A random series of events put us in the middle of a small-town baseball field on the Fourth of July watching a fireworks display with hundreds of strangers. It started with the announcement that one of our favorite local rock bands, “Raging Wood” would be disbanding, their last performance to be the Fourth of July at Wanderoos, a small community a few miles north. I love this band, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. They have an eclectic play list—from Maggie Rose country to Led Zepplin rock (with a lot of surprises in between), and a great mix of talented musicians (FOUR lead vocalists trade off with songs that fit their individual voices and styles, and it’s a treat times four for the audience), add in the organ and harmonica, and you know you’re going to hear just about every dance-worthy genre. I knew we HAD to drag out of our comfort zones and go where no Hubbell has gone before: the Wanderoos Annual Independence Day Celebration.
Strangers at a small-town celebration stand out like corn stalks in the melon patch, but being from a small town ourselves, I thought we blended fairly well—despite the fact that everyone knew everyone else, and NOT US. We found a terrific location for our chairs and settled in for people watching until the music started. Since we parked ourselves on the main thoroughfare into the grounds, we were rewarded with lots of people passing by, one of whom was a recently crowned Little Miss, who gave us a nice princess wave as she walked by (in small-town Wisconsin, if you pass people lined up in chairs, you’re in a parade, behave accordingly).
The band started and for the next two hours, I was in live music nirvana. I requested Uriah Heep, knowing it would surprise our friend Joe, another sucker for live music, who had agreed to join us. As the minutes counted down to fireworks time, and the sound of fireworks from another nearby town echoed off the backboard of the ball field, I was disappointed that the music would end and I would miss hearing my requested song . . . but we WOULD have our sky show, at least.
After the last song, the crowd, knowing just where to go, headed to the center of the ball field. Our path lit by fireworks, we found a spot for our chairs and suddenly we were in front row seats for a terrific display. It struck me that we had stumbled into a most perfect depiction of America as we watched the show and heard the “oohs” and “aahs” around us. Our feet were planted in the dust of a field where America’s beloved baseball has been played for generations and we were surrounded by strangers who had accepted us in their midst; intrinsically linked by our citizenship and love of country.
Someone in the crowd set free a sky lantern and it floated high over the crowd to the part of the sky where the fireworks were being shot. As one, we couple hundred observers gasped when a rocket appeared on a collision path, but the lantern floated on and the rocket exploded into red, white, and blue showers as a backdrop. There was a burst of laughter and the sky lantern slowly disappeared into the smoky, misty sky. Not long after that, the finale burst with showers and fountains and it was over. Chairs and blankets and children were picked up and moved again, to the ball field gates.
People were setting up their chairs in front of the stage again, and I realized that the fireworks had just been the half-time entertainment. We hunkered in for more live music, hijinx (you haven’t heard “Born to Be Wild” until you’ve heard it accompanied by a motorcycle pulling up in front of the stage and revving the pipes), and for me, chair dancing. (MS may have taken my fancy footwork, but I’ll take any challenges to a chair dance-off!) I raised my son, Ozzie, on the best rock of the 1970s; in turn, he taught me to love the rock of the 80s and 90s. I learned the lessons well: when I hear Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”, I rock it out.
Finally, the big moment; Raging Wood saved the nearly best (to be fair, I couldn’t pick a “best” from this group) for nearly last, “this is Mary’s request,” and they launched into the first chords of Uriah Heep’s “Stealin’”, Joe’s favorite of their songs. I glanced over at him to get my reward: the surprise and delight on his face. I just have to say that A) It’s rare to hear a local band play Uriah Heep, and B) they nailed it, harmonies, organ, and all.
Just a few songs later, Raging Wood said their goodbyes to an appreciative audience of family, friends, and fans. As guitarist and vocalist Rick said to me “rock never stops”, and I hope it applies to all the members of the band. May they find success in all they do . . .
That I was out of ideas for what to fix for dinner, or that we were out of necessities like onions (I can’t cook a damn thing without them!), didn’t make my trip to the grocery store an emergency, but our dachshund Clyde was OUT of his Fresh Pet food and that will NEVER do. So I planned a late afternoon trip to the local market. On “Senior Tuesday”, the 10% discount is great, but it can be trying to be in a hurry when the whole store vibe is “slow down, you’re shaking my walker.”
I climbed into my 1999 Ford Explorer, Baby, and got my first warning: 1/8 of a tank of gas. I could probably make it the six miles into town and back again, but it makes me nervous to let the gas get below a quarter tank. I decided I’d better get gas first (it would turn out to be my best decision all day). My second warning came shortly after I pulled out of the driveway: Baby was acting “funny”, and I couldn’t quite define it until I got up on the highway, where she was definitely steering badly, pulling to the right, and hard to accelerate. By the time we’d made the mile to the gas station, I thought I could hear a “flapping” and I was sure I had a tire problem, “probably just low again,” I told myself. I pulled up to the air pump station instead of the gas pump (second wise decision), and got out to discover that my left rear tire was shredded.
I gaped at the tire and thought it was interesting that I had just put a Roadside Assistance card from our insurance company in my wallet (another sign?). I was on the phone to get help when a friendly fellow stopped to tell me “I think that might be beyond air.” He offered to help, but I thanked him and said I had someone coming. Meanwhile, my ancient cell phone was making a game, if sometimes distorted effort at translating what the customer service rep was telling me. I couldn’t be more sorry for her, since I had to keep saying “Pardon?” “What was that?” “Could you repeat that?” We finally got it sorted out: a tow company from 20 miles away (don’t get me started on the fact that we have at least three towing companies within 5 miles, one of which is right across the street from where I live), which is contracted with my insurance company would be coming to my aid IN AN HOUR.
Two nice gentlemen on motorcycles asked if I had help coming, and I assured them I did. “Gonna need a new tire,” one of them pointed out. “Yup,” I answered. I wished them a great ride and they sped off. Later, another young man stopped to help and actually found my jack and spare tire, but my jack is apparently missing a part, and we decided to just leave it to the tow truck.
I love the Star Prairie Convenience store (locally known as “The Star”). They are always handy, helpful, courteous, and kind. Better yet, they have nice, clean bathrooms, and a table and chairs (even for a customer who couldn’t scrape up 75 cents for a bottle of water and had to borrow from the penny bin). I was NOT going to write a check for a bottle of water, and I was NOT going to move my truck to the gas pumps, so I could write a bigger check. I made myself at home and gazed out the window like a dog anxiously awaiting its person.
After a half hour, a Roadside Assistance robocall announced that the tow truck would arrive in 20 minutes. About 25 minutes later, one of the store clerks said “your rescue party is here.” And so he was, a very nice young man named Cody, who suggested that I could wait inside while he put Baby on his truck and he would pick me up at the door (my hero). Getting me into the front seat of a giant tow truck was a little challenging, but he was patient and I was determined—I’d have let him sling me up on the hoist if it meant getting home.
I was REALLY tired of waiting, but I decided that as badly as I wanted him to drop me off at home before taking Baby to our tire place, I would ride along, talk to the mechanics, and wait there for Chris to pick me up after work. I got Chris on the phone, and found out he had just punched out and would pick me up, but I would still have to wait a half hour for him to get there. That’s o.k., I thought. J&R Tire has a nice waiting room and I know where the bathroom is; they also have a very nice, friendly bunch of people working there.
Chris arrived before five and we decided to continue my mission to get to the grocery store; the dog WAS out of his favorite food, after all. Turns out, Big Girl Pants can work spontaneously, as well as by carefully planned execution.
Tuesday—the modem woke up dead: It took longer than I like to admit to realize that without my modem working, I would not be able to search and purchase a new modem. Internet searching has become second nature, and as I thought of the usual hundreds of things I wanted to search for in the course of a day, I felt lost without it.
I do not enjoy calling tech support. I particularly did not enjoy this call, which started with my call being answered by someone who did not realize he had a live line, and thus continued his conversation with a co-worker about “when my check comes.” Once he came on the line and said hello, he was clearly chewing something, and seemed relatively new at the job. I let him take me through the prompts “Did you try unplugging it? Did you check the connections?” “Yes, yes. Several times.” (Because I’m annoyed and obsessive.) He put me on hold while he checked to see if he could do something with it on his end, then explained that I have the type of modem that won’t do that; I will need an on-site technician. He asked for my phone number for the fourth time. He told me he can send someone on Thursday.
Later that afternoon, I use my husband Chris’s phone to check in to Facebook for messages. I can’t check my e-mail because I use a Microsoft Outlook program on my computer and I can’t remember my password to check through my Internet server. Oh well, I will miss BookBub, and about a million messages from Kohl’s, Land’s End, Daily Kos, and Best Buy. I will not miss the messages from Christian Mingle (barking up the wrong tree, folks, been married for nearly 30 years), and Cialis (again, tree/barking). I look longingly at the posts on my Facebook page on Chris’s phone, but I don’t enjoy reading that size type.
Wednesday: Tech support calls this morning to ask if I still need tech support. “Yes, I do,” I answer. “What is your modem doing?” She asks. “Nothing. I don’t have it turned on right now, since it’s not working. Should I have it turned on?” “Well, YES,” as if I am an idiot for shutting a useless modem down. “The tech tried yesterday to get it to work offsite, and it would not work, but yes, I’ll turn it on and see what you can do.” A few minutes later. “We’ll send a tech. Sorry for the delay.” I occurs to me that I should have gone into tech support—I could have lettered in talking to people as if they are idiots.
I want to look up Michael J. Pollard because I want to know when he added the “J.” to his name—on the Andy Griffith show I watched during lunch, he was billed as “Michael Pollard”. I want to look up punctuation and quote marks because I think punctuation goes inside the quote when it’s a sentence and outside when it’s a single word, but I don’t remember if I’m right. I want to look up the last episode of the show . . . I can’t remember the name, but if I type in a couple of words, Google will get it . . . I did two loads of laundry, road my stationary bike for 13 minutes, am almost done reading a book I started a few days ago; I only have two chapters left of my novel to retype (the old computer ate my homework) and edit. Maybe being without Facebook isn’t so awful.
Thursday: Being without Facebook is desperately painful. I want to share the pictures of the gigantic crop of Creeping Charlie that is in full bloom in our yard. I want to talk about the male bluebird that, with his mate, is nesting in a birdhouse outside the living room window. I don’t think he understands courting—he keeps landing on his mate’s head. She shakes him off and flies away with him in pursuit. Later, she returns with more nest-building material and he lands nearby with nothing to add to the nest. I’ve known women in much the same circumstances and I’d like to warn her that it won’t get better once the eggs hatch.
I want to check on “my” baby eagles at DNR.com. They are so close to fledging, I’m afraid I’ll miss the big moment when they fly away. I want to check on the three baby eagles in Iowa and the Osprey nests in Amery and Collins Marsh, Wisconsin. I want to type “crazy bird lady” in a Google search and see if my name comes up.
The technician called. He will be here in about a half hour. I should really bake him some cookies or make a welcome banner or maybe just bow and scrape as he comes in the door.
On the other hand, I could just let the dog attack his ankles as he comes in the door and take a phone call while he’s working.
Somehow, a miracle has occurred, and my new modem has a built-in wi-fi router and my old one will go wherever I put obsolete electronics (anywhere I can forget I have it until I stumble over it in the dark). After a brief struggle to get my Kindle wi-fi connected, I’m back online. I just spent a merry hour on Facebook and have built up the courage to face my e-mail: 169 messages in two days . . . this could take a while, but I’m back, baby!
My dear friend’s mother had died and I wanted to go to her funeral. I really, really wanted to go. For a person with social anxiety, it’s a little like asking me to hang by a crochet thread over a pit of crocodiles, but I put my foot down and insisted. The first indicator that the SA wasn’t going to give up without a fight was a sleepless night. I woke up late and uncoordinated (I also have MS). I allowed myself one cup of decaf and started making deals with myself.
“I will take a shower and see how I feel after that.” “I will eat breakfast and see how I feel after that.” “I will get my clothes ready, just in case I feel I can go.” “I will get dressed just like I’m really going.” All the while, I had to assure myself that I would be able to back out at any time. All the way out to my vehicle, all the way into town, all the way to the church . . . “You can just turn around any time you can’t bear it.” Of course, I had sabotaged myself by running late. Driving to the church in a panic doesn’t do much for an attitude of peace and acceptance.
I drove through the church parking lot, dismayed at all the cars (of course, at 100 years of age, and having been a golden soul, Esther would have a crowd). An elderly man arrived at the same time, and I waved, hoping we could walk in together, but he was surprisingly fast. I walked through the parking lot to the door, telling myself that it would not be at all odd if I turned and ran, but “for now, just try to open the door.” I went inside, confronted with the image of the family circled in prayer in the narthex for the procession into the apse. With an inward groan, I realized I was really late. I spotted the basket for cards right near the door, and thought “I could just drop off the card and leave.” But I wanted to see my friend.
Still negotiating, I dropped the card in the basket and thought “just move to the back of the crowd for now.” I stood uncertainly in a doorway until I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hi, Mary! How are you? You look great!” My old boss and dear friend Debbie was smiling me through another wave of panic. We chatted a little and she said “I’ll help you find a seat in the church.” And that was that, I was ushered to a pew in which sat another old friend.
“Want to sit here?” She scooted over and smiled. I sat beside her, Debbie patted my shoulder and went back to her funeral service duties. The service began, and I took some deep, calming breaths. I’m sure my pew friend thought I was falling asleep. Esther’s son told stories of her life, some I knew, others I had never heard, all very sweet, and some very funny. We prayed, we sang, we shared our love for Esther and her family, and I couldn’t help but think it was a service she would have planned for herself. Through all that precious time, I was still fighting my battle, still promising that I could leave if it got unbearable “but just stay through this song, through this prayer, through the sermon, and this song—you love this song . . .” And I made it through the entire service.
Would I stay after the funeral? I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my friend, and the family had left for the cemetery service before returning for lunch . . . so yes, I stayed for the lunch, and sat at a table with my kind pew partner and her friend and have a delightful time. I was feeling a little more comfortable, but as flighty as a chickadee, no longer bargaining, just wondering how long I would make it.
Then my friend arrived and I asked her if she could sit with me for a few minutes. It was so good to talk to her, the time stretched to . . . well, I had no watch, so I don’t know how long. That was the beauty of it—the anxiety had gone, the SA was held at bay while we talked and laughed and remembered our moms, and I didn’t need to negotiate with myself for one more minute. As I drove home, the weight of the world off my shoulders, it occurred to me that I might just conquer my social anxiety in this way: break it down into steps, allow myself an out without actually letting it happen, and let the purpose of my being there take precedence over my desire to escape.
I’m glad I made it work today, and glad that I had friends to help me. I really wanted to be at Esther’s funeral.
A friend posed this question on Facebook the other day, “What do you say out loud (or in your head) the most during the day?” Answers ranged from “WTF?” to “Where’d I put my . . . ?” My answer was “Oh.” It’s the truth. I think or say “oh” a lot during the day. The more I thought about it, I decided that it’s a pretty profound word.
“Oh, my bed is so cozy. Oh crap, I have to pee.” My first waking thought is “oh”.
“Oh” is a recognition word. “Oh, I get it.” I bought a new sewing machine in November and I’m still learning about it. “Oh” has always been a sewing room word. “Oh, dammit, the zebras are all upside down!” (This was as I sewed a bathrobe on fabric I purchased several years ago, irreplaceable fabric, huge mistake—except the robe is as cozy as I imagined, and the zebras don’t seem to care. “Oh well.”) “Oh, look how pretty these fabrics look together!” “Oh, she’s going to love this!” “Oh, why did I start this project?” I’m also trying to learn the mysteries of entrelac knitting. I follow patterns, watch videos, knit along with knitters who work so much faster than I do, and all the while, my mouth forms a silent “Oh” as I start to get the idea.
“Oh” is the all-purpose answer to nearly any answer to any question. Think about it:
“Have you seen my socks?”
“They’re in the refrigerator.”
“Oh.” Is there a better answer that doesn’t involve asking another question? Do you really want to ask that question that hovers on the tip of your tongue? Or would you be better off just silently retracing your steps for the answer. You grabbed socks from your drawer after you dressed, you went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, placed the socks on a shelf while you pulled two eggs out of the carton . . . and shut the door. “Oh.”
“Oh” ends the discussion in its tracks . . . if, indeed, ending is what you wish to do (if Facebook and Twitter posts are any indicator, a lot of people don’t want an argument to end—ever).
“I just contacted the overlords over the intergalactic synctranian system and they are planning the Salusian invasion to coincide with your party on the 5th, so I definitely would reschedule, if I were you.”
In my life, “oh” is an expression of joy, awe, fear, boredom, confusion, delight, and understanding. It’s like a Chinese word that means ten things, depending on the tone of voice when it is spoken. It’s my all-purpose-go-to word when all other words fail me. Words have been failing me for a while now, and I’m trying to get them to work again.
I’ll start with “Oh” and see where that takes me.
Because we want Christmas again after two years of halfhearted attempts at gaiety. Because we are a little goofy. Because we always feel better when we are working together (although sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this). Those are just some of the reasons we decided to buy fresh pine garland and drape it on our front porch railing.
Chris is a methodical worker. When a job must be done, he sets about clearing his workspace, setting out the tools and other items he needs, and planning how best to accomplish the job. Mary is fond of the willy-nilly system, which involves planning . . . no, wait, first we’ve got to get all the lights out and plug them in . . . no, wait, we really should measure the railing . . . no, we don’t need to measure, because look at all that garland, we’ve got enough to drape it twice, so we should . . . which drives Chris a little nuts, but he copes as best he can.
We chose to use two sets of lights: one blue and one white. (The colored set had too much hot pink for Mary’s Christmas sensibilities and the white was too tasteful for the Hubbell’s casual ambiance.) That settled, we twisted the two sets together . . . outside . . . in 17 degrees . . . with a small dog whining under our feet because it was 17 degrees and we appeared to be creating a new and disturbing leash for him and we really should be inside, where it’s not 17 degrees. Then, we wound the lights around the garland, which we had trimmed to fit the porch railing (and which was 10 feet shorter than I had planned because when we attempted to drape it with a couple of little scallops, as we’ve seen on other homes, it bent itself at an awkward angle and looked unhappy). Thus, we had 29 feet of lights, and about 10 feet of garland . . . no one wants to do the math in 17 degrees, with a garland losing branches with every new twist, so we whipped it on as well as we could (I voiced my many misgivings about how very difficult it is to camouflage bright green wire in natural green pine boughs, how awful it looks when doubled, how it is going to look just terrible in the daylight—all while Chris patiently winds the wire around the garland and never once squints a steely eye in my direction).
We put it on the railing, with Chris wiring it in place, swearing a little because he based the size of his ties on the ones we had used for a fake garland on a wooden ledge at our old house, and they weren’t working well for fresh garland on a wrought iron railing. I left Chris to finish up and went inside to warm up. A few minutes later, I went back out to see how he was doing.
“You know what’s in my brain right now?” I asked him. He stopped sweeping pine needles and looked up at me.
“Ah, I hate to guess,” he answered diplomatically, sweeping again.
“The butter wouldn’t melt so I put it in the pie,” I said, in an English accent. It’s a lyric from the Beatles “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and over the years, it has come to one or the other of us in times of mild stress, like getting a week’s groceries on $30, or putting up Christmas lights after years of abstinence; it never fails to break the ice. Because we are goofy, we laughed hysterically. Because our front porch is going to be pretty and lit and smell like Christmas, we kissed. Because I can hear Chris in the family room, preparing for another little chore I mentioned earlier today, I know he forgives me. Those are all the reasons I will do some math this week; whatever the weather, I will be counting my blessings.
It is not even Thanksgiving yet, and the moral dilemma over whether to wish friends “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” has begun. It’s been an ongoing controversy for many years, dubbed “the war on Christmas,” few people know that it originated with the John Birch Society, back in 1959. In a flyer titled “There Goes Christmas”, the Society espoused the idea that a Communist plot to “take the Christ out of Christmas” was afoot, replacing traditional Christmas decorations with United Nation iconography in an effort to stamp out all religion and cede U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. (If this sounds sort of familiar, it continues as a popular conspiracy tenet within some groups.) In more recent years, conservative television and radio hosts, such as Bill O’Reilly, have taken up the cry (although they leave out the Birch Society theories and place the blame on secular humanists, atheists, and liberals).
I find it amusing that so many of my friends, huge fans of “Our Founding Fathers” have no idea that a real war on Christmas was waged by our own Puritan ancestors, when they outlawed Christmas celebrations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
The Puritans could find no biblical reason to celebrate Christ’s birth. The December birth date for Jesus wasn’t established until several centuries after his death (although many historians believe that Jesus was most likely born in September, and others believe it may have been March). Moreover, holiday celebration generally included drinking, feasting, and playing games—all activities the Puritans frowned on in their serious pursuit of pleasing God. Christmas was banned in the Boston area for 22 years, and didn’t really gain in popularity until the 1800s.
“Happy Holidays” can refer to over a dozen different celebrations observed by many countries and cultures, not the least of which are ones in the United States that fall in the few weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Eid al-Adha (Islamic New Year). Like it or not, we are a multicultural country (anyone remember taking great pride in America being a “melting pot”? Apparently, we’re not so proud of that, anymore. We’ve taken a dislike to all those foreigners and their odd customs, despite the fact that our grandparents and great-grandparents brought their own traditions with them.)
You can say “Merry Christmas”, you can shout “Happy Holidays”, you can send me cards that say “Season’s Greetings” or “Joyous Jule”, you can even write “Merry Xmas” on your holiday letter and it won’t bother me a bit (by the way, using “X” for Christ is not derogatory—it’s the Greek letter “Chi”—an abbreviation even Jesus would approve). How you greet me doesn’t tell me much about your religious beliefs, your ethics, or your morality. You’ll demonstrate all of that in how you behave in the 365 days after Christmas. So, enjoy your holiday season, and don’t worry so much about how others greet you; appreciate that they thought enough of you to extend their best wishes and offer them the same.
It’s happened once before, so I wasn’t entirely taken aback. I was watching television in the living room, thought I heard a little scuffling noise, and hit the “mute” button to listen more closely. A little more scraping, and then a plop. The plop got me to my feet because I knew exactly what was happening. A mouse had found its way into the ceiling fan and fell out onto the papers on my desk. Ok, I admit to being pretty horrified, although, as I said, it has happened before. I gingerly moved papers around on the desk, trying to get the culprit to move or squeak so I could smash it with a heavy book (it pains me to use great literature in such a fashion, but I didn’t have any other weapons handy). I found it, it moved, I smashed . . . again, and again, and again. The itty bitty, apparently immortal mouse took note of the dire situation and leaped from the desk to a better hiding place under the china hutch. I screamed, of course, in this whole process, but the quiet snoring from the bedroom told me that I was on my own in this battle. I considered my possibilities: I could take a broom handle and slide it around under the hutch until the mouse reappeared, whereupon I could try “booking” it to death again; I could search for the electronic fly swatter and try to zap the little creature (of course, a dead mouse under a heavy, full china hutch seemed like a dismal outcome), or I could just go to bed in the knowledge that our dachshund Clyde, who had caught a mouse the other day, would most likely find and dispatch it in the morning. It was 10:30 p.m. I was tired. With a little shiver of revulsion, I took option number three and went to bed.
I was just drifting off when I heard a ruckus. “Can you describe the ruckus, sir?” (That well-known line from “The Breakfast Club” popped to mind.) Well, yes, I can. It sounded exactly like a small wiener dog, having been awakened from a sound sleep, leaping out of his kennel and, with much scrabbling of claws on the carpet, cornering a mouse somewhere in the bedroom. I sat up, put my feet over the side of the bed and encountered warm fur, which made me gasp and recoil, reaching for the light. I realized right away that it was Clyde underfoot . . . well, his body, anyway; his head was jammed under the nightstand, his tail was beating a double-time tattoo on the wall. Clearly, the dog was in the middle of a mouse hunt. He pulled his head out long enough to look to me for support. “Sure, Clyde. Let’s get us a mousie.” I sighed and went for the broom.
On my knees, poking under the night stand with the broom seemed to have the desired effect, if I could judge by Clyde, who dove under the bed and made more scrabbling sounds. Chris rose up in bed at this point and looked at me blearily.
“Aw, did you fall down? Are you o.k.?” He asked.
I opened my mouth to answer and let out a scream as the mouse made a mad dash toward me. Now I had friend husband’s undivided and less groggy attention. I explained about the mouse as I tried to ply my broom behind the door. “Here, Clyde,” I said. “He’s right behind the door. See?” Clyde appeared to be having second thoughts about midnight mouse hunting; he peeked at me from behind the bed. The mouse, sensing the indecision, scooted under the dresser and Clyde leaped into action again, nose to the gap under the dresser, more tail-wagging and snuffling. Chris was offering advice from his cozy vantage point, but seemed reluctant to join the madness. I tried the brush end of the broom under the dresser, came away with some truly remarkable dust bunnies, but no mousie. Clyde seemed to give up at that point, and sat quietly by the bed while Chris got up to go to the bathroom. I climbed back into bed, hoping that Chris would think of some great plan or at least offer to take me to a motel for the night.
There was another scuffle out in the hallway, some incredibly gross crunching noises (you think you might know what a mouse skull in the mouth of a dog would sound like, but it turns out you really have no idea, and once heard, you can never unhear it). Chris called from the bathroom, “I think Clyde took care of it.” I peered down the hall, and yes, there was a tiny corpse just a few feet from the bedroom. The mighty hunter had retreated deep into his kennel, gazing out at me with wide, shining eyes. I knew that Chris would handle the interment, so I climbed back into bed. Minutes later, Chris joined me. We lay there quietly, trying to get into our sleep rhythm breathing again.
“Where did you put the body?” I asked.
“Tossed outside,” my sleepy husband answered. I hoped it would serve as a warning to other mice that want to move in. We were quiet again, for a long, long time, and then I couldn’t help myself.
“Was it merely dead, or most sincerely dead?” I asked.
“Most sincerely,” the coroner replied; then he rolled over and began snoring.
As Halloween approaches, beasties and ghoulies and other friends clamor for the story of “The Nightmare on Paperjack Drive”, the tale of our son, Ozzie’s, haunted house. I wrote a weekly column in our local paper in the late 1980s, and this story landed in my lap on a Monday night when I was under deadline, wracking my brain for ideas, and really annoyed because it was Halloween and I had to keep answering the door. As any reporter or columnist will tell you, it often happens that the best story is right under our noses, if we would only look down and notice. I was looking everywhere else for inspiration, while a true and delightful story played out in my basement . . . and to think I almost missed it by being a crankypants.
A few days before Halloween, Ozzie had approached me about having a “real-live haunted house” down in our basement. I wasn’t sure it would be much of an attraction in our bright basement of many windows and few finished walls, but I o.k.’d the project. I came home from work that Friday night to find him and his friend, Mike, industriously creating horrors our of a standard split-entry style basement. I gasped at the first horror: my good Chicago Cutlery carving knife embedded in a two-by-four and dripping with ketchup blood. I took a deep breath, assessed the safety (solidly in the wood—sigh, yes; high enough to be out of reach for little kids—yes) and decided to let it go on the grounds that I could replace the knife more easily than I could deny the kid his dream of a truly scary haunted house.
The boys had exhibited amazing ingenuity for two fourteen-year-olds on a limited budget ($4.99 for a spooky music CD). The lights and sound were connected to the breaker switch in the basement, so that the horror could begin with the flip of a switch. They had hung blankets up to wall off the walkway and block the streetlights shining through the windows, and had used an old mask and a wig stand for a decapitated head, lit in gory detail by a dim green light bulb. After passing this creepy part of the exhibit, they had arranged for a cymbal to crash to the floor behind the unsuspecting guests. I helped them create a spooky spider web out of some quilt batting and a genuine floating ghost on a pulley system that allowed it to fly at people. I didn’t think anyone would notice that the ghost was made from a piece of pale green fabric (the “ghost” on our front porch was wearing my one and only white sheet).
Ozzie made signs for the front door, advertising his free haunting, but early on, there were very few takers. The little kids and parents were out in force, and all the kids wanted was candy; just being out after dark was scary enough. Finally, a group of girls who knew Jason from school agreed to take the tour. Screams and giggles and Jason’s evil “boowahahaha” echoed through the house and out the front door, scaring a few little goblins and their parents right back down the driveway.
It wasn’t long, however, before word got out that there was a “real spooky house” on the corner of Paperjack and Bilmar, and I found myself playing doorman to an odd collection of creatures waiting in the hallway for the signal. Jason would shout “ready!”, the first strains (or groans) of music would begin, there would be a riot of screams and laughs, and then I would usher to same creatures out, while directing the new ones to wait on the stairs. Two other young ladies of Jason’s acquaintance enjoyed the haunting so much, they decided to stay and help him for a while, with a new attraction: grabbing feet as they passed by the pool table.
There was a long lull in the haunting business after that. I was writing at my desk at the top of the stairs, so that I could see any trick or treaters. I could hear the muffled giggles and planning in the basement, and I vaguely thought I should really go down and make sure that all new attractions stood up to my safety standards, but I had a column to write. I heard a car pull in the driveway and my little basement ghouls hurried up the stairs. They conducted a long, shouted discussion with the parent in the car, about whether the haunted house would be too scary for the children. Finally, the parent gave permission, and the guests were instructed to wait in the stairwell. I listened to the conversation, gathering that there were two boys and two girls all around age 9 or 10. “We’re men,” the boys kept assuring each other. “We can take it. We’re REAL men.”
The o.k. was shouted, and again the ghostly music floated up the stairs. I could hear the usual chorus of screams at the appropriate places, as well as the “spooking” screams of Jason’s two assistants. Then I heard a sound that I couldn’t immediately identify because I hadn’t heard it at any other time in the evening: sneakers hitting the floor at top speed. I got up to investigate and made it to the top of the stairs in time to see the “real men” making their escape, screaming into the night. Their companions, looking dainty and sweet in their princess costumes and tiaras were slowly ascending the stairs, just like, well, royalty. “Where’d they go?” one of them asked. I gestured to the door and they exited, laughing.
I had a good laugh with Jason and his crew and then sat down to write one of my all-time favorite columns.
It was at the end of a trip to an apple orchard. Chris had to pick apples for us, and I had to sit it out and worry about his back and his knees and the bees. I was tired and he was tired and we didn’t linger long after he came back with his harvest. As we walked to the car, I watched a motorcycle pass in the next parking aisle.
“It’s open,” Chris said, of the car door. I was watching the motorcyclist, a familiar head held just so. I leaned and ducked, trying to get a better look as it passed out of sight. “It’s open, Sweetie,” Chris said again. I opened the door, watching over the roof of the car for the motorcycle. It must have parked, I thought, and then I saw it come around the corner, headed to a parking spot two spaces away. I just stood and stared and Chris asked again if I was o.k., but I didn’t have a reasonable answer to the question, so I just stood and stared at the motorcyclist as he parked and got off and helped his companion alight, all the while unaware that the woman two spaces away couldn’t fill her eyes with enough of him because he looked, moved, seemed so much like her dead son that it was like having him back again . . . almost.
I watched him walk away. His companion turned and stared at me for a second, and I was afraid she would break the spell by saying something, so I turned away. I looked back as they moved through the crowd. He walked with more of a swagger than my son would have, but he was wearing heavy boots; he looked back at the motorcycle and our eyes met for the briefest of intervals. I just wanted to keep staring at the shape of his jaw, at the way he held his head, at any other similarity that offered a few more moments of the relief, comfort, and thrill I felt when I first glimpsed him. Chris, mystified, waited for me by the car. I was shaken, my voice wobbly, teary.
“That guy, did you see that guy with the motorcycle? He looked just like Ozzie.” Chris hadn’t seen him, hadn’t noticed the direction I was looking. “I should have told you to look,” I was immediately sorry. I had been afraid to break the spell, to bring reality to my few seconds of fantasy, afraid to hear “No, I don’t think he looks at all like him,” which, of course, Chris would never say. Thus, I had denied him the same eerie, sweet experience I had just had.
It’s happened before, that glimpse of my son in a stranger. A few weeks after he died, I followed a car for miles because the back of the driver’s head looked just like my Ozzie. Months later, I couldn’t tear my eyes from a young man who was waiting in line at a brat stand, one arm crossed to hold the elbow of the other, another familiar Ozzie stance. Psychic medium Theresa Caputo says that when a memory of a loved one is triggered like that, through a song, a photograph, a scene in a movie, or someone who resembles them, they are with us in that moment; letting us know that’s how close they are, just a thought, a memory, a sensation away. I can believe that. I can imagine Ozzie telling me “Get a load of this guy, Mom.” For future sightings, so that Chris doesn’t have to miss it, we developed the code word “doppelganger”, which is a German word for someone who looks like someone else (it can also mean a ghostly counterpart to a living person). Sunday afternoon, I saw Ozzie’s motorcyclist doppelganger–I wonder if he ever glimpses his musician counterpart . . .