The other night my partner Marika, our daughter Maya, and I were taking a family walk with the dogs through Madison Meadow and the sun slipped down behind the trees. I told them that this is my favorite time to be walking the dogs because people haven’t remembered to pull down their blinds yet and you can see them inside, in their kitchens and living rooms.
“Naked?” Maya asked incredulously.
“No,” I said, though I did once accidentally see a hairy man doing a butt naked sun salutation in front of his window at the beach two years ago. “Not naked, just doing life stuff, like baking pies, dipping candles…”
“Finger painting,” my partner added, nodding thoughtfully.
“Really??? I always thought finger painting was a summer activity,” Maya said, quite earnestly, which is why I love her.
This story reminds me of when I was in pre-school and we did a finger painting exercise with chocolate pudding. My teacher, Ms. McGlaughlin, a kind, tall, old lady with giant glasses, gave us each a dollop of chocolate pudding on a piece of paper and we were instructed to make a picture with it.
I was pleasantly surprised with this project. As the helper doled out my medium, I remember thinking to myself that I would only eat a little bit. Not enough that anyone would notice it was gone but enough to get a taste. Then after I’d finished that I tried to paint a little as a voice whispered they won’t care if you eat a little more, followed by maniacal laughter. So I did. Then I ate some more for no other reason than that it tasted great. The jealous boy sitting next to me told me that I’m not supposed to eat the pudding and I felt a little pang of shame. I thought I’d just make a small picture with what was left, fully intending to do the thing right. But by then I had about enough pudding to paint a tadpole. I knew I was cooked and I might as well finish off the job.
As I was licking the last of the of pudding off my paper Ms. McLaughlin came by, peering at me though those enormous 80s glasses everyone was so fond of. She told me she was disappointed in me. I was a little sorry, but not too much, because she gave me another dollop. I made a house that looked like a poop stain out of the second serving, just fine with exchanging a little disappointment for free pudding.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder if Ms. McLaughlin was even really tall, or if I was just short. And maybe she wasn’t even old. Maybe she was like, 48 or something, a few years older than I am now. I wonder if she was mostly disappointed in me because she wouldn’t get to eat the extra pudding after the lesson.
We didn’t see anyone baking pies or dipping candles or finger painting or doing sun salutations on the rest of the walk, despite a lot of rubbernecking on my part.
I went to Rite Aid today to pick up a prescription. As I was standing in line behind the blue tape on the floor, indicating a safe six foot zone, I began to imagine little corona viruses in the air. This is not a good pastime for me. I have a tendency toward…something, it might be a little bit of a mental disorder, I’m not sure. All I know is that I cannot let myself wander too far down the path of imagining small things in the air or on my body.
Once a few years ago I stumbled onto a site where they showed pictures of eyelash mites. Please, for the love of God, do not google eyelash mites. I’ll just describe them a little to you. First off, I’ll say they are pretty normal. A lot of people get them. This information does not make them any less horrifying. They are these little worm looking things that live around the follicles of your eyelashes. They eat the oil and goo that your eye makes. It’s actually pretty precious, they’re just helping out, right. But when I saw a picture of them, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I’d try to teach math and boom. Eyelash mites. Drive home and boom. They’re starting to wiggle in my eyes. Start cooking dinner and boom. You see spaghetti, I see a pot of squirming, goo eating eyelash mites.
I started to panic a little. I had to get rid of them, but how? One might think a physician (or possibly more essentially a therapist) might have some good ideas, but I didn’t have time. These eyelash mites were thrashing around on my face and I had to do something fast.
One of our dogs, the tiny brown one, developed a case of mange right after we brought him home from the rescue. The vet said he wanted to scrape his skin to take a sample, but we weren’t down with that, because he was too cute to be scraped by some neanderthal with a scalpel. So we decided we’d try some stuff at home first. We researched and researched on what we could do for him and landed on an old country remedy for mange: sulfur powder. I found a place online that I could order food grade sulfur powder and we mixed it up with coconut oil and rubbed it all over his tiny puppy body a few times a day.
The remedy worked like a charm, but with one pretty specific drawback. Our entire house, along with all our clothes, hair, even our shoes smelled like a rancid egg fart for about a month. It was especially prominent when I got a little warm. I was like a giant fart furnace, the essence of the earth’s bowels emanating off my skin in waves so thick I could practically see them. I took to announcing to everyone everywhere that I had sulfur powder on me, I wasn’t farting. At the gym, during capture the flag at school, in line at the post office. I even told the mailman.
“Just so you know, my dog has mange and we treated it with food grade sulfur powder. I’m definitely not farting.” I imagine all these people were relieved to hear the news, because if it wasn’t sulfur powder then something must be horribly wrong inside me.
So anyway, as I was desperately clawing through our medicine cabinet, looking for something to kill the eyelash mites with, my eyes fell on the half pint jar of miracle fart oil. My infested eyes lit up! This would work. Mange is mites, mites are mites…I scooped out a healthy dose and rubbed it in. I could practically hear the mites screaming as they died and disappeared completely, leaving a nice, clean follicle behind.
I should probably have started this off by saying WARNING: TO ANYONE READING THIS, DO NOT EVER PUT COCONUT OIL WITH FOOD GRADE SULFUR POWDER MIXED INTO IT ON YOUR EYES TO KILL EYELASH MITES. Within seconds of the eyelash mites dying and disappearing forever, a small stinging began. Then the stinging increased a bit. Then a bit more. Suddenly my eyes felt like they were being sprayed with rubbing alcohol through a fire hose. I ran to the sink to wash it off, but water wouldn’t do it, because of the coconut oil. I grabbed the Dr. Bronner’s tea tree soap and lathered up, which, as you might surmise, only made it worse. I cried, I dabbed, I put ice cubes on my eyes. It took two hours for the pain to subside and I smelled like a spicy cabbage roll left in a gym locker over summer break. I went to watch Game of Thrones at my friend’s house later that evening and I had to take a dish towel with me to catch my tears. My eyeballs were bloodshot for days. But those freakin mites were dead, I was sure of it.
So today standing in line at Rite Aid, when I started to imagine tiny virus molecules floating through the air, I knew I had to stop myself. I gave myself chores. You have to try to squeeze each toe individually and count to ten in German at the same time. You have to remember all the food you’ve eaten over the last two weeks. You have to count all the Salonpas Pain Relieving products. And it worked! I got my prescription and made it home without dousing myself in essential oils. I only used 10-20 drops and it was nowhere near my eyes. And luckily for me, I’d gone through the medicine cabinet a year ago and got rid of the miracle fart oil.
I remember arriving at my Grandmother’s house in Kentucky late at night after a twelve-hour road trip from Michigan. I ran into the kitchen where I knew she was waiting up to show off the tiny magnifying glass I’d gotten from the Long John Silver’s treasure chest. It was about the size of my thumbnail, with a black plastic case and a tiny hinge so the plastic lens could fold away and stay protected on all of my scalawag adventures. I could see details better when I didn’t look through it, but I didn’t care. She was dutifully impressed.
We had a great Kentucky crew: my sister Joan and my cousins Rodney and Patrick, and occasionally my younger cousin Julia and my little brother Andrew would join in, if we let them. We had epic adventures together. One time we decided to be helpful and pulled all the ivy off the old chicken house where my Uncle Charlie was storing his pride and joy, a 1950-something Woodie that he always meant to rebuild but never got to. We ran in to get my Grandmother to show her and her eyes widened with what we assumed was adoration and happiness, until she told us we’d just spent two hours ripping up poison sumac and sent us go shower and change our clothes immediately.
Patrick and I hung out together all the time. Once we saw Grandad kill a milk snake because “it had come to kill the chickens.” He saw the snake in the grass and reached in his pockets for something to kill it with. All he had was this large ball bearing, the size of a shooter marble, and he strode up to the snake and threw the ball bearing at its head and killed it. I’m much more impressed with this story as an adult than I was then. I’d never seen anyone kill a snake before and I assumed hitting it in the head with a ball bearing was the standard way of doing it. I now know that I probably couldn’t stride up to an 8.5×11 sheet of paper and hit it with a ball bearing, much less a snake head the size of a quarter.
That day my cousin Pat had on these sweet new white tube socks with green and mustard stripes. My Mom bought socks for the six kids in our family from Bethesda Thrift Store and it was nearly impossible to find a matched pair of socks at my house, much less a new, white pair. My socks were already dull grey by the time I got them. I coveted his socks so much. We went into the sprinkler to cool down and he took them off and went home barefoot. I saw his socks in the yard and put them on. When he came back looking for them, I pretended that they were mine. I shrugged my shoulders lackadaisically and said I had the same ones. Which I did, but mine were grey with who cares what color stripes because they’re old, grey saggy socks. He put up a little fuss, but I held firm. A little while later I found that dead snake and was swinging it around. I hit a pole with it and its headless stump swung back round the other side like a whip and splashed snake blood all over the socks. I took them off and gave them back to Pat, telling him I remembered they weren’t mine after all.
Another time we all walked to the big pond where my grandad went fishing. He’d go out onto the dock and throw dog food into the water, baiting the catfish to the surface, then he’d shoot them with a .22 and wade out to collect them for dinner. My cousin Rodney told us that there were snakes that lived under the mud and not to let yourself sink too far down or they’d bite your feet. I made a big show of jumping as high as I could and sticking the landing, so my feet went deep into the mud. I actually believed him about the snakes, I just did it to be contrary. I was pretty certain I was going to get bitten, but it never happened.
There was also the game we made up called “Detective,” which could only be played in The Old House, which had been abandoned a decade prior when everybody moved into The New House, built by my Grandad a few yards away. Detective was basically hide-and-seek, but you had to not fall through the holes in the floor to the lower levels. There was also some sort of detective angle, apparently, from the name, but the details escape me.
We decided, on one sweltering hot day, to build a platform fort in my Grandad’s old tobacco barn. So we gathered the crew and cataloged our resources for fort making. Tobacco barns aren’t roomy and spacious on the inside like other barns. They are like giant drying racks inside, with big round parallel, horizontal beams running lengthwise across the inside, on which they hung stalks of tobacco to cure. According to my mom, this tobacco barn was built in the 1920s by the Buchanan’s, before my Grandad bought the twenty acres it sat on in 1948.
The tobacco barn had a log frame that looked like it was made by Paul Bunyan, with well-weathered wooden plank siding. There were three layers of horizontal beams inside, running left to right, with space at the top for air circulation. Since this barn hadn’t been used for curing tobacco in many years, there were strange odds and ends laying around inside–an old bicycle that looked like it could have been used by a soldier in some World War, riding from camp to camp shouting “take cover!!! INCOMING!!” before he cycled away on his squeaky iron dinosaur. There were plastic detergent buckets that my grandmother didn’t want to throw into the burn pile, wooden screen doors, old rusty car parts, pitchforks, tractor tires, and square bales of hay stacked up for Poco, the fat mean horse. All in all, the perfect place for a bunch of kids to be climbing around making a fort.
We dragged an old set of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs my Grandmother had built from the Old House and nailed them to the first tier of tobacco hanging beams so we could climb up. Then we brought in a bunch of dusty planks we found in another barn, carried them up the stairs and placed them across the beams to make the first floor. We hung out there for a day, about six feet off the ground and it was fun. The next day we decided to drag more planks over and make a second story. To access the second story, we had to walk to the edge of the first floor, grab onto the second floor and shimmy onto it on our bellies (about ten feet in the air) because we’d plumb run out of extra sets of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs. We also made a small lookout platform in front of the ventilation flap, so we could spy on people in the yard.
The next day we decided to make another level. This one was a little scary. It was maybe 14 feet off the ground, and dragging the planks up that high was no simple feat, for 10-13 year olds. We got it done, nailed the extra hefty boards in place into the 70 year old tobacco infused beams. Then we decided we needed a communication system, for when some of us left to get provisions from the woods, or to look at something with my magnifying glass. Rodney used an ax to cut open all the bales of hay so we could use the binder’s twine they were tied with to make some can phones that didn’t work. Then, with all that hay laying around, we decided to pile it up and jump into it off the top level. It was great fun until I caught my palm on a rusty nail on the way down and got a deep cut. Instead of going to get a tetanus shot, my dad made me clean it with a toothbrush, hydrogen peroxide, and the pink torturer, merthiolate. The cut brought some attention to what we were up to out there and some adults came by. That was the only time we got into any trouble with the project. Not because we were jumping fourteen feet down into a pile of hay surrounded by rusty, sharp objects, but because we’d ruined the haybales by cutting them open. That’s how things were back then. We were allowed to do some crazy, cool, super dangerous stuff.
With each passing year, as we continued to travel to Kentucky, we’d make adjustments to the fort, fixing broken boards, cleaning up raccoon poop, clearing the stairs of debris. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, pre-adolescence was over and we became teenagers. I don’t remember the first time I skipped a trip to Kentucky, but I know it happened. Conversing with the cousins became awkward as we all tried to grow into young adults. We spent our bandwidth on other important things, like drinking Boone’s Farm at parties, passing AP history, and falling in love. The Old House was torn down sometime in the ’90s never to host another game of Detective again. Grandad died a few years after that.
But everytime I did go back, I’d go out and look at the fort. It’s still there today, dusty and decaying. For a few seasons a mother vulture decided it was a great place to raise her babies. She took up residence on the third story, hatching eggs, feeding her reptilian looking chicks, and pooping all over our creation. The tobacco barn is leaning heavily to one side. I doubt it will remain standing for much longer. A hundred years is a pretty good run.
I flew back to Paducah, Kentucky this Christmas, the first time I’d been for several years. My sister, mom, and niece picked me up and we drove the last ten minutes to what once was my Grandmother’s house, but now belongs to Pat and Teena and their cute kids. My mom has built a studio on the property, and now it’s the New House and the other house is the Old New House. Once I arrived, I was shown around–the new art pieces my mom made, the tightrope that Pat put up for everyone to try, the cappuccino maker that makes perfect espresso every time. It was all different, but it was all still the same. The house looked different, updated, but it still smelled the same. I didn’t know exactly how it would feel, being in her house, with her not there. Most of the time it sort of just felt like she was in the next room at the moment. In reality, she was up the road in Possum Trot, at the Oakview Nursing Center.
We all went up there to see her a few times. She didn’t recognize us, or even really open her eyes much. I laid in her bed with her on the night of January 2nd, with my arm around her shoulders, trying to let some of my heat soak into her because she felt cold. My mom woke me up the next morning to tell me that Oakview had called and said she wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t too worried, because it had happened like that before. But just as we were pulling into the parking lot of the nursing home, my Uncle Alan texted. She’d died a few minutes before we arrived.
We went through the usual motions, I wished I’d gotten ready faster so my mom could be there with her when she went, we cleared out her closet, we called people. The woman who was caring for her that morning told us she’d whispered to my Grandmother, letting her know we were coming, but she went ahead on anyway. It’s impossible to know what she was thinking, if she was thinking at all. She’d been leaning hard to one side for a long time. But ninety-nine years is a pretty good run.
I woke up at seven today, even when I didn’t have to, because my fourteen year old chihuahua has a collapsed trachea and some sort of dog dementia. His name is Boogie and he starts each new day by honking over and over like a laryngitic donkey and pacing the floor, rhythmically clicking his toenails on the hardwood, until someone gets up to let him out. Then he goes down the stairs into the yard, forgets where he is, and stares at the grass for ten minutes. He eventually remembers what he went out to do and eats some grass or makes his pee pees in the yard, but for some reason, he refuses to walk up any stairs. If you’re not waiting for him, he will stand down there and bark until someone comes to get him and carry him up like a hairy black vulture donkey. A baby hairy black vulture donkey, because he is very small. I’m overly accommodating to the neighbors so when it’s me letting him out, like today, I usually just wait for him to finish doing his thing so I can quietly carry him up and by then I’m awake.
We’d run out of some staple items, most notably ketchup, and I’m the designated grocery getter during this lockdown, so I went to Natural Grocer’s. I wanted to get some tea that they sell there, as well as ketchup, broccoli, cucumbers, frozen corn, cauliflower, pickles and virus killer tincture. The tea is called chunky watermelon. I once told one of my sixth graders (I’m a teacher, I don’t just randomly have more than one sixth grader to talk to) this name and he feigned puking into his mouth. The name doesn’t put me off, it tastes like watermelon jolly ranchers. It’s made with dried apples, beets, melon, and naturalflavorsthatdefinitelyarentbadforyou. And it’s pink! And when you put creamer in it, it looks like Strawberry Quick. One time time my sister chugged a bunch of Strawberry Quick and then puked it up later in a parking lot. Not because it’s gross, but because my mom didn’t give us sugar and so we would never waste it when a stranger or my Aunt Mary gave it to us. She had to finish it fast because we had to go to the nursing home to see my great Granny. You can’t really chug dairy like that. All that pink Quick, wasted after all. But the watermelon chunky tea is great if you get the chance to pick some up.
So the trip was for the tea and the ketchup mostly. Fresh vegetables are good too, I guess. I make really good frozen french fries by spritzing them with olive oil and then dusting them with nutritional yeast and garlic powder, but the amount of ketchup that we had at home wouldn’t fill a thimble. I don’t actually even really like ketchup that much. I use it sparingly, like a summer top sheet. My partner uses it like Nana’s thirty-ply North Dakota winter quilt. Sometimes she just keeps the bottle next to her plate and applies a long stripe of ketchup down the length of each fry, individually, in order to ensure maximum coverage. So it seemed a necessity to get out there and get some, or the fry experience would be totally shot. Natural Grocer’s had only two kinds left on the shelf, by the time I got there. One was some sort of fodmap ketchup. I don’t have anything against fodmappers, but I don’t want to eat their ketchup. The other was $5.39. Seriously. It must have been made with albino tomatoes picked by virgins on the full blood wolf moon off the peak of Kilimanjaro being paid a living wage to do so. It was also “unsweetened” and “spicy.” I mean, sweet and spicy go together like Donny and Marie, sure they argue a little, but it makes a great show. I do have to say, I’m curious about how it will be, eating $5.39 ketchup. I’m think I’ll feel like Marie Antoinette.
Times are strange right now. Here we all are, hunkering in, thinking about old throw up stories, envisioning the bastard that has twenty $1.79 ketchups in his pantry, googling “dry cough,” “chest pains,” and “do I have corona virus?” every twenty minutes. People used to deal with epidemics all the time. Once we all started gathering together in ever growing bunches, we were sitting ducks. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, medieval Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East all suffered major epidemics that wiped out huge percents of their populations every couple hundred years. I teach my students about how the rich Romans would ride away to their country homes to escape the plague, while the peasants died by the hundreds. I doubt their summer homes stayed illness free, but it’s still worth noting that they tried. King Henry VIII knew how to practice social distancing and quarantine, he barricaded himself into his room and refused to see anyone except the servants who fed him, dressed him, combed his hair, and wiped his butt, but no ambassadors were allowed until after the illness had passed.
Epidemics still arise, but we, as a human unit, usually have the ability to disassociate ourselves from them when they are happening to someone who is not us. We’ve grown so much in our heads over the last hundred years that we feel like the past is the past and those types of things don’t really happen anymore. I felt surprised to find that the laws of nature still apply, that my body isn’t that much different than those of the ancient Romans. My system is just as vulnerable, though I have better tools to bring to battle, namely better healthcare and facebook videos that show me how to properly wash my hands. Did you know that a fecal smear so small you can’t even see it can contain a million virus particles? Another thing I learned on facebook. I’m glad I’m not Henry VIII’s butt wiper.
For me, I’m going to start writing things down. Things that happened today, things that happened in the past… Someday Boogie is going to be gone and I’m not going to see the sunrise over my back fence because I’ll still be sleeping. But at least I’ll have a record of it here.
I’ll finish with a picture of our vulture baby with his weenis edited out for privacy.