Category Archives: Slice of Life’s

Redlined

Reading “The Big Bang” takes me magnificent places. Ridiculous. Jaw dropping. As I turn the pages I am sucked in completely,  gazing spellbound–as if at a cosmic movie screen– at our rich, mystery-sated heavens. What a drama unfolds before me! A tale strewn with unlikely geniuses, collapsing stars, far-flung atoms, electromagnetic waves, embracing galaxies, eloquent equations, gold-spewing supernovae, wormholes, invisible bends in the plane of spacetime–all of these and more form and unform against a background of deep-forever space. I watch, rapt, struggling to comprehend.

Then I return to reality. And am presented with…

Walter. My cat. Mystery-sated as well, in his own quotidian way.

Walter strews quite a different material around the universe. Our universe. Pom poms. Red ones. He is addicted to them. Obsessed. He seeks them out. He finds them, wherever they are. He performs un-catlike feats of fine-motor agility to secure their possession. Once acquired, he hoards them in the prison of his teeth. He torments them. Finally, he systematically destroys them, rendering them eventually unrecognizable as the minor crafting aid they once were.

He does not care for yellow ones.

He does not care for blue.

Red pom pom innards line our life. They are ubiquitous–the dark matter of our domestic world. Everywhere an empty space is, they are.

I consider the grand sweep of the universe. The heartstopping vastness of it. The profound beauty of its laws. The implacable pace of it. Its stillness. Its remaining paradoxes.

I consider red pom poms.

And Walter.

And messes of all kinds.

I struggle to comprehend.

And I set down my book. I have cleaning to do.

Those things are a bitch to vacuum up.

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Bricked In

Snapshot of this moment: I am sitting in the breakroom at work, surrounded by tupperware containers and an assortment of old condiments. I am eating a peanut butter sandwich with homemade jam. It is delicious. Still, someone forgot to order paper towels, so I am using a tissue as a napkin. This lack of basic supplies has taken an already bad mood and made it worse.

My boss asked earlier if I might be willing to work a fourth day every week. We are, she said, woefully short staffed. Taking a deep breath, I told her yes. Yes, although it will take my already scant time with my daughter and make it scanter. Yes, although this job numbs my brain and makes me, at least occasionally, hopeless for the whole human race. Yes, because we need the money and that’s a fact. Times are tough. Comparatively so, at least.

And they’re about to get tougher, at least for one small girl at my house.

This morning, when MJ–in a repeat performance of incredible endurance–cried about my going to work, I told her, “you know my great, great, great grandmother had six kids. And she had to work building bricks out of mud every day. Just to put food on the table.”

“Out of mud?” MJ replied.

“In the cold.”

“Whoa,” said my daughter, suitably chastened.

This story, I should add, is true. Or true-ish. The ancestor in question did spend some days making adobe bricks in exchange for food when living with the Mormons in Utah. It’s a small detail in an exciting and hair-raising tale, but it may not be totally accurate to portray her as solely and purely a brick smith. Still, her road was hard– her husband’s, too. I figure if they could survive starvation, wolf attacks, Indian abductions, and the shockingly ill treatment of the early Mormon leadership, then certainly I can survive working an extra day in high end retail until my husband is working again.

So maybe I told the mud brick story for myself.

And maybe it worked.

Still, I shed a couple of tears into my Trader Joes pretzels as I sat here. Fortunately no one was here to see it happen. Also, I happened to have a tissue to hand.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

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Candy Barred

You know you’re getting old when you start off a sentence with “Back when I was a kid–”

But that’s exactly what I did this morning when my daughter woke up, found out Halloween was over, and burst into copious tears.

“B-b-but Daddy told me Halloween goes on for days!” she wailed.

“I think he meant days in advance,” I said drily. Off her blank look I added “you’ve been celebrating it for roughly two weeks.”

Time means little to a four year old. Elapsed time, even less. Elapsed time during which the child was eating more candy than any adult should in a decade and feeling absolutely fantastic about it? Unintelligible.

“Look,” I went on, “back when I was a kid, Halloween was only one night. About three hours. That was all we got.”

“Really?” Myra-Jean responded in a quavering voice.

“Yup.” I cuddled her a little closer–we were in her bed together, she under the blankets, me on top of them. “We didn’t have the Halloween festivals leading up to it, the block parties, the “Boo on the Boolevards.” We didn’t trick or treat at Starbucks a week before. We didn’t even have Starbucks. ”

She looked at me, obviously pained. “Whoa.”

I built up steam. “It was one night. A little sliver of time. We didn’t even get face painted at school. Heck,” I went on, musingly, “I don’t think I got face painted at all until I was, like, twenty.”

MJ started crying again. I should’ve quit when I was ahead.

“The point is,” I went on, stroking her forehead, “you get a lot more Halloween than me or Daddy ever did. So I’m sorry it’s over, but–”

Myra-Jean sobbed harder. “It’s really over?”

I looked at her in disbelief. “Didn’t we just discuss this?”

Her cries rose loudly in the small, morning-shadowed room. Jesus. You’d think her dog had just died. She would definitely wake Mike.

“Let’s go get some breakfast.” The kitchen was a bit farther from our bedroom.

Feeding the animals distracted her for a few minutes, but soon Myra-Jean was whimpering again. Standing by the dining room table, she poked at the ruined finish of the wood with a stray fork. “Mama. I’m not happy.”

“You don’t say.” Grabbing the utensil gently out of her hand I tossed it into the sink. Just because she was grieving didn’t mean she got to be destructive.

“I want to go trick or treating one more time!”

I sighed, staring at her uselessly. I was out of ideas. At my feet, Walter mewled. Mina nipped at him. Walter hissed. Myra-Jean screamed.

“Mina!” I shouted. “Walter. Myra-Jean! All of you calm down!”

Enter Mike. No big surprise. Hard to imagine how anyone could sleep through an uproar of such Biblical proportions.

“What’s going on?” he asked blearily.

Handing him a cup of coffee, I explained. “Mina’s trying to kill Walter, as usual. Also,” trying to keep any trace of sarcasm out of my voice,”Myra-Jean is feeling really sad because Halloween is over.”

Mike nodded gravely and turned to MJ. “You know, you can still wear your costume any time you–”

I had tried this tack already, and knew where it was going. I covered my ears.

“I don’t care about my costume! I want to trick or treat!”

“OK,” Mike said calmly. Really calmly, considering the hearing damage he’d just incurred. “You know,” he continued, “back when we were kids–”

“I tried this,” I interjected quietly.

Deaf to my warning, he went on. “Back when we were kids Halloween only lasted for one night.”

Shaking my head, I began washing dishes. Mike talked for a few minutes, repeating essentially what I’d said earlier. But he closed with something new, something said in a fun and conspiratorial voice:

“Even though trick or treating is done, we still have the candy! Lots of it! Candy eating goes on for awhile.”

MJ’s head swivelled towards me. “But Mama said no more candy after Halloween.”

Wuh-whoa. I’d forgotten about that conversation.

MIke cocked his head at me, then looked back at her. “I think she meant no more trick or treating.”

“No,” MJ declared. “Mama said I could only eat candy on Halloween, and after that it was only for ‘special occasions’.” She emphasized the latter phrase carefully, although she had no idea what it meant.

MIke shot a look at me.

Wincing, I muttered ruefully “I think I might have said that.”

Silence.

“I wasn’t really thinking,” I squeaked. “Sugar’s just so bad for you.”

Mike nodded slowly. “So that’s why she was shoving candy in her mouth last night like a just-freed prisoner of war.”

How poetic. I nodded. “It might’ve been.”

“Is this what your parents did?” Mike demanded.

“No.” I winced. I could feel the word HYPOCRITE flashing over my head like a Broadway marquee. “We ate candy all month.”

Mike shook his head, then smiled. He wasn’t mad. He was just laughing at me. Which is worse. I couldn’t blame him.

I turned to MJ. “I’m sorry, honey. Of course you can still eat your candy. For many days to come. Forever.” Or at least a week, I added in my mind.

Myra-Jean smiled for the first time that morning.

When I left the kitchen she and Mike were happily sorting her booty into piles. There was a lot of it. An indecent amount. Absolutely no more trick or treating was necessary.

Just a little bit more give and take by the old timers.

Or one in particular.

If only you could trick or treat for that.

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Dog Gone It

They say you should let sleeping dogs lie. But when it comes to dead ones? I’m afraid the truth will out.

I’ve been avoiding letting MJ skype with my mom and step-father. Their dog Otis died two weeks ago, and I hadn’t found a way to tell her yet.

What’s the connection? It’s simple. Whenever MJ skypes with someone, the first thing she wants is to do is “talk to” their pet. The humans are sort of an afterthought, honestly. It’s the animals she wants to see. A Skype call with my mom and step-father, then, always featured a visit with Otis. Usually passed out on his rug. Still, it was MJ’s favorite part of the call.

But now Otis is gone. MInd you, he lived to a ripe–and then some–old age. By the end he’d grown stiff, deaf, and completely incontinent. Coming with our family to Nova Scotia this summer was his canine swan song–even if he shat in the car the whole way up. His last weeks on earth were happy and sun-soaked, frail and skeletal though he was.

We grownups knew he was at the end. Sometimes, when he was lying in the grass napping, we’d have to shake him lightly to see if he were still alive. It could be quite hard to tell. MJ, who doted upon him, was oblivious. It never occurred to her for a moment that, when she said good bye to him on the morning we flew home, it would be for the last time.

He was put down two days later.

Since then we’ve been agonizing:  to tell her or not? The latter seemed the better choice. With all the changes afoot, it seemed cruel to toss in an additional blow. “We know you’re upset about your mom going back to work, but–remember Otis?”

Finally, though, we broke down. A couple of mornings ago MJ asked, for the third time, to skype with my mom. We’d been putting it off, changing the subject, making excuses, but we knew it couldn’t go on. We lived in the modern world. We couldn’t hide behind a telephone. MJ wanted to see her grandparents. And, even more, their dog. We had to tell her.

Mike and I exchanged meaningful looks. This was going to suck. First of all, it was way too early for such weighty conversations. I’d barely made my first cup of tea. Secondly, Myra-Jean had never known anyone who died before. This was going to hit her hard.

MJ was sitting on the bench next to me. She’d decided to start a puzzle while she waited for the computer to boot up. “So, honey,” I said gently, putting my arm around her, “before we Skype with Nana Bonnie Mike and I need to tell you something.”

Deeply engrossed in her new undertaking, MJ barely looked up. “What?”

Mike, who was standing in the kitchen, took a step closer. In his softest, kindest voice, he said “It’s about Otis.”

“Oh.” She didn’t look up. She was piecing together a picture of a dinosaur. It was standing in flowers and wearing a derby. Hatosaurus.

I nodded at my husband. Let him be the one to break the news.

Mike cleared his throat.”So when animals get very old their bodies slow down.”

“Oh.” Another piece.

“Yeah. And then, well, they get sick, and have problems, and, um, eventually they just, um, pass on.”

I shot him a look. Pass on? She’s going to think it’s a game of hot potato. “He means they die.”

MJ looked up, her face implacable. “Oh.”

I remembered–vaguely–something I’d heard her teacher say. “Die means they stop moving and they never start again.”

“Otis is gone, honey,” Mike added, tenderly. “He won’t be able to Skype with you anymore.”

MJ nodded slowly and looked down at her work. There was only one piece missing. Finding it beneath her leg, she placed it carefully in its spot. We waited, solicitously watching her lowered head. After a moment she looked up.

“Mama?”

“Yes, sweetie?” Here it came. The death question. Oh God. OhGodohGodohGod.

MJ smiled. “I am a puzzle genius.”

There was a beat. “But honey. About Otis. How are you with all of that?”

Myra-Jean shrugged. “I’m great.” Hopping down from the table, she began putting her puzzle away. “Can I please have a glass of milk?”

And that was that.

Mike and I are praying it’s developmental and not sociopathic.

In the meantime? Our little genius wants a cat.

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Bait and Swish

I love my daughter. I adore every fiber of her being. But her newest habit’s going to make me tear my hair out.

It’s saliva swishing. Like what you do with water after brushing your teeth, but using spit. It’s loud, gross, and sort of scary. I don’t know how she summons enough liquid to make the racket she does. It’s like Niagara Falls in there. She must have over-active glands. It sounds like the final deluge. I should build an ark.

She does this constantly, but it’s most acute when she’s concentrating. When she draws, for example, or attempts to write. It’s at its worst for puzzles. Of which, right now, we are doing a lot. I say “right now” because I find the passion for puzzling waxes and wanes. It’s like a food craving, but in a three-year-old. Who isn’t pregnant. Anyway. These days MJ wakes up asking for them. They must be comforting in some way. It makes sense–the order, the fulfillment, the knowing where things go. I get it. But the swishing. Jesus Christ!

At first I tried saying nothing. The advent of this new behavior has coincided, roughly, with my going back to work; if it’s a self-soothing mechanism, I figured, far be it from me to take it away from her. Then it became incessant. Giving in, I asked her kindly to stop. Nothing doing. We finally arrived at the “you’re seriously grossing me out” phase. She thought that was hilarious. The more discomfited I became, the happier she was.

It usually ends, now, in a threat that I will leave the room (and the puzzle) if she doesn’t stop. I feel badly about this. But I have a sound thing. Or certain sounds. Wet ones. Mouthy ones. I’d rather she farted. She could fart incessantly and I’d hardly notice. I would think it was cute. I can do poop, toenail biting, even puke. I’m mildly freaked out by nose-picking, but I’d even take that over this.

And yet. The pleasure of being in her company these days is so sheer, so pure, so profound, that even aural torture can barely make a dent.  Every moment is a gift. I feel totally unable to accomplish anything else, of course–anything that takes me away from her is intolerable. Phone calls to return? Sorry. House to clean? Later. Fundraising for her preschool? Someday. Time enough for all of that, I reason, after she’s gone to bed. Except there isn’t. Life, it seems, is about to get more disorganized. The puzzles may be the only thing in this house with all of their pieces in place.

On the other hand, the whole working thing may not last. At least not this job. I learned  from my boss a couple of days ago that a mistake was made– I can’t, in fact, get benefits for my family as a part-timer. Only for me. He’s terribly sorry for the mixup. He’s aware I took the job believing otherwise. His hands, however, are tied.

Never mind. I have to stay for now. Money is money, and one less insurance premium to pay is better than nothing. So I’ll stick it out, at least until Mike finds work. It’s hard. But there are up-sides. On the three days I’m there, for example, I hear no mouth sounds. Saliva is out of the picture completely. It’s a totally spitless environment.

There is one other perk: I have time to read. So I finished my book. The one about horseshoe crabs and other ancient species. It was a slog, but I got through it on my breaks. And I’m glad I did. It was helpful, in the middle of all of this, to be reminded of the vast sweep of time on earth, the six major extinction events that have occured since its inception, the millions of species that have come and gone. And of the four billion years the planet’s been here. Four. Billion. Such numbers give me comfort.  When they’re not scaring the shit out of me.

Having said that, my next book is “Gone Girl.” Book Club again. There goes all perspective, all wisdom, and half my brain cells, too.

I’ll get them back doing puzzles. I just need a pair of earplugs.

And a little bit more time.

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Order Up!

Myra-Jean has a new ploy in mind to keep me home from work. Or at least keep me with her. She and I are going into business together.

She came up with this yesterday while we were sitting eating dinner.

“Mama, you need to keep working at that store forever,” she said, out of the blue.

I glanced at her, surprised. “Really? I thought you hated that I was working. Why do you want me to stay?”

MJ shoved a greenbean in her mouth. “Because then when I grow up I can work there with you.”

Ah. I smiled. “That’s a lovely idea, sweetie. Maybe some day we will work together. But it doesn’t have to be there.” (Adding, in my head: “and over my dead body will it be!”)

“Where, then?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Where would you like?”

Myra-Jean thought, chewing slowly. Then her face brightened. “How about a restaurant? Our own!”

Ha! Good one. She’s clearly forgotten my many cooking debacles. But we’re just fantasizing here, right? I shrug and nod. “Sure. We can open a restaurant.”

MJ sits up straight. “Can we do it now?”

I run a finger over her cheek. “Not now. It’s bedtime. But tomorrow we can play restaurant, how about that?”

My daughter’s brow furrows. “I don’t want to play it,” she says flatly. “I want a real restaurant. Now. In our house. So you can work here with me.”

Needless to say, I can’t accommodate her completely. But this morning, bright and early, we played a long round of “restaurant” in our kitchen. As lifelike as I could make it. Menus, order slips, steamed vegetables, the whole nine. It didn’t stop me having to leave for work at 8:30, but it did seem to soften the blow some.

And my young customer was very complementary about the service. Even when I spilled water on her nightgown.

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Whine and Dine

Commission sales get ugly when foot traffic is slow. Grown adults edge each other out to stand near the door. Sleek smiles mask desperate intent. Kind faces morph quickly to mean ones. The quarry is all, and it’s in short supply.

A new salesperson, in this situation, is always resented. It’s rarely shown overtly. As I have more than once been on the “giving” end of such resentment, however, I know it is there. I am the new wrench in the works, my very presence taking sales away from other clerks. And this leads to a dilemma. If I lay back I will be better liked, but will not make my sales plan. If I sidle forward  faster than my peers and snare the man walking in the door I may make a sale. But I am painting a target on my back. In Tiffany blue, perhaps. But a target nonetheless.

Such is the way of high-end retail sales. My co-workers and I display grace, kindness, and prowess, much of it real, to the clients we help. Beneath these, however, co-exist thick veins of fear, spite, and competitiveness. Each sale made by another is a blow to our chances. You win? I lose. The system is rigged for ill-will.

My advice? Whenever you meet a salesperson who is working on commission, know one thing up front. They are lying. Or call it acting, if you prefer. I don’t care how sincere they seem. No matter how genuinely they furrow their brows when you tell them of your troubles, how brightly they smile at your recent promotion, or how assiduously they offer you water or tea. They are plotting the whole time. They’re out to get you. You are a meal ticket. You are prey. To even the best, even the kindest of them. They cannot help it.

This is the world I have rejoined. A far cry from the playground, one might say.

In the midst of this, for lunch, come MJ and Mike. I have asked them to make the trip, after a heartbreaking parting this morning. Suddenly, here is humanity again. My co-workers smile at the presence of my kid, her exuberant squeals of delight at the “fancy things,” her shy grins at the security guards, her red lemonade, (“it has cucumber!”), her skipping gait across the pale carpeted floor. Isn’t it nice? We’re all a family here, right?

My actual family and I retire to the back, and for an hour I am a mom again. Myra-Jean has been to the Natural History Museum, and brings a new matching game with a bug theme. It is multi-pieced and impossible; we play it happily on the small break-room table, amidst piles of old newspapers and leftover chips.

“I like your nice kitchen,” MJ says to no one in particular. She’s nuts. The place is a dive. But whatever.

“Thanks, honey. You can have lunch with me here any time you want.” It isn’t true, of course. This will probably never happen again. School will start, and anyway, Pasadena is a hike from where we live. But I can say it. After all, I am a salesperson. I can sell a bit of hope.

When we are done eating I tell MJ it is time for me to clock back in. She looks at me, uncomprehendingly. “What’s clock?”

“I have to go back to work.”

“But you’re coming home.”

I twist my lips regretfully. “I can’t.”

The effect is immediate. Her smile reverses itself,  cheeks flush, and tears begin to flow. Loud ones. Lots of them. My manager, making copies nearby, looks over briefly, then turns away. She’s a mom. She’s not mad. Still, this is less than ideal, and we both know it.

“I want to stay with you!” Myra-Jean screams.

Commanding myself not to cry, I attempt silliness. “But you can’t work here! You’re too little!”

The joke is a flop. This is getting bad. There are about to be two of us in total meltdown, and one of us will not improve her performance evaluation in the process.

Under my breath I mutter to Mike “You’ve got to get her out of here.”

He nods. He knows. He probably saw before he came here that this was exactly how it would end. Me and my brilliant ideas. “Take your daughter to work day.” And fully traumatize her. Nice.

We rush MJ to the front door as I try to distract her with my face, my keys, the “magic flowers” on the countertops, anything I can think of. Her cries grow louder, sailing over the heads of shoppers and workers like little kiddie drones. Duck!

To make matters worse, small bits of tortilla chip, which MJ had started chewing right before I’d broken the bad news, drip from her weepy mouth. They’re going everywhere. They’ll ruin the rug.

“Get her outside,” I whisper urgently to Mike, then turn to the security guard: “Sorry.” I gesture to the floor, which looks like a taqueria.  “I’ll clean it up in a second.” He looks down politely, then shakes his head. It’s fine. Just get your banshee kid out of here. Please.

The last I saw of MJ– through the big glass doors–she was attempting to hurl herself out of Mike’s arms, reaching her hands back towards me, tears sheeting her face. “Goodbye, Mama!” she keened. “Goodbye.”

And then they were gone.

For a moment I stood there. Holding. Holding. Then, stooping over carefully, I picked up my daughter’s chips where they lay, damp and listless, in the entranceway below. Slowly I rose, cleared my throat, and walked, head down, towards the back. Punching in my code, I barged the door open and fled to the break room. And breathed. And breathed. And did. Not. Cry.

Walking to the table, I picked up my daughter’s lemonade, now sweaty, pale, and nearly empty. Lifting it grimly, I took the last sip. No cucumber. Sigh.

As I turned to go back to the sales floor a co-worked entered and breezed past me. “Your daughter is so cute,” she said over her shoulder. Then she was off to the manager’s office. Probably celebrating her latest sale. Asshole.

“Thanks,” I said after her, forcing a smile.

Then, tossing MJ’s leftovers into the trash, I headed out to the floor. Four more hours to go.

Let the show begin.