RePair

tinyhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Cooke

My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.

His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.

I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.

There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.

And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.

•••

It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.

•••

The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”

I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.

“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”

I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.

•••

My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”

•••

Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.

I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.

Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.

I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.

•••

I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.

I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.

This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.

•••

My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.

•••

GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.

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The Ringing in My Ears

happy sad
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Randy Osborne

The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.

She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.

The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.

We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.

Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!

I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.

As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.

The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.

And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.

The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.

I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.

Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.

Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.

Briefly I left myself.

Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.

The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.

Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.

I turn. Cross.

To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.

My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.

I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.

Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.

Cross. Rise.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne here.

Transference: Love Me, Love My Problems

under desk
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By D. Baker

I’m crazy. I have been my whole life.

It was my first inheritance from my parents. On my father’s side, everyone’s a bipolar; they approached their insanity with buckets of alcohol. My mother’s family, though, settled into a nice, major depression, self-medicating through anxious and determined hard work.

I shook out in the middle—a mental illness called “Soft Bipolarity.” I’m too miserable to be a classic bipolar, but too irritable to be simply depressed. Doggedly atavistic, I’ve tried both the family home remedies. Neither worked.

Fortunately (?), I was born in the seventies; I could turn to counseling. In counseling, though, the dreadful reality of transference loomed inescapable: a miserable fact. Transference—like the wily Pan—always led me, unwitting, into inappropriate attachments to my counselors. I felt helpless against the inevitability that I would always pour unintended meaning into the interactions within the confines of four beige walls.

I recall my first experience with this, which was innocuous enough. I wasn’t sure how much older the counselor was than me—probably double my seventeen years. At the time, he seemed ancient. But his gentle and reproachless listening was a gift so deep and wide that none could compare. I came to conceptualize his small, windowless office as a down-coated nest, and I began to regard him as my BFF.

The next one was closer to my age. His office was furnished, audaciously, in black leather. The conflict that knotted inside me entering felt palpable and real. Only moments earlier, I had fumbled out my father’s car—a jalopy that held together through the creative application of wire coat hangers and duct tape.

Without insurance of any kind, how much did my father spend for my hour in air-conditioned luxury, face to face with this man whose chocolate curls and mahogany bookshelves dizzied up my mind? Whether my father expressed resentment at the cost, or whether I imposed it on myself without outside provocation, the money to buy those cool hours left me sick with guilt. Back at my house, there was no leather; the broken down, stained couch hid beneath a garish, threadbare sheet. How could I possibly justify treating my mental malady when, for the price of a few sessions, my parents could have replaced their couch with something clean and sturdy, if not new?

I recall nothing of what he might have said, that second counselor. What remains in my consciousness is yearning. I willed him to pull me close, so I could free his silken hair for my fingers to curl in as he pressed his lips to my throat, collarbone.

He never did.

There were others along the way. Although the impressions that they left don’t stand out in sharp relief, I know that I wanted them all. Because they, alone, understood. They—each of them—cared for me as no others had.

Free, with purchase.

•••

The last in my list of head trippers was a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Over the course of our time together, I went from calling him Dr. Mendenhall to Captain and finally to his first name, Jack.

We knew each other for a long time, if sporadically. The misfortune I faced with him lay in the reality that we had the twin brothers of sarcasm and irony lodged in our brains. Our conversations played out in wit and hilarity.

That was my problem. I wished it were his problem, too.

He warned me of it. I went to see him again after an eighteen-month tour through the depths of hell when my in-laws moved into my house and a dear friend died at the age of thirty-four. “This is dangerous,” Jack said. “When you try to work through emotions this intense, transference happens.”

“What does that mean?” I asked him, unwilling to settle for euphemisms and jargon.

“Well, we have to keep it real. I’m telling you up front so you know. Instead of being unwilling to discuss the giant elephant in the room, we talk about it. Acknowledging your feelings for me will be half the battle.”

When he said that, I both loved and hated him for it.

Loved, because he understood; he knew what would happen to me.

Hated, because I felt shorn of my defenses. He may as well have cut me to my nerves, and then blown cold air over them. The desperate, clutching nature of the lunatic embarrassed me. How I wished that I could pretend that I was not that being, not that irrational woman who would inevitably pine for her mental health care giver! I hadn’t expected to be called out on my junk. If we both recognized it at the outset, how could I pretend it wasn’t happening?

As predicted, the ever-mounting disappointment I felt at the end of our therapy hours seeped through me like a slow leak. And the eagerness that flitted in the space where I once had a heart and lungs annoyed me when I realized I’d traded in vital body parts for time in his presence.

One day, I wept in rage and shame for hating my mother-in-law. Rage, because I had newly stumbled upon an old journal entry made on a Christmas morning after she told me my husband and children were happier in my absence. Shame, because I did not believe that hatred was the right choice.

I importuned him, “Jack, fix me.”

But there was no simple solution for a situation in which one has been truly, deeply, and repeatedly wronged. So he set the problem back in my lap, leaving me with prayer as my ongoing, if ineffective, recourse.

Before he did, though, we laughed, exchanging sarcasms. I told him I didn’t want to kill her; I simply wanted to make her suffer.

“To the pain!” he said, borrowing a line from The Princess Bride. That he should know the movie well enough to quote it made my skin shiver in delight—was this not proof that we were kindred spirits?

“Let’s take away her Xanax,” I said, filled with glee.

“No; let’s not take it away, but replace half of it with sugar pills so she never knows when she’s going to get one that works.”

“No,” I said. “Not sugar pills. Poison.”

“Hmm.” He smiled. “I’m thinking something dark and sexy … what about hemlock?”

“Nightshade,” I said.

“Exactly.”

How, pray tell, could a girl hope to keep her wits about her in the presence of a man who knew to suggest dark, sexy hemlock? As I laughed, a tear slid over my top lip, salting the tip of my tongue. Shields up, I warned myself. You’re looking into his blue eyes far too long.

•••

I don’t see Jack anymore. We worked through so much that he became my biggest problem. I dreamt of him at night and woke to a sodden pillowcase, my eyelashes wet with tears. Catching myself, I choked back sobs, hoping my husband wouldn’t wake.

“Is this hurting your marriage?” Jack asked me. “Coming here?”

“Don’t speak,” I answered.

That night was Halloween. I stood outside in the cold for five hours, miserable at the spectre of the one right choice that faced me. Because, ultimately, my husband didn’t deserve my divided allegiance. Yes, he had failings, but so did I. My husband’s Asperger’s Syndrome was woefully ill-paired with my Soft Bipolar Disorder. Our cosmic mismatch spanned the emotional spectrum—where my husband felt almost nothing, I felt everything to the utmost degree.

The last time I saw Jack, my stupid voice betrayed me with its tremble, and I stared at the crumpled tissue in my hand. “Teach me how to be as unmoved by you as you are by me.”

“Am I unmoved by you?” he asked.

The moment held. I wanted to kiss his eyelids.

Siphoning off the intensity, his voice took on a theatrical tone. “Oh yes. I’m just a cold and unfeeling counselor.”

I cut him off. “I’m not coming back. I can’t do this anymore.”

“You don’t have to make that decision today,” he said. “I know you want everything wrapped up in a neat package, but this is something you have to think about.”

I steeled my resolve. “Do you imagine that I have thought of anything else this week?”

If he felt the same way, his feelings for me would have been called “counter-transference.” Something for which he was trained, instructed on how to remain professionally detached. But though he may have come to our encounters prepared, I owned no such clinical armor.

•••

Last summer, the gamble of life dealt me a heart problem. As I sat pondering my thirty-six years, I marveled that I had it all—a husband, two beautiful children, a house, and a dog. I owned the veritable American Dream. Crowning that, I’d even been published a couple of times. There was nothing of any import that I’d left undone.

So my heart problem brought with it an endowment of gratitude and contentment.

And yet.

And yet, once in a while a certain slant of light or scent on the breeze conjures Jack, unbidden, from my memory. I marvel at how freshly lanced I feel. A part of me wonders if my flight left Jack equally wrecked, if I had somehow slipped under his training and gotten to him, as he did me.

•••

 

Turns out you can tell this to your husband. All of it. Turns out, he will try to commiserate by telling you about a girl in college that he studied with all the time. And it turns out that all you will hear is, “I fell in love with someone and kept it a secret all these years.” That’s how bipolarity works. That’s the bad news.

The good news is you finally have decent medication. And with the help of decent medication, you move forward. You don’t have to carry it around for decades, mourning from the depths of your mood-disordered soul. After a few days, you can see what your husband’s intent was; in place of subterfuge and infidelity, he was really offering understanding and empathy.

You get to go back to being crazy—incognito. You get to tuck those unwelcome memories of Jack back in the mental box where they belong.

When you wake up and swallow your pretty pills, your handful of Skittles, you can, at long last, live life in the middle. And the middle rocks when compared to the bi-poles.

•••

D. BAKER is a writer living in the Intermountain West.