Friday, July 31, 2009

A New Story Submitted by a Reader

My thanks to Dr. Noreen Lape, Director of the Writing Program at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, for sending in this week's fine guest-story, "Ridgewood." In an accompanying email, Noreen told me she just couldn't shake all the small ironies in the incident below. Nor could I. Read on. Write on.--MD

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ridgewood, by Noreen Lape

A transplanted northerner, I lived until very recently in bucolic Upatoi, Georgia. Unlike the city-folk in nearby Columbus whose homes sit as close as two Alabama cousins, Upatoians tend to opt for two acres and a pool. My middle-class neighborhood of Ridgewood Estates--a community of mainly 1970's and 1980's eclectic-style homes--had as its centerpiece a large, beautiful, white antebellum plantation known as Ridgewood. Every Fourth of July, in honor of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Upatoians join together at what I always thought of as The Big House for an Independence Day celebration complete with fried chicken, watermelon, live blues, and a spectacular fireworks show.

This summer, not long after the Fourth, my husband and I were at home on our two acres when a Guatemalan man named Romeo knocked on our door.

We thought he was looking for work; instead he was looking for help. He explained that he was stranded in Upatoi, twenty miles from his home in South Columbus. Cruising Victory Drive in the early morning, a contractor had picked Romeo up on a corner where he'd waited along with other migrant workers seeking a day's wages. After Romeo had spent ten hours at six different homes in Upatoi, cutting lawns, mending fences, planting flowers, hauling pine straw, spreading mulch, pulling weeds and pruning bushes, he decided his work day was over. Since the soft light of dusk had not yet given way to the still darkness of night, the contractor begged to differ, and so he exercised his rights not to pay Romeo and not to drive him home.

On hearing this, my husband Dale, a genuinely good guy, decided to give Romeo a lift. Juiced up on indignation and maybe a little testosterone, Dale thought he would swing by the worksite and have a chat with the contractor. As our Mazda Minivan inched toward The Big House, Romeo pointed out a sprawling ranch home on the left. A young black man, shirt sleeves rolled and armits stained with sweat, was trimming hedges in its side yard.

My husband rolled down the window. "Hey buddy, was this guy working for you?"

The man stopped his clipping. "He was, sir."

Romeo leaned across our front seat and demanded, "You pay me!"

The young man said to Dale, "He didn't want to finish the job. He got tired of all the work we had to do. I told him I'd drive him back when he finished. Anyway, I don't have his money. My boss does."

Not quite knowing what to do next, Dale pointed our minivan toward South Columbus. Romeo asked if we had any children.

"Two," Dale replied, "a boy eight and a girl five."

Romeo had left five children and a wife in Guatemala to come with his cousin to America to find work. Prior to that, he said, he'd been in the Guatemalan army.

"Litte pay. Too much gun," he admitted.

For the rest of the ride, Dale tried to convince Romeo to call the police and report how he had been ripped off. Romeo thought he might contact a Puerto Rican officer on the force who had befriended the migrant workers and looked out for them. Dale took the Victory Drive exit in Columbus and pulled into a trailer park populated by the city's poorest blacks and migrant workers. At the site of the minivan, the cautious gawked out of the dirty windows while the brave spilled out of the rusty metal pens that served as their shelters. They watched Dale and Romeo.

"Good luck, buddy. Remember, call that police officer," my husband said.

Romeo pulled out his wallet. "I give you money for ride."

Before Dale could answer, Romeo insisted: "You give me number. I work for you."

"No, man," Dale responded. "It's on me."

Noreen Lape
Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Health of the Male

I had never seen a kayak fisherman. At first, approaching the beached, bright yellow plastic boat with all its rigging, and the blond fisherman himself in his hefty gaiters, with an official-looking document swinging like a press pass around his neck, I thought I'd stumbled across a researcher. But no, Steve, as he introduced himself, worked construction, and had just come in from fishing on his day off. It was still early, and my walk around Monterey Bay had hardly begun; but Steve, at high noon, was already finished, his thirty-ish face just beginning to burn, the edge of his boat decorated with crusty, dense-skinned fish.

"May I look at them?"

"You bet, " he said, and introduced me to strange mouths and brilliant scales in colors I'd also never seen before: a copper, he called one gaping, wide-eyed corpse; another was a vermilion rockfish; then sandab, redfish, rock cod. All in all there were a half-dozen, and good-sized. I asked how he had caught them, and he showed me the several lines he'd trolled behind him as he'd paddled; he'd also carried a strong rod and reel, but had ended up catching everything the more casual way.

"Did you have to go out very far to find these?" I squinted into the brilliant bay.

"No. That's the amazing thing," he said. "Anywhere else, you'd have to go miles and miles out to catch certain kinds of fish. Here, you just go past the buoys right there, and bam, the shelf drops off. Huge, deep water."

We both looked at and tried to imagine it: the whale-deep water.

I asked him if he got out to fish very often, and he said he did, nowadays. He drove over from Salinas, the more affordable, inland town where he lived. Construction work along the coast had fallen off so badly he had more free time than he liked to think about; but there was no point, he figured, just sitting in front of the television. He might as well go out and catch his dinner.

"So one of these will be your meal tonight? How will you cook it?"

"Well, of course I love anything fried in batter--you too?--but I'm trying to be healthier these days. So I prepare a fillet--I do leave a little of the skin on, I can't help it, it's so good--and fry it in some butter--but not too much--and some garlic powder. I try to keep it simple and light."

"And you'll prepare this just for yourself?"

"Yep," he nodded. "Just me."

I asked him if he was happy with his catch for the day, and he tilted his head, as if, no, he was slightly disappointed.

"The thing is, I forgot my hat. So I couldn't stay out as long as I wanted to. You just can't do that, sit out and bake in the sun out there. You'll regret it later. So I came in."

I thanked him for showing me his fish, for taking the time to talk to me before stowing everything away again in what I took to be his pick-up truck, parked along the seawall above us. I hadn't meant to slow him down.

"No problem," he smiled. He was calm and friendly and obviously happy to have obliged. A family had come down to the sand as we spoke. As I walked away he waved at the children who had strayed over to the rocks, hunting for starfish in the tidepools.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Health of the Female

I stood outside the Otter Project in downtown Monterey, California, disappointed. The glass door to the office was locked, and as I peered in no one seemed to be moving around inside. I'd gone out walking the dog and had hoped to find someone to tell me how California's sea otters were doing these days. I was about to pull the leash away when a young woman with sandy, bobbed hair took shape on the other side of the window. She wore sturdy boots, a yellow t-shirt that read "All who wander are not lost," a bright smile--and she carried a key. I was in luck.

Heather let us both in. She'd been stuffing envelopes in the back but was happy to let us sit down at the large oval table with her and talk about the Otter Project ( The Project is a small non-profit, she told me, that works to protect the otters from oil pollution, sewage and agricultural runoff, and pesticides like DDT and PCB. The chemicals weaken otters' immune systems, with the most dire consequences affecting the females, who are then unable to reproduce, diminishing the population of healthy otters overall. The Otter Project supports international efforts to ban pollutants and contaminants, lobbies local officials to fix sewage problems, and opposes drilling along California's coast. Its office employs three people; Heather is the administrative assistant, with primary responsibility for answering phones, getting materials out, website design and maintenance and social networking on Facebook and Twitter.

She struck me as warm, kind, knowledgeable, patient and excited all at once--I couldn't imagine a better ambassador.

"You must like your work?" I asked.

"It's so incredible," she beamed. "I am so happy, happy, happy!"

She works for the Otter Project for twenty-eight hours a week. At sixteen dollars an hour, she earns about $1400 a month. Her rent in Monterey (one of the most expensive places in the country, if not the world, to live in) costs her a thousand dollars a month. She manages with a little help from her parents, and by doing catering work on the side.

But life hadn't always been so happy, she told me.

"I studied Recreation Services in college and worked for years in the big hotels and resorts in Miami. I made huge money, wore a suit every day, was paid for forty hours a week and worked seventy. Then I moved into event planning, thinking it would be a little better, but after a while it got to feel like all I was was some conduit for funneling money from one wealthy human being to another."

So Heather quit her job, rested in Bali for a while ("the people are so artistic there, so filled with joy and color") until the money ran out, then came to California to work for a Los Angeles youth hostel. In California, she fell head over heels in love, but it ended badly, and she moved north to Monterey. And suddenly, for the first time in her life, she felt at home.

The only problem, she sighed, was that she was now thirty-five years old and still hadn't found someone to mate with for life. She was getting nervous; time was running out. And there weren't many singles in Monterey. "Only," she said, "young students over at the Institute and rich marrieds who are all settled down." But she hadn't given up on marriage and a family. "Something will happen. And I want to be here. It just feels so right."

I looked at Heather and wondered how it was someone hadn't latched onto her healthy, glowing, wonderful spirit just yet, and where she might find the right companion to help pass that spirit along . . .


In our next post: The Health of the Male

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stunt Man

With only a few minutes left before take-off, a bear of a man bears toward me down the aisle of this small airplane. He's white-bearded, huge and solid, and he is--I feel this the same way you wince at the arms of a train crossing lowering just as you're about to clear the tracks--clearly bound for the seat next to mine. For a moment, I tense. I'd been enjoying having the arm rest all to myself . . .

But Harry Madsen shared our small space with aplomb, a practiced adjustment of his bulk. He pulled a book from the bag he'd tucked under the seat in front of him, without elbowing me; I glanced at it and said nothing, not until we were in the air and New York had dropped away from us like a crowded plate.

His reading appeared to combine philosophy and horse wrangling. I had to ask. He answered me carefully at first, as if he wasn't sure I was the right person to hear what he had to say.

"This is somebody I helped out with some guns."


"He lives down on a ranch in Arizona. He's got problems there."


"Coyotes. You like books?"

"I do. I'm a writer."

"Me too. At least, I am now. I'm writing a fantasy. Or trying to."

"It's hard work, isn't it?"

"No, not compared to what I used to do."

He smiled, and his teeth were perfect, as white as his beard.

Harry had worked for years in Hollywood, as a stunt man on tv series like Kojak and McCloud, and for Burt Lancaster in his films ("except I was a little too short--he was nice about it though, a great guy"). He threw himself around in comedies like Ghostbusters and, once, for Helen Hayes, wearing a pink blouse and a gray wig. I asked him how he'd found his way into stuntwork, and he waved his paw of a hand and said his father, who'd owned a ranch and silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico had wanted him to become an educated man--but that four years of college had been nothing but boring, so Harry decided to join the rodeo circuit instead, working up and down the East Coast. One thing led to another, and one summer he found he was stunting in New York on the original The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

"I love that movie!" I say, delighted. "Were you down on the train tracks with the electric rail? Did you bite it?"

"That was me, all right."

I told Harry he looked good, considering how rough and gritty the work had to be, and he laughed and said:

"Well, if ribs don't count. I got to know all my other bones by their first names."

The stunt he was most proud of was a perfectly executed hit-and-roll off a speeding car. His timing was so perfect, and the hit appeared so horribly real as the car smashed into him, that when the take was over the film crew, certain he'd been killed, had rushed into the shot, nearly ruining it.

"That was magic," he blinked, remembering.

Over time he became so successful at his work and so well-known that he was hired as a stunt coordinator, sometimes supervising as many as 35 stunt people for a single film, as he did for Martin Sheen's The Kennedy Years. Then three of his friends were killed in a single year. Two died in high falls, and one in a car-dive into the Hudson River. Dives were tricky; you took the engine out of the front and filled the trunk with sandbags and weight, to keep the nose up, but still it was dangerous, especially on the driver's side.

Harry looked down at his book of philosophy and said, "I told him not to do it. My friend. He called me the day before and asked, and I said, 'You can't do it like you're planning, not that way if you're going to be on the driver's side.' But he did it anyway, and the windshield crashed in, and that was that."

Not longer after, Harry was doing a bit of car-work himself and realized, just before the take, that he wasn't feeling anything. He wasn't sweating. His heart wasn't beating fast. That was when he knew he was done. Fear was what saved you. A stunt man had no business being a stunt man unless he was worried.

"So what do you do now?"

"I write. I travel. I live in the East Village with my wife. It used to be so rough in my neighborhood, but it's so quiet now. New York has lost its edge, too," he said, and told me he was on his way to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, to visit an old friend who lived in a peaceful little cabin, near Truckee.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wedding Day

I haven't posted for some weeks now, and for this reason: my 86-year-old mother-in-law has been struggling all this time, mightily, bravely, with broken bones, a weakened heart, and a blood clot that despite the strongest medicine would not dissolve and let her be. Last week, we lost her. Momma squeezed our hands until the end. She tried to hang on. But she couldn't.

Of all the stories that she told of her life, this is the one I want to share with you now:

It is 1942. She is standing on a station platform in Houston, Texas, waiting to begin the first long journey of her life, reaching up to hold on and get on board. She's dressed carefully in a light blouse and skirt, a short jacket, and a hat that sits over her puffed hairdo. She's a brunette Betty Grable, with full, round lips and shapely calves. She is twenty years old.

She's never been out of state before, and she's nervous, and she wants to look good. Real good. She's on her way to Illinois, to an Air Force training base where she'll be married to a man she's known for a little less than a year--that handsome, square-jawed boy she met on the floor of a local polka hall, even though she came, that night, swinging with another boy. Still, you don't always have to dance with the one that brung ya. Not during war-time. Not with all those hungry, eager faces around.

The young soldiers cramming that train tease and remind her of this through half-a-dozen states. She's the only pretty girl in the car, and so of course, how hard they try, oh how hard they do try to dissuade her, the whole way: Now don't you do it, sweetheart, not so fast, not when you haven't even gotten to know me yet, now don't you go chasin' after some dumb fly boy, honey . . .

And how she smiles and laughs and flirts with them, and how young and handsome and sweet they all are, but they don't change her mind, not for a second, not one of them, because she's going to marry that square-jawed turret gunner.

She's dressed to look good, real good, and she does her best to stay neat sitting up in a stiff seat the whole way.

If only it hadn't been so hot that summer of '42. No air conditioning in the cars, not a breath of fresh air unless everyone kept their windows shoved open, which they did. And so the soot flew in and rolled around the inside of the cars, and gave sweaty boys mustaches over their hairless lips, and any poor girl who thought she might arrive looking spruce for her wedding day black eyebrows and a grimy neck and a layer of dust all over her clothes as if a pencil had been sharpened right over her head. And that was how she showed up at the station. Not to be greeted by the turret gunner--thank goodness--who was busy training. But by another girl, who was already married and on the base and who helped her to get ready and cleaned up. And then it was time to put on the suit she'd brought in her one suitcase, and in a few minutes she was standing in front of all those handsome young boys who were there to be trained, trained to fight, but for the moment stood alongside her in the chapel, amazed by her, and there was her turret gunner, also amazed, and just as handsome as she remembered, and maybe even more so . . .

It was 1942, and it was war-time. You didn't hesitate. You took your chances. You stood up, and you said your name:

"I, Victoria Theresa"

and you said 'I do' to everything still to come.

November 2, 1922-June 28, 2009