Redneck bar

All it needed to be more cliche-perfect was to play Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” instead of Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” over the speakers.

Fake palm-thatched party hut on the roof; big colored Christmas lights strung around the poles. The smell of old smoke and new smoke and spilled beer and hot pizza mixed with someone’s body oder. Haircuts I have only seen in movies from the ’80s. Faces creased and tired under too much makeup.

It wasn’t the kind of place where you linger over your drink with a book.

But Friday nights are $1 Yuengling draft nights and he was keeping the babies while I escaped for an hour and after the hot afternoon sun and the toddler’s clingyness in the afternoon the beer seemed worth the atmosphere.

I carried my glass and my Kindle to the one empty table beside the tiki hut and half read, half watched the people around me. The sun had given way to clouds that dropped sprinkles here and there and it was cool.

And strangely, since it couldn’t be more different, I felt like I was 21 again, sitting under the green awning of a Bar Tabac in Pernes as the summer heat gave way to a cool Provencal evening and condensation formed on the outside of my Heineken – the only beer I knew to order in French.

I remembered watching old men gather at the outdoor tables; how the normally empty courtyard was packed the night France lost to Italy in the World Cup; watching a family – not French – laughing at a table nearby, two little girls lost to giggles and parents laughing too because they were contagious – and writing that I hoped it would be my family laughing at nothing someday.

Eight years ago.

And now I have two children and a dog and a house we’ve sold, pending contracts in two weeks; and I only have an hour before the rain starts up in earnest and the baby at home will need me.

But for that hour, despite the music and the company and the smells, I’m that girl again. And coming home, I remember to laugh at nothing.

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When the news drove away

It was raining when the Channel 2 van drove by the house.

It was raining and the baby (and he’s not even 3 weeks old yet) had just fallen asleep in his bed and the toddler was sinking deeper into my side as her eyelids grew heavier with every page in her book but the television station from Pittsburgh sent a van up my dead-end street.

I couldn’t follow. Before, when the girl and the boy were still waiting to come to me, I’d have grabbed pen and notebook and umbrella and followed up the street. I did that once, when fire trucks passed in a hurry (for what turned out to be a gas leak, nothing exciting).

My mind followed though, running through scenarios. No emergency vehicles had passed that I knew of, definitely not a fire or a working crime scene. A feature story of some sort? Would they really send a van all the way out here for a feature?

I couldn’t follow but I could call, trying to reach someone – anyone – in the newsroom. Are you aware? Are you on top of whatever it is Pittsburgh news is covering?

But a newsroom after deadline, during lunch, is a dead place and no one was picking up. The toddler flipped pages in her book, voice petulant. “Read,” she said. Then “read!” again when I dialed another number.
I gave up and we finished the book, rocked and sang and settled her into her crib. The baby slept on and I saw the van leave our quiet neighborhood and wondered.

Turns out my old coworkers were indeed aware of and on top of the situation. A neighbor, whose name and I know and who I see now and again in church – who has 2 kids but drives up and down our street too fast, engines revving as if a 16-year-old boy was behind the wheel – had been arrested on charges of attempted homicide. Police said she stabbed a man during an argument in the early morning hours.

And now it’s my turn to sleep but I can’t. I’m thinking of her kids, tow-headed and tan all summer long. Their dad faced jail time not too long ago, now it’s their mom in trouble. I’m thinking of her mother, who often cries when she shares a passage in church.

But there’s something else keeping me awake. I saw news happening on my street, felt the pull of a developing story again, and watched it drive away as my babies slept.

I guess you never lose the adrenaline that comes with breaking news, even if you can’t follow.

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Opening day

She never once said a word about in the 25 years they were married.

Year after year, when he took a day off work for the start of baseball season; when he settled himself in his over-stuffed brown recliner (new at the start but faded and worn through in patches by the end); when he popped the tab off a can of Yuengling in the middle of the day and heard the hiss of escaping carbonation; she never once complained.

So it was strange that she would this year, after she was gone.

After 25 years, you think you know someone. What she likes. What she doesn’t. What will leave her steaming and you picking up over-priced roses at the drug store at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night.

But when he settled into the recliner, sinking into the center where a quarter-century of sitting had left a dip, he heard her voice as clear as if she’d walked into the room, dishtowel still in her hands.

“It’s the most beautiful day of the year so far and it’s perfect for gardening and you’re going to sit there all afternoon?” he heard her say. He shifted uncomfortably.

She had never said a word, but now he remembered little things over the years. How she’d open every window in the den if the thermometer read anything over 50 degrees; how she lingered in her faded jeans and that old college hoody of his she’d claimed the winter before their son was born, standing in the doorway watching him until he looked up.

“Did you say something?” He would ask. “No,” she would answer, slowly, and turn away. And he would always shift in his seat, wonder if he’d been supposed to say something else, before the announcers caught his attention and he forgot everything but the pitch and the swing and the call, red dust flying from cleats against greener grass than grew this early anywhere else.

Today he shifted again and wondered what he had missed. She’d never held it against him, though. Other things, yes – she was no more a saint than he was and she held her share of grudges – but not this. This she seemed to understand was nearly his religion.

She was talking again. (Does this happen to everyone? In the deep silence do we all hear what we want to hear again? Do we all start making things up like this? But he didn’t really care to follow the questions.)

“All winter long there’s been a mound of dirt and rocks over my grave and all winter long you promised to tend to it the first spring day we have and now you’re sitting in that decrepit old chair instead?”

He saw her, almost, standing in the doorway, only healthy and strong and so very alive; not the woman whose bed he’d watched for too many long months. She cocked her head and he heard a teasing note in her voice.

“Now what will people think, Bob Paulina, if my gravesite goes to seed the very first year?”

“They’ll think nothing today,” he said aloud and his own voice startled him, reminded him he was talking to a memory. “No one gardens in April, and no one gardens during the Buc’s game,” he added, anyway, because it was a habit now. Talking to himself, like some old man.

“You are an old man,” she said, from far away.

He turned up the volume on the television and finished the beer in his hand, then crumpled the can. The colors on the screen were dull; the announcers droned on and the Pirates weren’t hitting. His knee itched. His hip ached and he shifted his weight to the other, then back. Then suddenly he stood, punching the remote and shutting off the picture.

“Damn it, woman, they let you torment me up there?” he asked aloud, rubbing at the small of his back.

And so he found himself standing over her grave on a sunny early afternoon in early April, turning over the mud and raking out rocks, flattening the mounded earth into a garden bed.

He had thought it would hurt; that each turn of the spade in the soft earth would rip him inside; that regrets for the years she gardened alone and countless other things he’d left undone or unsaid would be uncovered with the red mud; that the missing of her would turn sharp again as he stirred the gash in the earth.

But the sun was shining and the birds were singing and he could hear the game over the car radio, left playing nearby; and he felt more alive, more like the man he used to be, then he had in a very long time.

He finally had something he could do for her.

He thought he heard her laughing again, the way she did whenever she’d begged and nagged him into doing something that, in the end, was for him.

“You just needed a project,” she was saying.

Only of course, she wasn’t. Memories don’t talk.

He stepped out the perimeter of the dirt, measuring the feet and inches, calculating squares of sod to buy at the Agway by the railroad tracks.

On the radio the crowd cheered a homerun. 

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Watching discoveries

On Saturday it is almost warm and she woke up begging to go, wearing her jacket to the door and sobbing big, fat tears when I tell her no and so by 9:30 I give up.

We pack her into the old jogging stroller and the dog is whining and leaping by the door so we take him too. The wind is chilly but she waves to every car we pass and sings to every bird and talks about “Crocker,” which is what she calls the dog.

We get to the library just minutes after it opens. She wants to walk down the stairs herself, pausing to look at a brown, wooden hippopotamus and two carved giraffes she calls deer. She seems to remember where we are; we visit the basement children’s area of the library nearly once a week and she thinks other children will be here.

Today, though, we only came to play with the wooden train track on the table around the corner. She calls the trains cars and wants to push them on the floor, not the track, when an older boy comes to use the computers near us. He looks to be around 7, maybe 8 – too old, he thinks, for trains.

She thinks the world was made to be her playmate and so she starts showing him each piece, one by one. “Boy,” she tells me. Then, pointing to me but looking at him, “Mama.” Introductions have been made.

His mother comes up and remembers how much he used to love those trains, playing as long as she was willing to stay. He’s still waiting for his computer to boot up but he’s watching her discover the train set and his fingers are itching, you can tell.

“Look,” he tells her, showing her the train with the shark inside. He pushes the buttons on the station house that makes a train whistle sound and she tries, too. He’s off the cushioned stool now, kneeling at the table, finding each piece he remembers so well.

Then, an aside to his mother: “I turned off the computer.”

Helping her discover the games he’d loved so much was more fun than anything on the screen.

They left not long after but she kept playing with the pieces he’d shown her, pushing the train whistle button over and over again: a new trick she was so proud to have learned.

And it made me smile. Because while I watched her discover the fun of a train set, I watched him discover the fun of showing someone else something you love.

All in five minutes in a library basement on an almost-warm Saturday morning.

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Another takes her place

I wouldn’t have known she’d died if it weren’t for Charlotte’s cold.

She was awake, crying, at 11:30 p.m. yet again that week and I stumbled out of bed to find her a cup of water. At first the flashing emergency lights seemed to be coming from her room and for a moment I thought her fan had caught fire.

I saw the ambulances then, in front of the red brick house across the street; and while I watched the one shut off its lights. They were still there 20 minutes later, when the cup of water had done its work and the baby was sleeping again.

Her obituary was short. Just her name, date of death, services on the weekend. No family listed, though her granddaughter (or niece? I never have been sure) lived with her; no biographical details or hobbies or former careers.

She was 90 years old.

And later we talked outside on the sidewalk, another neighbor and I. We remembered how she loved her yard, how it irritated her when others let theirs go to seed. Used to, before we moved in, she’d bring her lawn mower across the street to cut the grass here, frustrated at the jungle the old man let it grow into.

All summer we’d see her, until a year or two ago. He thought stroke, I thought heart attack. We both knew visiting nurses came regularly to check. We haven’t seen her for months. Longer, maybe.

Then last week the sun came out and it was almost warm and Charlotte and I walked back and forth along the sidewalk, watching the cars go by. The niece (or is she the granddaughter?) came out, cutting back weeds or pulling leaves out from around the rose bushes. First bit of sun, first bit of gardening. Not much seems to have changed across the street.

And it was bittersweet to see it.

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Painting in heaven

There was snow on the ground when I drove to his small house, struggling to find it at the end of a small side street. He stood in his yard and waved to me after I circled one too many times, I remember.

It was last January when I sat with him in a sunny studio, artwork covering every wall. I had meant to write about him ever since the previous spring, the hand-painted cards he sent to every church member hanging on my fridge for months as a reminder. It took him being hospitalized with pneumonia before I finally talked to my editors about him. He was 94 and I was afraid I’d already missed my chance.

That January morning he told me about painting, how he decided he liked art while serving in World War II, and how he started painting because he couldn’t afford the art he saw in stores.

He’d painted around 5,000 cards by then, affixing a red felt heart on the back of each one. And like he’d wanted when he first started painting, his walls were covered with his own artwork.

“I like to paint,” he said then. “And it gives God the glory. I’m painting things He has made.”

That quote ran at the top of the page, above his picture with the story on the front page.

I read yesterday that he’d died, the long struggle starting with a fall on the snow in that same yard two months ago.

And I wonder if he’s still painting in heaven? Only this time painting celestial scenes, not the earthly ones he’d painted before.

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Old neighbors

Snow was falling lightly and clinging to our coats but it wasn’t nearly as cold as it looked as we hurried down the brick sidewalk. We passed her at the library steps.

“I wasn’t sure it was you, are you still at the paper?” She was asking all at once but neither of us stopped, me carrying the baby and she shuffling through the snow with a full bag.

I told her no, I was home now, as we started up the wide steps.

“Your birthday’s next month – happy birthday!” she said as she rounded the corner and we headed inside.

She was our neighbor when we first moved here, living in the brick rental on the corner lot. She was our neighbor and took it on herself to know everything about us. She scolded siblings for dropping gravel in a storm grate (it would clog it) and worried about our laundry on the line and watched us from her windows and worried over the college boys behind us.

After we moved she found a letter addressed to me, blown away in the wind, and gave it to one of the owners of the paper to pass on to me.

It’s been a couple of years since we moved across town and months since I’ve seen here walking down Philadelphia Street.

But she remembers my birthday.

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