Every six months our health inspector arrives at our outlet grocery store with a clipboard wedged under his armpit, a stained governmental baseball cap covering his balding head, and a mouth on him as garrulous as a pubescent girl’s. Because he is our health inspector whose good opinion is vital to our store, I always act like he’s my best friend who I just love to catch up with twice a year.
In reality, I dread his arrival.
Last March when he saw me sitting in the office while working on my manuscript, he nodded at my laptop, then said, “Is that there one of them trashy romance novels?”
I reassured him that it was not and he said, “Well, my wife always said she’d like to write a romance novel, but she just ain’t got ’round to it yet.”
“Is that right?” I said while trying to smile.
He smiled in return. “Sure ’nough. She wants to write one just like Nora Roberts.”
For the next half hour I was given a lecture on the publishing world -- which was about as informative as a groundhog holding a symposium about the moon -- but it was worth it. When the lecture was over, the health inspector took a look-see around the store and gave us a ninety-nine out of a possible hundred points.
Needless to say, when the health inspector poked his baseball-capped head into the office this week and bellowed, “How-dy!” it was all I could do not to groan.
We made small talk for a few minutes, then he asked, “How many kids y’all got?”
“Actually,” I said, “we’re expecting our first.”
“Welllll! I thought you were expecting the last time I was here!”
I wanted to ask how he had thought this but feared the answer.
“My cousin just gave birth,” he said, then shook his head and clucked his tongue. “She had a real hard time. She was in labor for hours and hours, and the baby got stuck in her…” He grinned sheepishly and lowered his voice. “Well, in her ca-nal. They had to cut her open, but by this time she’d been laboring so long and so hard that she had a fever and the baby had a fever. When the baby come out, they had to stick an IV in her, but they have to be real careful that they didn’t blow out a vein.”
At this point all I wanted was to plug my ears or tell the health inspector to keep his horror stories to himself, but then we also needed a good health score on the inspection sheet, and I did not want to say anything that might thwart that. So, I simply let the man keep on talking. And keep on talking he did.
“The baby wouldn’t even nurse right after that,” he continued. “She lost a whole bunch of ounces, but the doctors said that’s pretty normal for being in the hospital.”
Seeing an opportunity to change the subject and not realizing I was opening up a whole new can of worms, I snapped, “I’m not giving birth in a hospital, but a natural childbirth center. My husband and I just visited the facility this week.”
“Wellllll,” the health inspector said.
I didn’t even let him gather steam. “Yes, we watched this video called, ‘The Business of Being Born,’ and it talked all about the increase of C-sections over the years and how we can avoid them.”
“Oh, I’ve already got my opinion on that.” (Somehow I didn’t doubt he did.) Lowering his clipboard to the desk, the health inspector moved his hands in the hour-glass gesture. “You see . . . when you look at a cow and she don’t got hips wide enough to give birth, then you just don’t breed her. It’s the same with women: The ones with narrow hips aren’t meant to have children, so they hafta give birth through C-sections. Then they pass that narrow-hipped gene on to their girls and they give birth through C-sections, too.”
He looked up and smiled. That’s when he saw my frown.
“Of course,” he said, pointing at my boyish hips like I was just a cow going up for auction, “gals your size give birth all the time, and they don’t got a stitch of trouble.”
“Is that right?” I said while trying to smile.
He smiled in return. “Sure ’nough.” Grabbing his clipboard, the health inspector then touched a finger to the brim of his governmental cap and clomped down the office steps into the store. Five minutes later, he handed me the pink and yellow papers to sign. At the top was the usual ninety-nine out of a possible hundred points.
Suddenly that number seemed pretty stingy to me.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
I tried, honestly I did. I lasted a whole eight hours before my sister-in-law came into our store the morning after the discovery and gave me her usual bone-popping hug. When I started blushing and staring pointedly at the computer screen, she knew something was amiss. I tried to shrug it off by the "woke up on the wrong side of the bed" routine, but then I sleep between my husband and the wall--not a whole lot of options there. Five minutes later, I caved and my sister-in-law collapsed onto the floor and just stared up at me, her mouth agape.
For almost a month, she was the only person besides my husband who knew, then I visited my friend and she unveiled the secret before I even had a chance to blurt it out.
Two days later, I told my book club girls. A week after that, my parents, my brothers (the elder yelled the news to his best friend as soon as I had relayed it; the younger curled against the couch and stared at me like I was some blond version of Edward Scissorhands). Next, I told my husband's parents, his siblings, and our nieces and nephews, then our cashier who probably found out the same day as my sister-in-law. But there was still someone I hadn't told: my best friend who was traversing across Europe and wouldn't be back for another month and a half.
I didn't want to share such a secret on some social media medium like Facebook or Skype, so I knew the only way I could tell her was face-to-face. I imagined taking a long walk and running back through all of our quaint childhood memories. Just as the sun was about to set, I would look over, smile with the mystique of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and tell my best friend the news.
It didn't happen that way. Not at all. For two whole months I hadn't talked to her in case I would let the secret slip. I had just sent her terse little messages that could've been transposed from any generic greeting card. But the day after my best friend's return to the States, I called her so we could make plans to meet the following afternoon. We exchanged small talk, then she said, "We have so many stories to tell."
I simply replied, "Yes, we do have a lot to catch up on."
The line went silent; I winced and looked at the shattered screen of my cell phone. Then my best friend said what I had been wanting to tell her for over sixty days: "ARE YOU PREGNANT?!?!"
Now it was my time to be silent as these words, probably plagiarized from some country song, ran through my head: Do I lie tonight and tell the truth tomorrow? But as soon as I started stammering and blushing, I knew any chance of subterfuge was for naught.
"Uhhh--huhhh, yes..." I said. "I'm--I'm expecting."
Although it wasn't the Big Reveal I had imagined, as I listened to my best friend scream, then her family echo her as the wildfire of news spread and as they called my mother and put her on speakerphone -- playfully berating her for keeping this from them for so long -- I realized the best moments in life are often those that don't go according to plan.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
I wanted to run in a marathon, get straight A's throughout college, master the mandolin, and publish a book. The rest of the goals I cannot remember; there were over a hundred of them and the list was lost somewhere between college and home, but these few remain with me, and I believe they always will.
Tomorrow I turn twenty-five -- a quarter of a century if you're trying to make my impending age sound really old -- and I haven't darned a sock. In my defense, that was really a stupid goal to write. Nobody wears socks anymore that you can even darn, and long ago I bucked against my Old Order Mennonite heritage by refusing to sew the apron my mother thought would make a great summer project. Instead, I swam in cow ponds until my patriotic one piece turned red, brown and blue. I "rescued" baby snappers from along the banks of the creek with my brother and let them scramble across our claw-foot bathtub. I went spelunking with my best friend, envisioning the watery caves filled with treasure belonging to lost Old World explorers. No wonder I never really learned how to sew on anything except buttons.
That apple pie I was going to bake from scratch never happened. It's not that I don't like to bake, but that I am terrified of butter--and how can you bake an apple pie without that? For a while there I tried to replace all oils with prune puree and plain yogurt. My husband, who will usually eat something only fit for the dog and with a smile on his face, would tentatively taste some of my tweaked recipes and wrinkle his nose. After a year of this, I finally gave in and used applesauce as a butter replacement instead.
I've never actually stood under a proscenium arch, and I don't think I would remember what it looked like even if I did. I think it resembles the Arc de Triomphe, and the closest I have ever come to this was a sweetheart display at Dollywood my husband and I posed under last year.
Kissing the love of my life in the rain? That might've happened once or twice, but I'm pretty sure they were only goodbye pecks, not the From Here to Eternity rolling around in the sand scene my adolescent heart had envisioned.
The marathon...well, that's another goal I never reached unless you're counting when I decided to run in a 5K I had not trained for, and my lungs felt like they were splintered by the time I crossed the finish line and stumbled back to the Jeep. Now whenever I hear the techno music I was listening to on my iPod that sleeting winter day, I am conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to sit down with my head between my knees or else I will barf.
For a while there the straight A's through college looked good until the liberal arts university forced me -- an English and Communication Arts double major! -- to take a math class. By the time I remembered how to divide and multiply fractions, we were on to algebra. By the time we were on to geometry, I was sitting at my desk in tears. I was one of the last to turn in my final, but all my mental drudgery was to no avail: I received my only college level C while taking basic math.
Somewhere between my mother's desire to turn me into the next Barbara Mandrell and Nickel Creek disbanding, I lost the desire to master the mandolin. Those thirteen years (yes, thirteen; I wince just typing that) I clipped my nails so I could press down on the instrument's strings and sat in a folding chair, plucking out grating notes, while my teacher tried to withhold his/her frustration, were not all for naught. Whenever I hear a song like "Ode to a Butterfly," my dream to play like Nickel Creek will unravel itself from the cocoon of my childhood dreams. I'll take that $100 baby out and pluck a few chords, then -- discouraged by the skill I have forgotten -- I'll put the mandolin back in its ancient case where it will wait until I remember it's there and come at it with my feather duster once again.
Out of all these goals I have failed, the one that haunts me the most is the one I thought would be easier to reach than darning a sock: I haven't published a book. To those of you reading, I know the ease in which I hoped to accomplish this was somewhat naive. Okay, a whole lot naive. But by fifteen I had already written a book that filled up my two-hundred page journal. I had notebook after notebook filled with my thoughts, stories, and general pubescent musings. Example: Does 8797 like me? Oh, I hope so! (I never put real names in my journals. With two brothers and a mother who believes journals can be subpoenaed by suspicious parents, naming my crushes felt as dangerous as naming Watergate informants.)
Now what felt like an infinity of years has passed in the colorful streak of a decade, and I have no book credits to my name. I am daily working toward that goal, yet it is still one I have not reached. At times I tell myself it does not matter as much as not having darned a sock or baked an apple pie from scratch does not matter, but deep down it does.
Then I remember what a bearded wise man once said (or maybe it was a fortune cookie): Sometimes the goals you seek the most, once accomplished, are those that let you down. So that's why I must remain true to the craft and not to the goal: I must write because writing helps me make sense of the world, not because it will give me a place in the world; because writing is my tether and also my wings; because the ability to write may take years and years to fully hone, but when it's all said and done, it's impossible for me to just let my keyboard or journals set around like my mandolin and collect years of leftover dreams and dust.
Not when there are such characters to meet and stories to tell.
This song's for all of you with goals that haven't been reached. Regardless if you're fifteen or fifty, there's still time to reach them. What do we have to really lose? We've only got a hundred years to live.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
But, as in everything, I also know that with this new home there will be things to miss about the old: Oddball characters being one of them.
I recall how my husband had walked up into our apartment and was standing against the kitchen sink, taking a long pull on a glass of water, when he heard the toilet flush and an ancient woman in an ankle-length flowered skirt and razored white hair stumbled out of our bathroom. She was just as shocked to see a man standing there as he was having a complete stranger taking advantage of our private plumbing facilities. To her credit (and my husband's) neither of them screamed, and I came up and we carefully led the woman back down the steps into our store. She was so incredibly feeble, it was a mystery to us how she had ever climbed up them.
Then there was the time I was sitting on the couch late one evening, typing on my laptop, when I heard someone jiggle the locked handle to our front door. Not only did the person jiggle it, but he twisted and pulled as if trying to force it open. My head popped up, and I looked over at the turning door handle in horror-movie disbelief. I then slapped my hands on either side of my face (a la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone) and screamed, "Somebody's trying to break in!"
Being the go-getter that he is, my husband slapped open the door between our office and apartment, tore across the living room, unlocked and flung back the front door. He was going to wrestle the robbers barehanded, I guess. Three minutes later, he came inside and looked at me sitting on the couch while still trying to decide if I should grab a tennis racket and go help my husband or call 911.
"The cops..." he breathlessly explained. "They were doing their rounds, and they tried the door to make sure it was locked."
Since my 6'2'' husband came charging after the LPD, they haven't been back to do their security rounds. I think they figure with such an intrepid owner, our store does not need their assistance.
This past fall, when my father had just started living with us three days a week while working part time on his and my mother's new house neighboring ours, my husband and I heard a knock on the door. I decided it must be my father coming back to get a tool he had forgotten, so I casually walked over in my bathrobe and slippers and opened that front door wide.
My face burning just as brightly as the FedEx man's, I slammed the door shut just as he -- not knowing what else to do -- held the computerized clipboard out and mumbled, "Sign here." Being far more modestly garbed, my husband went outside to talk to the FedEx man who kept apologizing over and over since he thought the door that said "Private" just referred to our offices.
Then there was the Monday afternoon I went up to the apartment for a snack and saw a maroon SUV parked right next to our Jeeps. By the time we had closed the store the SUV was gone, but the next Monday -- sometime in the afternoon -- it reappeared. I didn't think too much of it since many people will use our parking lot as a meeting point, but one time I just so happened to go outside for the mail and witnessed the man and woman who were meeting outside our store.
The man wore a white collared shirt, slacks, tie, polished shoes, and a dull wedding band. The woman in the SUV wasn't so nicely groomed. She had badly permed and peroxidized hair that sprayed around her face in fried little tufts. Her makeup was so thick it surely wouldn't melted down her wattled neck if she stared too long at the sun. She wasn't dressed like the profession I suspected her of and the soccer-mom SUV threw me off so much that I told myself I had to be wrong. But then I went inside and waited. I stood there and nibbled on an apple for ten minutes instead of my usual two. I then slitted open the blinds and checked to see if the man's tan car was gone.
Walking outside as if to get something from my car, I looked over at the motel located right next to us and my suspicions were immediately confirmed. The tan car was now parked over at the motel. Two hours later, the SUV and the tan car were both gone.
The next Monday, when I went up to the apartment for the snack I had no appetite to consume, I looked out the window and saw the woman getting out of her maroon SUV and into the married man's car. I was so infuriated by the situation that I ran down into the store and told my husband I had seen them again.
Knowing exactly who "them" was, my husband ran up through the store and out the apartment. The man and woman had left our parking lot and were now over at the motel. Peering through the blinds, I watched my husband stalk over to the motel right toward that tan car. He then said something to the couple and pointed back to our store.
One minute later, the man dropped the woman off at her SUV, and they pulled out of the parking lot in their separate vehicles, but not before the woman spewed her limited vocabulary upon my husband.
When he came inside, I asked what he had said to get them to leave. He just shrugged. "I told them I knew what was going on, and they couldn't use our parking lot for such things. If they ever came back, I told them I'd report their license plate numbers."
"Could you?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Probably not, but they don't know that."
Now, as I type these stories, I am sitting on my front porch overlooking the softly rolling Cumberland Mountains, and I find that I am so eager to move here that the time until we do cannot come quickly enough. But then, I know that I must remember: My husband and I wouldn't appreciate this picturesque setting if we hadn't lived in our apartment adjacent to our grocery store and experienced all the oddities and oddballs who came along with it.
So, thank you, disoriented elderly lady, the local police force doing their nightly rounds, red-faced FedEx man who was definitely not my father, and the couple who I hope are a couple no more. Y'all've certainly made these three years interesting, I'll give ya that.