Posts Tagged 'storytelling'


My mother ran the kitchen like clockwork and there was nothing that made her happier than preparing the annual summer family feast. Out of doors appetites are apt to be huge, and mother never let anyone go away hungry.

The year I turned seven was the first year I was allowed to help. While mother washed potatoes, got out bottles of pickles and okra and complained about the cost of flour, I ran to-ing and fro-ing, getting her the things she hadn’t known she’d want until just that moment.

“Tell Edwin to sharpen that axe,” she’d say, and I’d run outdoors and tell him quick as that.

“Take the buttermilk out of the cellar,” she’d say, and I’d bring it up, thick and chilled in a crockery pitcher.

“There’s elderberry wine for your uncle William,” she’d say. “Just leave it there for now, I don’t want to be giving it out to the whole family.” I went down there anyway and tasted it. Not very good. Kinda sour and bitter, not near as good as cough syrup.

The week went by fast, multiple preparations, pies to make, chickens to kill. Old chickens are stringy and tough, but bake them long enough in buttermilk in a deep casserole with a lot of potatoes and they come out okay. It was a hard year, I guess, but a feast is a feast, even if it’s spread a little thin.

Fortunately for us, there was a salesman came by in a wagon passing by on his way from Kansas to California. He had what he called crudités in his wagon, which looked like picked cauliflower and carrots to me, but it had a good sound to it. He talked to mother about how to handle chicken to keep it tender. Resist the temptation to toss, he said, while showing her how to handle those scrawny wrung out birds like they were made of silk, turning them gently in the flour then dunking in egg and browning them like they were royal damn peacocks or something.

What you need is some bigger meat for your feast, he said. And some fresh greens. I got a friend in Lawrence been raising lettuce and cucumber. Mother didn’t know about that. They sounded French to her. She’d also figured out that this salesman was probably going to hang around long enough to get himself invited. Father said go get it, then. He always did want to have the biggest best newest of everything, French or not, and especially so at the annual feast. So the salesman went, and came back with slabs of ribs lying on ice, with lettuce and cucumbers wrapped in soft cloths and tucked in between. 

Sweet tooth

My father is a dentist and he loves you more than Jesus, because your father owns the candy store. The candy store is always between the cigar store and the liquor store, that’s what my cousin Lily Marie said when she was sixteen and went to the cigar store to buy cigarettes and ask old Ben Murphy, who was janitor at the City of Cocola Elementary School from 1954 til 1997, to buy her some Annie Greensprings Apple Wine. He died of sugar diabetes, old age, and pesticide accumulation, according to Lily Marie’s uncle Ed Loughlin, who was the only doctor in the City of Cocola.

I myself am glad your father owns the candy store, because it means that every kid in Cocola will eventually come into my father’s business, and I get to hand out the lollipops and the troll dolls that my dad the dentist gives out to any kid that doesn’t bite him or kick. There are a surprising number of kids who won’t bite or kick if they think they might get something for not doing it. My dad says that proves  they can control their heathen impulses and if it was up to him he’d beat every last one of them for their cowardly ways and it was just proof that the City of Cocola was founded by fools.

The City of Co-cola was founded in 1896 by Jebediah Wright, a candy and whisky maker who moved from Sioux City Iowa to Flagstaff just in time to not freeze to death that year and with enough provisions to make a good living for himself when he set up the next spring.


 (15 minutes, just a scrap of an idea)

She rose up

All night long, the outside world bellowed. Bellowed, honked, shrieked, krilled, ululated and yowled. She tossed restlessly, nearly sleeping but disturbed by the concatenation of sounds rising in hysterical crescendo and then falling into brief staccato silences. She woke, and slept, and woke, and slept, until 3 a.m., when the full moon was hot and the orchestra was tuning up for another movement.

“I am afraid I never will do that,” she told herself as she considered sleeping in the basement, with the spiders and the goblins still hiding in the shadows of her childhood. She rose up in her blue nightgown and went outside, where she sat on the porch swing. The silver lace vine shone in the moonlight, the honeysuckle twitched as if its dreams were restless.

At 3:20, he went past the house where he used to live. It was now even more worn by time and weather than it had been. He stopped, to see it better, and turned off his car engine. The house seemed smaller, and ghostly in the flat white light of the high summer moon. Sitting on a porch swing sat a girl, swinging gently, in a blue nightgown and bare feet. She was singing a song, a ballad of danger and gypsy love that sounded so familiar he spontaneously got out of the car and walked toward her in the moonlight.

The girl looked up and their eyes met. She stopped swinging. The birds and the beasts in the barnyard started up again and within seconds they were wrapped in cacophonous, ratcheting, chaotic sound. 

 “Good gracious!” she said, getting off the swing and stepping onto the cool grass. She started toward the house, the house with the silent windows, that seemed to him to be empty.

“No!” he said. “Stop!” But she didn’t, she didn’t stop and the house swallowed her up and the sounds were swallowed with her and he stood on the front porch in the moonlight, saying “Mom? Mom?” to the empty rooms and gaping windows and the moon slid behind the clouds in the sudden silence.







In the clattering crowded mechanical toy factory, the toys had no ears. The tracks and pullies and conveyor belts and cranes lifted and lowered all of the levers and bolts, the brackets and wombas that, once assembled, went out into the heavy air of the city and were placed on the shelves of the city’s toy stores. The toy stores were filled with shrill bamboozling and pounding electric rhetoric, all rhythmic and clashing, and the mechanical toys were lined up, one by one by one, in the aisles with their blinking lights and sale signs. The toys swiveled their mechanical heads on their clockwork necks, side to side. The store was bright and smelled of motor oil and air freshener. The toys could not smell the smells, could not hear the sounds, but could see clearly, with their painted metal eyes, everything and everyone in the store. The swiveling heads of the toys took in the swiveling heads of the people who walked through the stores, rotating their people heads from side to side, withdrawing or advancing toward things randomly, it seemed, to the toys who had no ears. The small people, in particular, ran close up to things with cylinders and bells, pulling on the big people’s hands and moving their mouths in big, open shapes. Sometimes they screwed their eyes shut and liquid squirted out. Sometimes the big people picked up the little people and carried them outside, to sit on a bench until the little one’s face had stopped leaking.

One day, as one might expect, a sort of magic mechanical elf appeared in the biggest toy store. Unlike the round-eyed mechanical toys with their watchful ways, the elf had pointed metal ears, rather large for his head, and he brought ideas to the others that they’d never considered before. At night, the elf went into the supply room, where he found small scraps of metal and a soldering iron and curly metal shards that made lovely hair for the mechanical toys that framed their new ears quite nicely. Quickly he worked through the night and into the next day, which was Sunday and the store was closed. Just as the sun was rising on that Monday, every toy in the store touched their mechanical ears with their cool metal fingers. The storekeeper came in and pulled on the shade that covered the front window.

“Snap!” said the shade. “Twingle-ingle-ingle” said the bell at the top of the door. A row of mechanical toys fell on the floor, writhing with surprise. The storekeeper, who was himself a bit hard of hearing, turned on the radio, the lights, the bamboozlers and the wombas, and set all the cranes and pulleys into motion. The electric trains started up with a shrill squealing sound, and more toys fell off their shelves, rolling in agony from side to side, covering their ears, looking with their eyes for that elf, the elf and his magic tricks, and then the children came in with their crying and laughing and shouting, and then the toys found the elf, found the elf on a shelf under the cash register, near the shop keeper, and he stayed there all day, until the shopkeeper went home and the store was silent once again. The toys with their ears came for him, then, with their mechanical arms raised, metal eyes sparking. Next morning, every toy had simple round heads with round simple eyes, and the elf was never seen in the city any more.

Nkebe de Argentina

Clover comes in three colors: pea green, pale yellow and a bright unbelievable crimson – the crimson is only seen in Argentina, and even then only rarely. The national dance of Argentina is currently the hokey pokey, which seems to be a regional joke about politics and culture. The Argentinians are famous for their humor and their dancing, at least in their own minds. The tango was the first dance that provided enough leverage for the Argentinian culture to make the trip to western civ and back again, dressed in silk ruffles and Spanish combs. It was the tango that brought redemption to Argentina, helped break the country loose from the prison of poverty, with its frequent outbreaks of leprosy and the midnight elopements of girls marrying Greek immigrant gauchos, who carried them over the Argentinian pampas, living on hard tack and beef jerky. The saddleback mountains of northern Argentina are often enveloped in smoke, smoke and fog, that provides protection for a cloistered bunch of ornery old monks, Tibetan refugees hiding from the Greeks and the Argentinians alike. They are whimsical, deeply religious monks, and have ceremonies in the monastery that are magical and arcane. These they advertise by the hanging of prayer flags, scattered at intervals throughout the rocky terrain. Over the years the Tibetans have taken other lost Asians into the order, with monks eventually from Bangladesh and Calcutta, as well as from the Congo, some of them picked up during colonial safaris and sold for silver or bananas, but all of them ending up eventually in Argentina. One of these, whose name is Nkebe, jumped off a truck to keep from being sold and discovered. Nkebe had been on an involuntary road trip to everywhere, and everywhere made a point of having noxious grooming, with loud raspberries, farting and many vulgar comments about nose hair. Anything to keep the men on the road from seeing her as something other than one of them. She smoked and rambled and spit without regard, scratching herself in the back seat or the front. When the monks finally taught her how to write, finding she was bright and quick, she revealed herself to them. They ejected her from the monastery immediately, leaving her to live alone in the smoky foggy mountains and to write these stories that we will share with you now.


Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1928.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. You know, you’ve seen it before. Maybe it’s even been you.

We are a pretty clever set, I fancy, but we have a good many advantages. Being solitary is not one of our advantages. We are joiners, we support, we advocate, we are featured in our local papers. We are social and cultural, we contribute to our communities. You know us.

The people I love the best jump into work head first. This was a surprise to me at first, but in retrospect, I can see that this was, I don’t know, predictable or inevitable. Predictable or inevitable – how are those words alike, how are they different?

When I met Ginger 20 years ago, she went by Jinx. She was a red-headed girl, newly married and boisterous in her outlook. “Is marriage a constraint or a comfort?” She asked during gin nights in our newly married club in the Silicon Valley. This was a very good question at the time, much discussed, and support groups supported questioning and affirmed affirming. Her eyes were often red.  She does not go by Jinx anymore. Or by Ginger. She goes by her birth name, Elizabeth, or Betty, and that suits the person she is now.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. When I realized she was ill I was transported suddenly and unexpectedly into those years before, when our advantages were both meta-analyzed and taken for granted. She looks ill, like a charcoal sketch of herself drawn by a weak hand, smudged and only recognizable to me who watched the sketch being made.

 The past is a zesty remembrance some days, and a muddy sack cloth clinging, dragging me down on others. She never knew how robustly her love defended me against the collapse of my pride. Or maybe she knew. Maybe we talked about it endlessly, that spiraling rondele of confessional friendship that is as reassuring as a nursery rhyme. Fri Felipe Fri Felipe duermes tu duermes tu. Toca la campana toca la campana, tan tan tan, tan tan tan.

I hear the church bells ringing this morning. The birds sing non-denominational songs. The Ginger-that-was left her husband and that predictability to marry a king of an exotic country, the UAE or Morocco or some such. I won’t say which one, and I should say that Ginger, Jinx and Elizabeth are not her real names. The king has had his revenge, and Ginger is home again, here in the cool foggy land on the west coast of the great experiment.

She is living with me, secretly, in hiding, and she is ill. When I answered her call, it was late for now, but early for then. Around midnight. Meet me in the Mission District, I will be wearing a mud cloth jacket that hangs below my knees. I took her home to my second divorce apartment in the Haight – little remnants of that early assumed privilege. She is feverish and talks a lot. I know too much – I suppose she will have to kill me, but that is a joke not to be repeated.

“I have someone else’s eyes in my head” she says, she moans, repeatedly, for hours until the fever has broken and then she looks pale again and docile as a china doll.

The king does not know yet that she still lives, and it will be a challenge to keep it that way.

Lina Jean

This is the true story of the spontaneous combustion of Lina Jean Morrow. She was the type of girl who was all legs and buck teeth at seven, all blonde glamour at thirteen, and all ashes and crispy burnt skin before she was 19.

Lina Jean Morrow’s life was short and bright and hard. There were few things Lina enjoyed more than sunning herself like a lizard in the spring air, which made the family laugh when she was their baby girl but made them mad and maddened as she grew into those teeth. She was a tall girl, a tall girl with a habit of looking over the shoulder of whoever she was talking to, causing many people to turn around and look behind themselves to see who she was addressing.  It was just Lina Jean’s way. The way she talked was slightly foreign, an accent that was not exactly refined or delicate, but satisfying and exotic, the way other people’s family dinners can be. Familiar but not family. That’s what Lina’s cousins said, when they talked about the conbustion.

Before she combusted, the cousins had a regular comedy routine of walking behind Lina, walking her runway walk, sticking out their teeth to imitate her bucktooth pouty lip ways. Most of the time, Lina ignored them, but once in a while one of them would pull on her hands, throw themselves at her feet and beg her to marry them, while the others punched each other, laughing til they fell down in the dirt. Lina kicked a cousin or two, and once announced, over her cousin Ned’s shoulder, that if he was her husband, she’d shoot his dick off, which should have been funny but instead caused a whole lot of cousins to stay away from her for a few weeks. Ned said he had dreams about that, the way she looked over his shoulder, like she was looking for the knife, he said.

One day, Lina was sunning herself like a lizard on a warm rock on a spring day and her baby toe caught on fire. A little trickle of smoke appeared and she looked at it, like she was admiring a pedicure or thinking about what color of polish to put on. The smoke turned to a bright red flame and traveled up the top of her foot and along her thin shin bones and from there spread suddenly, and the cousins said the heat could be felt two counties away. Ned, who was across the state line looking for work, turned his head and looked back over his shoulder. He could see the line of smoke turn oily and black, and he felt Lina Jean burn white hot, watched her skeleton soften and emit a fragile ghostly crunch. He has blisters on his face to this day to prove that he witnessed her last moments, and no one in Stitch County has ever doubted him.

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May 2020