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Halitosis

My dad had the worst breath, and even though it was bad, I still liked being close enough to smell it. The scent of stale, overcooked office coffee he drank, cup after cup, until his teeth were stained saturated his mouth. They were yellow on the outside, and grey from fillings inside. He hated his teeth, because although they were straight, they were small. He cared more about his appearance than you would have imagined. Once he stormed from the room when my mother told him he looked like “Baby Huey” after attempting to fix a new style into his hair with an expensive salon product. He didn’t swear at her; he looked in the mirror, took a small-toothed barber’s comb and left to return his basic and thinning crew to its normal position.

I never knew he had been attractive as a young and middle-aged man, so I didn’t know he could have been attractive as an older-middle aged man, or that his self-image could falter. Continue reading “Halitosis”

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The Elephant

The day was warm, and we drove to the zoo. It was hard to decide which animal I liked best. It could have been the zebras. Yes, I did like those black-and-white horsey things. There was an orangutan whose hair looked like Papa’s. Most of all, I like the elephant, I guess.

Before I could tell Mama, she screamed.

Papa, I couldn’t see him. Mama’s eyes were wet and her hands, red. Brushing the hair behind my ears, she said it would be OK. She had made us a strawberry cake for after supper.

I got tired.

I’m tired.

No, my boy. Stay right here, in Mama’s lap. Tell me about the animals you saw today.

The sun shone hot, bright burning glitter through the trees while Mama held me, asking if it was the monkeys, or maybe the crocodile that I liked best.

I wanted to tell her it was the elephant I liked, that I wished I could ride him. But Papa came back shaking his head.

Mama cried and told him to go to the hospital anyway.

I shivered once, and then I stopped. My name is Irvin, but now it’s not. I’ve seen elephants, but I’m not sure what more has happened since. I don’t see Mama or Papa, but the sun is still hot, and the trees the same. It’s like summer all the time, as if winter never came. I’m not lonely. I have my elephant.

 

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Dust and Grass

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There was chicken wire instead of a fence. It was nothing more than rusty, twisted wire caging in dust and slouching, fading headstones in the middle of nowhere. All the sparse grass stayed out, as if cast from the perfect deadness of the small cemetery. It lay at the edge of the street of what was left of Baden, Iowa, a town someone in the German branch of my mother’s family had founded some time in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

My father parked in front of a building the same color as the unpaved road. Nothing was painted, and if it had been, it had been a long time since the last touch-up. Mom walked toward the cemetery to look for relatives, and my little brother and I wandered around what looked like a movie set from a Clint Eastwood western. About a half-dozen buildings with false fronts lined both sides of the street, and every one of them seemed emptied of life years before we showed up that summer afternoon.

Although the church wasn’t padlocked, it was vacant and likely without any congregants but a few field mice. The  general store had the only open door we found, but the windows were boarded shut. An old Pepsi machine on the front porch still had working lights, and I hoped we’d be able to get a Coke or Dr. Pepper. Mom didn’t trust how long the cans had been in there, so we left the machine disappointed and walked inside. One man stood behind the counter in a warehouse of dust and junk. Broken toys and tools sat on shelves and in cracked barrels. There were horseshoes and legless ballerinas in music boxes. I wound one and watched her twirl to a lullaby on a dirty pedestal, then closed the case. Continue reading “Dust and Grass”

Our music was both elegy and anthem

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“I want to know what this means,” he said.

We sat in the driveway with the car in park, and he turned up the radio.

“Who is this?”

“It’s R.E.M.”

My dad told me he liked the band and that he’d heard the song so many times before and liked the music. Now he wanted to know more about the words.

In the passenger seat, I squirmed. Even though I could have shared the answer I’d read in online articles and music magazines, I told him I didn’t know.

Before turning off the ignition and going into the house, he told me he’d started listening to music a little closer.

I’d noticed. Within the past couple of years, he had obsessed over music he experienced for the first time. Anyone in his path could be held for at least 20 minutes listening to Pink Floyd on laser disk or whatever Christian goth metal copycat was on the radio at the time. If he turned up the volume just loud enough, he might be able to surround you with his feelings so that you might understand and share the experience. On a trip to Nashville, Dad beat the steering wheel and dashboard so emphatically to a song that he scared my boyfriend, who was used to playing and listening to music very loudly.

Dad was either 61 or 62 when he started asking questions that may have come 15 years too late.

Continue reading “Our music was both elegy and anthem”

Not my own

Not my own

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

I wrote an essay for Christ and Pop Culture about how a lifelong struggle with body image and worth would never get better unless I could begin to grasp that I’m not my own.

This is out there because I thought someone might need it, and because no matter what I do, some part of this story will make it into most of my personal writings, whether or not it’s explicit.

Here is an excerpt:

“An abandoned aluminum foil container next to my sandbox provided me with my first razor when I was 4 years old. The box had been left outside after a cookout. At first, I was intrigued by its teeth. Then, after I pricked my finger, I couldn’t believe it. I was bleeding, and it didn’t hurt badly. Running my fingers across the sharp row again, I discovered I could cause and contain my own hurt. I didn’t need to cry, and no one saw me.

That incident taught me a lie that has haunted me ever since: My sadness is singular, and my body worthless.”

 

 

Idols, Part I

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I remember very little about being strapped in a straightjacket. The lights were bright, I was swallowing lots of my own blood, and every time I screamed for one of my parents to rescue me, I swallowed more. Continue reading “Idols, Part I”

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