets to make the call.

My favorite dream I drew was one of Stan’s. It’s also probably the most offensive. In this dream we were browsing a catalogue of organic meat and we had this conversation.

Me: “I think I’ll get a midget.”

Stan: “What? Do you have any idea how big a midget is?”

Me: “I’ll cut it up and put it in the freezer.”

Stan: “I’m not eating some tough old midget!”

What I like about this dream is that on the surface it appears that he’s the virtuous one, rejecting the notion of cannibalism. But really his objections focus on the space the midget will take up and the quality of the meat. (Also, I know we don’t use the word “midget” anymore, but this wasn’t my dream.)

During the year I drew my dreams, I found that I remembered more of them, probably because the first thing I did each morning was recall them so that I could draw them. I also kept a notebook by my bed so if I woke up in the middle of the night I could write down a word or phrase to help me remember the dream I had before I woke. Sometimes the scribbled notes made me a little sad, like when I read “monster on house” but couldn’t remember the dream.

Reading notes about these lost dreams made me appreciate even more the staggering creativity that goes into dreaming. During the day, sometimes I stare at a blank Word document wondering if I’ll ever get another idea, and I hit “save” after writing just a couple sentences, afraid of losing even one word. But at nighttime ideas flow so freely. I tell stories, make jokes, invent things, and paint pictures with absolutely no effort at all, and then they’re simply released, like they’re nothing. If I don’t catch them as soon as I wake, they’re gone forever.

I rarely draw my dreams anymore, but I still look forward to sleeping every night and not just because I’m tired. Every night I anticipate the places my brain will take me, the surprising connections it will make, the unlikely storylines and the unselfconscious confessions. Every night I hope that when I wake, before I fully surrender to the morning, that I can grab a thread from a dream, give it a gentle tug, and bring that lovely diaphanous memory with me into the world of solid things.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Haunted Wedding

haunt 2011 2
Courtesy Jody Mace

By Jody Mace

Two years ago, in early October, I found my husband, Stan, in the garage, fondling a pair of chicken wire breasts.

“Do you think these are even?” he asked.

For a moment I thought maybe we’d gone too far.

But the feeling passed. I examined them with a critical eye. “I think they’re perfect.”

The chicken wire breasts were part of a chicken wire bridesmaid, who was part of a wedding party constructed of PVC pipe and wire. The wedding party ended up dressed in thrift store formal wear as part of a “Haunted Wedding.” The bride, her groom, and two bridesmaids created an eerie scene in our front yard. In the darkness of Halloween night, their frames were almost invisible, so the dresses and suit appeared to float in the air. Earrings dangled from an absent head. A gloved hand held a champagne flute high in the air. The scene captured the bride throwing a bouquet in the air, while bridesmaids waited with outstretched arms, invisible except for the long white gloves.

The year before that, our Halloween decorations were uninspired. Severed arms protruding from the bushes. A tombstone that shrieked when trick-or-treaters approached the front door. The usual stuff.

But two years ago we upped our game. I don’t remember why we decided to become That Family in our neighborhood. Maybe it was because our kids, at thirteen and sixteen, were (arguably) aging out of trick-or-treating. Maybe we just craved some kind of creative expression. I know that it started when I said, “What if…”

I’m an idea person. I don’t know how to actually do anything, but I have a whole lot of good ideas. Stan knows how to do things and what he doesn’t know, he can find on Youtube. He’s also obsessive and focused. While I was off looking for bargains on candy, he was laboring over what weight of chicken wire to use and how to secure the groom to the ground. (A tent stake through a hole drilled in the heel of a dress shoe, in case you were wondering.)

Between my ideas and Stan’s resourcefulness, the wedding scene was just the beginning.

First I came up with the back story about the doomed wedding. A quick synopsis: A jealous ex-lover of the groom plotted to kill her rival and the bridesmaids with poisoned tarts, which she carried around on a tray, having disguised herself as a waitress. However, the groom ate a tart as well. When she realized that she had unwittingly murdered the object of her affections, the jilted lover offed herself by eating the last tart.

Running with that theme, we made a video of one of my son’s friends, dressed as a bride, walking back and forth, forlornly, in a darkened room. Stan edited that video and punctuated it with a found video of a scary woman screaming. On Halloween night, he projected it onto wax paper, which was taped to the window of a room on the second floor of our house. From the street it looked like a ghost bride was pacing in an attic.

Next, I wrote the story in verse and recorded Stan reading the story. He then applied some kind of video editing magic to make his face look spooky. But that wasn’t all. He built a booth out of wood and set up what’s known in the “haunting world” as the Pepper’s Ghost Illusion. It involves special lighting (a lightbulb), careful angling of the video monitor and a sheet of plexi-glass. The result is the appearance of a floating head in the booth, telling the story. It was spectacular. The “special lighting” did cause the booth to catch fire early in the evening, but that was really the only glitch.

Maybe the best thing about our Halloween preparation was how it allowed Stan and our son to experience some real father-son bonding. Forget fishing or throwing the ball around in the backyard. Nothing can compare to the first time a father and son build a coffin together.

When our neighbors walked up our driveway, they generally just wanted to go to the front door to get candy, but I’d have none of that. They had to stand and watch the floating head tell the story of the haunted wedding before they could proceed. Besides, at the end of the video, another of our son’s friends jumped out of the coffin.

Some parents didn’t seem too happy because our display was too scary for their young kids. I have to admit that I didn’t really care. Every other house on the block was fine for little kids, but ours was the only one that had a line of teenagers. The little kids could skip our house. I’d even walk to the bottom of the driveway and give them candy.

The end of Halloween was sort of melancholy for us. It was over. There’s always something sad about dismembering your chicken-wire ghost bride and putting her into the attic.

Then, of course, we had to conduct a post-mortem analysis. What worked and what didn’t? It turned out that my rhymed narrative about the poisoning was a little bit long, despite the impressive special effects. People don’t appreciate literary efforts on Halloween. They really just want to be scared, and scared fast. The kid jumping out of the coffin was more effective.

“We need more of a shock effect,” I said. “Next year we should have props that move.”

I had no idea how to make props that move, and I was already walking away, but Stan was on it. “We’d need an air compressor, pneumatics…”

•••

He discovered that there was an online community of “haunters,” as they called themselves. For years I’d been the one with the online life. When our kids were little, I discussed pressing matters like toilet-training with faceless names on the computer screen.

Now Stan had discovered the social aspect of the internet. Only, instead of discussing how to get kids to eat vegetables, he and his new friends talked about things like “corpsing,” which is making something look like a decaying cadaver, and recipes for fake blood. Instead of discussing the best places to buy diapers, the haunting boards explode when the cheap skeletons arrive at Wal-mart. The haunters fell into one of two camps, those who preferred electric motors (“smoother action,” they claimed) and those who preferred air cylinders (“more force!”) As you might imagine, the arguments could be fierce. If you’ve ever seen the anatomy of a breast vs. bottle flame war, you know what I’m talking about.

Stan talked to me about his new friends by name, or handle. When he spoke of “Mary the Scary” (name changed) it was with reverence. She knew how to weather Styrofoam stones, how to animate props through a computerized controller. She created tutorials and attended haunting conventions.

“She has a lot of authority,” Stan said.

With the support of Mary and the other haunters, last year our Halloween display was more interactive. Gone were the static displays in the front yard. Instead, Stan turned the garage into a haunted house.

I came up with the theme of The Plague. I recruited actors to play the part of plague victims and doctors, as well as some witches, for good measure. I got out the sewing machine that I hadn’t used since my ill-fated stint at a sewing class as the local community college. (I had left in disgrace after an extended bout of uncontrollable laughter when the elderly instructor kept calling asterisks astronauts.) This time I got a friend to show me how to use the thing and I created tunics for the actors. I never sewed anything other than tunics but I sewed a lot of them.

I also was responsible for the pustules. Here’s how I made them. I’d take a little piece of a cotton ball and put it on a plate. Then I’d cover it with Elmer’s Glue. When it dried I dabbed red and green paint on it with a Q-tip to suggest oozing blood and pus. When it was all dry, I peeled it off and adhered it to the plague victims’ faces with either more glue or something called spirit gum. But don’t go by what I say. You can probably find a Youtube tutorial on this if you want to try it yourself. My memory is fuzzy. I’m not good at crafts. We had a big problem with pustules falling off people’s faces.

Stan did the rest. The props he created were mechanical wonders. There was the corpse that jumped out the coffin, the “hanging man” who writhed around and screamed, the guy who pulled apart the bars of his prison cell and stuck his head out when trick-or-treaters approached.

•••

This is the third year of our haunt. It’s more elaborate than ever. I can’t say much more because I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I’ll say that some of the props that Stan’s been working on in the driveway have drawn concerned looks from our neighbors. There’s a certain look they give us. People walking their dogs just stop and stare for a long time. They say nothing. Then they walk away. Nobody ever says anything.

Bicycles, electric fans and ice cream makers lie, torn up, in our garage, cannibalized for their motors and wheels. A structure that looks suspiciously like gallows stands next to a tree in our front yard.

We are not ideal neighbors.

There’s a certain point in our planning when we question ourselves. Why are we doing this? In a way it all seems so…stupid. To spend all this time on an event that’s over in one night? It’s as if once the intense years of child-raising were over, we had to find a new project. A new way to express our creativity. And for reasons we can’t understand, we chose mechanical corpses jumping out at screaming children.

Maybe this will be the last year. Maybe next year we’ll sit on the stoop like normal people, compliment kids on their superhero costumes, and hand out Tootsie Rolls.

But on the other hand, I’m prone to good ideas.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The links in this essay will take you to actual footage from Jody and Stan’s extravaganzas. I seriously recommend clicking. —Ed.

The Insomniac’s To Do List

A guide to getting things done at 3 a.m.

googly eyes
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

1. Keep close track of exactly how much sleep you’ll get if you fell asleep right now. Repeat every half hour.

2. Ponder why you said the dumb-ass thing you said today. If you didn’t say a dumb-ass thing today, revisit one you said sixteen years ago, at a job you used to have, to people you don’t know anymore. Consider how badly those people must think of you.

3. Resolve to use this time wisely. Think about cleaning the bathroom but then remember that you hate cleaning the bathroom and, plus, the cleaner is in the other room and you wouldn’t want to wake anyone up. Instead, decide to do some serious writing, unlike the stupid writing you do for a living.

4. Berate yourself for doing stupid writing for a living. Imagine the disgust that the seventeen-year-old you would feel for you if she knew the kind of writing you’d end up doing.

5. Imagine the disappointment your high school English teacher would feel if she knew.

6. Wonder if your high school English teacher would remember you anyway, despite the brilliance you demonstrated in class when you wrote that farce about archetypes. Consider the notion that perhaps you were not as brilliant as you always thought you were and that maybe you were really just a smart-ass.

7. Remember the mean thing that one person in high school did to you that one time. Look that person up on Facebook and feel vindicated that he is recently divorced, not because, obviously, being divorced is evidence of a character flaw, but because clearly in this case his wife left him because he was an asshole who did mean things to people. Haha.

8. Wonder what the fuck that noise was.

9. Entertain an extremely disturbing thought: how many insects are in this house right at this very moment?

10. Become convinced that there is a microscopic bug crawling on your leg. Challenge yourself to not scratch. Dammit.

11. Remember about bedbugs. Google how to check for bedbugs. Feel sick. Seriously disgusted.

12. Read a book.

13. Realize that you’ve lost your attention span for reading. Or maybe it’s your rapidly worsening short vision that’s the problem. In either case, consider that it may be caused by a brain tumor.

14. Google brain tumors and learn that you definitely have one.

15. Think about making a video for your children with all the advice you’d like to leave them, like how to choose a mate, how to set goals and stick with them, how to do the right thing when their friends are doing the wrong thing, and just how to be a kind person. Then remember that they don’t listen to you anyway so fuck it.

16. Instead, plan the music you’d like at your funeral. Start a “Funeral Playlist” on Spotify. Include some Morrissey because every funeral should have some Morrissey songs.

17. Give some serious consideration to how much further you’d be in your career if you hadn’t majored in the wrong thing in college.

18. Compile a list of all the people you know who are younger than you who are more accomplished in a similar career.

19. Fantasize about doing something inappropriate with someone you shouldn’t think about.

20. Resolve to be more patient with your elderly father, even when he tells you about his dispute with the phone company for the hundredth time, or when he answers the door wearing just a carelessly tied bathrobe despite expressly promising on the phone that he would put on pants.

21. Reflect on what a shitty person you are because you know damn well you will not be more patient with your father.

22. Make a list of all the things you’ve been neglecting to do. Make sure to include the oil change that your car is 1,560 miles overdue for and your mammogram.

23. Panic.

24. Find a bottle of expired Ativan and wonder if expired Ativan will just not work or if it will harm you.

25. Do something productive. Plan menus and a shopping list for the week. Start with eggs.

26. Notice that you’re really hungry.

27. Deny yourself food because it’s 3:30 a.m. and people who eat at 3:30 a.m. are either teenagers or have a big problem.

28. Think about your own teenagers and compile a list of all the things that worry you about them. Start with your older one, who’s in college. Is she eating enough? Does your younger one spend too much time texting, playing video games and watching Dr. Who reruns?

29. Move onto things that they don’t do but might do someday, like binge drink, drive recklessly, and smoke crack. If people still smoke crack. Research what the popular drugs are with the kids these days. Feel nostalgic about smoking pot in college.

30. Check your spam folder in case a really good writing assignment ended up there. Read about how you can get a sexy body that sizzles, rock-hard abs, and lose fifteen pounds in four weeks with just one brand new product. Also read a nice message from a hot Ukrainian girl with beautiful eyes who is ready to “correspond to erotic themes.”

31. Consider what the chances are that, in your forties, you’ll actually lose weight and decide that all your exercising has been a waste of time. Think of other people in their forties who are skinny and hate them. I mean, seriously, seriously hate them because they eat whatever they want and don’t exercise and look at them. Assholes.

32. Read an article about how lack of sleep can make you gain weight and can also adversely affect your mental health. Freak out about how you will never sleep again and you’ll end up the size of a house and also deranged and when you die they’ll have to take the door off its hinges to carry you out, and they’ll put you in a double-sized coffin and that’s all anybody will think about at the funeral, not the playlist you put together for their enjoyment.

33. Have a sudden, searing realization that one day your dogs will die. Cry. Because dogs are the best thing ever, especially your dogs. The way they look at you with those big eyes and wag their tails so hard their butts slide back and forth on the floor. The way they sigh and lean their bodies against you when you take a nap. My god, why do they have to die?

34. Calculate the very latest you can wake up and still get your son to school on time. Set your alarm.

35. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Hole in the Story

ghosttree
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

by Jody Mace

When my father was a teenager in Atlanta, wild dogs had become a problem in Adams Park. He and his friends were enlisted by the park rangers to ride through the park on horses, shooting the dogs. He never said much more about the incident, but why would he need to? The bare bones of the story were plenty.

I didn’t entirely believe it, but it was still my favorite dad story. I liked it better than the many variations of how he impressed the staff at restaurants (Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian) with his linguistic prowess. (He punctuated these stories by spitting out guttural sounds that he claimed were phrases in those languages.) I liked it better than the one about how he played golf just one time, with coworkers, and they were amazed at his natural skill. Or how, while in the Air Force, he was invited to become an astronaut, and, after successfully completing training, he decided he didn’t want to be an astronaut after all.

Those stories were lacking a couple things, but most notably, teenage boys galloping on horseback shooting guns in a park.

There were some holes in the story. It didn’t seem likely that any governmental authority would enlist teenagers to shoot at dogs, even back in 1949. But not just that. At the time, my father lived above his father’s grocery store in an urban area, sharing a bedroom with his Yiddish speaking grandmother. He rode streetcars and bought candy. He didn’t have a Wild West kind of upbringing.

He’s eighty now and his memory is shot. It’s not just short-term memory, although the repeated phone calls asking me what time I’m picking him up for lunch can send me around the bend. He’s losing details about things I thought he’d never forget: which college my brother went to, what musical instrument I played as a child. The other day a new acquaintance asked him how his wife died seventeen years ago and he didn’t seem to remember that she died of metastasized breast cancer. He didn’t remember the chemotherapy, the radiation, the surgery, her devastating decline. He answered, “It wasn’t her heart,” then went quiet. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe it was too traumatic to revisit. But maybe the memory really was gone.

So when he tells his unlikely stories there’s no way to really know which details spring from memory and which are just from the habit of telling the story. When you repeat a story a lot, details gain authority—even if you’re not eighty.

•••

When my son was six, he accidentally knocked a trinket off a table at a flea market. The vendor exploded at my son and towered over him, waving his arms and yelling, until my boy started to cry. The item, which was worthless crap anyway, wasn’t even broken. My husband confronted the vendor. He didn’t actually say much—just, “If you have a problem with him, talk to me!” But we hadn’t even reached the car before the embellishments began. My husband was all in this guy’s face. He shoved him. The vendor cowered before him. He apologized. In some particularly enthusiastic tellings of the story, the vendor wet his pants. When I try to picture this event, I see it just as we tell it. My husband, nose-to-nose with the bully, standing up for our little son. I’m sure that our son, now fifteen, has no doubt about his dad’s heroics at that flea market.

That’s the power of story-telling. The way you tell a story can become more real than what really happened.

So who knows what happened in Adams Park in Atlanta sixty-four years ago? There’s no way to verify.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. During today’s visit after the usual business (the 500-foot roll of professional grade plastic wrap that he bought me off the internet, why his remote control didn’t work, the new brand of pickle relish he’s trying, which of the Harry Potter books is his favorite), I asked him about the story. For the first time, I asked him if it really happened the way he always told it.

And this time he told it a little bit differently. He said, “So they let us ride the horses for free or very cheap, and we rode around and scared the dogs away from the picnic tables.”

“So the part about the guns, that was just made up?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t shoot at dogs.”

“Had you ever ridden a horse before then?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

And suddenly the picture in my head changed. No longer did I see horses galloping through a park, ridden by wild, gun-wielding boys. Now I imagined city boys timidly perched on gentle horses, walking on a path.

The story was terrible.

“Dad, I think you should tell it the old way.”

But he had already moved on.

“No, I had never shot at anything at that age. Except this one time with Joe Arnold, who you didn’t know. He had a gun, a little .22 pistol, and we decided we were gonna go and shoot things. And I had a knack for it.”

He paused and leaned back.

“I shot a hole right through the middle of a dime.”

 •••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She likes to hear people tell their stories, especially when she’s not sure if they’re true.