Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 698
It has long been my custom to nap at the beach, and I doubt I’m all that different from most other people in that regard. Where the difference might lie is the location of my beach naps, as I’ve never encountered another napper there, but that’s not a problem because naps are not really meant to be shared, at least not in my world. My nap is for me, and me alone, with the only noteworthy exceptions being those spontaneous, unplanned, and certainly unscheduled naps that accompanied, more like they followed, story time with the dudes directly after lunch. Those naps, we shared, especially when a faculty meeting was planned for the afternoon.
My nap spot at the beach is in the water and beyond the breakers, way beyond the breakers. I wade, then swim, through and past the breakers, and keep going until the surface is a gently rocking crib, the sounds mostly absent except for the occasional seagull that could probably use a nap too. Ending a nap in a collapsing curl full of sand and froth is a bit like not fun, and that’s why I mean way out, not just sort of way out. You’re far enough out when you can only see the shore at the top of a wave when stretching up and treading water as much as you can.
By the way, most lifeguards don’t like this kind of nap. To that end, I avoid guarded beaches for my napitury purpose, saving the guarded beaches for sight seeing, especially if the distant bar delivers, or the beach is non-American with better dressed guards.
This time, we’re camping at Huntington Beach State Park, the one with the castle, fresh water mullet, and alligators. We had spent the day before at the statuary park across Highway 17, and that meant today was a slow day. The rules require a slow day after a busy day, just as they require Jimmy Buffett to sing a slow song after a fast one.
Rules are rules, I suppose.
I have noodled away during the heat of the day while the others sawed logs. I am not going to nap to the tune of chain saws; there is just not that much wine in the grocery store. I emerge from the trail at the north end of the beach where people go to sun their buns, what with the lack of lifeguards and rangers. However, bun sunning was not my intent, though I did spend a little time watching heads and other things bobbing in the dunes.
My intent was to be the freak alone for one minute this day.
I waded, then swam, into and past the breakers, taking my floater with me, a small floater more often used for body surfing, which is an activity better replaced with Nair for hair and skin removal. At some point, I could no longer see the shore, much less the bobbers in the dunes; it was time to lean into the floater, soak up some sun and water, bob lightly in the swells, and drift slowly in the long shore current while an alternative consciousness swept my cares into the Gulf Stream.
Time stopped. Bliss ensued. My hair floated. Yes, I had hair then. Limbs dangled. Salt water lapped and left. Gentle swells rocked me with aperiodicity. Time was gone. Space was endless. Thought was null.
God loved me, and I napped.
A single thread of reality pushed its way, unwanted, denied, but unrelenting into the nonexistent space between my ears. I said, “No.” It said, “Yes.” It won, and my eye cracked, neurons firing with reluctance.
The triangular fins sliced the water beside me with what I registered as surgical precision and then alarm.
Visions of Jaws, first read, then watched, rose to fill my now alert brain. I was awake, nap cut short by the citizens in whose realm I visited. I rose. I walked on the water as the Savior, but likely with a faster pace. Let’s just say that I ran. That’s what I remember anyway.
The floater stayed.
On the shore, I turned to look back. The dolphins rose, twittered, and swam away.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 2105
Finding the eggs
You’re going to need some eggs. What can I say? It’s the prime ingredient. Where do you think the name comes from? To fetch the eggs, you head out to the garden in the cool of the morning, preferably while the coffee is making. If you wait for the coffee, you’ll want to take the cup with you, and that means you’ll need three hands, two to hold the coffee cup and the egg basket, the other to pick up the eggs.
The hens will have nested in the green beans. You’ll want to walk the rows slowly so as to not miss a hidden nest while you listen to the morning birds awakening as the crusted soil, still moist from the evening’s dew, crunches lightly under your bare feet.
In cooler weather, the hens will nest in the hen house out under the Crepe Myrtle tree in the back yard. You’ll want to wear shoes in the hen house even if the weather is still warm enough to make a quick scoot outside with bare feet. The reason is that you’ll have a substantial foot washing coming at you, way before a Sunday, and you’ll have to do it outside in the cold with the hose because if you track chicken poop back through the house, someone will want to talk with you.
You’ll also want to leave the coffee in the kitchen instead of taking it with you to the hen house. If you take a cup to the hen house, you’ll encounter that recurring problem with your third hand, which will motivate you to put the cup on a rafter. Now, in and of itself, putting the cup on a rafter is not so much a problem; rather, it’s that the rafter bears a protective coating of chicken poop, which will be fresh from the prior evening’s hen party, and the poop will crust over the bottom of the cup, leading, in turn, to unnecessary discussion when you return to the kitchen, regardless of how many eggs you have in the basket.
Another concern in the hen house is that in the spring and fall, you’ll find that snakes like to sleep under the hens. The snakes would probably sleep in the hen house in the summer except that the hens usually sleep in the beans then. Of course, you might wonder why the snakes don’t just move out to the garden with the chickens during the summer, and science has not yet figured the why behind your possible wonderment. Maybe the snakes don’t like beans. Maybe the snakes prefer to sleep under watermelons during the summer. It remains a mystery.
I suppose sleeping under the hen in the cool of the year makes a snake’s breakfast easier to find, and that makes sense if you consider how tough it must be to chase down a frog or mouse while crawling on your belly. The thing is that when you reach under the sleeping hen to pull out the eggs, you’ll find the snake, probably pull it out because you’re still sleepy from the lack of coffee that you left in the kitchen, drop the snake into the egg basket, and then return to the kitchen with a snake in the basket eating all the eggs you gathered. Bringing snakes into the kitchen, especially if their tummies are full of eggs, usually leads to unnecessary discussion.
Alternative egg location
Now if you don’t happen to have a flock of hens out in the backyard, you’ll have to find an alternative egg source. The FoodLion down the street makes such an alternative. I suppose other grocery stores carry eggs, but I rarely enter the competition. It doesn’t seem prudent, which means it might be a law or something. The eggs in FoodLion will be in the back left hand corner as you enter the store.
I usually make a loop around the store starting on the right hand corner as I enter. That way, I can pick up some mayo and Texas Pete along the way. If I’m feeling extravagant, the mayo will be Duke’s, but more likely, it’ll be the FoodLion brand. Regardless, it will not be lite may because lite mayo is an abomination. Do not get a knockoff of Texas Pete, and do not get less than a quart. You’ll need both items to make the egg salad, except under rare circumstances.
Noodle on to the back corner where the eggs are. I usually pick up two cartons when I’m there. You can get the dozen-sized cartons if you’re feeling cautious, but if you get the 18-count cartons, your egg stores will last longer, which will keep you out of the FoodLion longer, which will save you some money, as you’ll only have to return for more beer. Speaking of beer, you’ll find that a few steps beyond the eggs. Get some, probably one beer per egg, but no less than a 24-pack. The beer is an essential ingredient.
Leave FoodLion after paying for the eggs, beer, and whatever else you picked up in there because leaving after paying leads to a lot less discussion. It’s very hard to leave and then pay in any form of pleasant manner. While you’re headed home do not flounce around with the bags no matter what is playing on the radio, not even Sweet Home, Alabama. Neil Young will remember with or without the flouncing. Not only will you break the eggs, but you’ll also shake up the beer. Opening freshly shaken beer will lead to discussion, especially if you do that in the house.
Back in the kitchen
Restrain from opening a beer. It’s been shaken somewhat during the trip from the store, and it’s also probably a little warm. Put the beer in the fridge. Warm American beer is an abomination. Put the eggs in the fridge except for one carton. You can put that carton on the counter. You can have a beer in a minute. I promise.
Search around in the cabinets until you find a large pot. I prefer an iron pot, cast iron, but the materials of the pot’s construction are not germane to making egg salad. However, I will point out here that cooking with anything except cast iron is an abomination. You might want to pause here, head down to a decent hardware store, and buy some cast iron pots and pans. I’ll wait until you return if necessary.
Put the eggs in the pot. Careful here; store bought eggs can crack if they drop more than a millimeter. Eggs from the backyard can drop an inch or so before cracking. Arrange the eggs on the sides, and then add cold water to fill the pot about half way. The eggs should be well covered. Put the pot on the stove. Turn the stove eye on high. Make sure the lid is on the pot.
Now you can have a beer. When the pot reaches a rolling boil, get your second beer. When that beer is gone, turn the heat down to a simmer, and fetch another beer. Turn the heat off when that beer is finished, and let the pot cool for two beers. Dip the eggs out of the pot, and let them cool for another beer. This last step is important because you probably did not buy enough beer to promote your recovery from handling hot eggs.
Once the eggs are cool, they need to be removed from the shells. This step is not to be skipped because shells do not enhance the salad, though they do make a crunchier sandwich. Mostly, the shell only holds the egg together. I usually hold the egg in one hand, and pop the blunt end on the counter. Store bought eggs crack open easily; the eggs from the back yard use Portland cement for the shells, and you’ll have to pop that blunt end hard, but not so hard as to promote discussion for making too much noise.
Peel the shell away from the egg, leaving as much egg intact as possible, but not sweating the loss of a little egg. The dogs will eat the shells later, and the lost egg will contribute, about an hour after the eating, to the spontaneous eau de pooch. Do not throw the shells to the chickens in the back yard. Doing that will insure that you’ll never have another egg until you replace the flock.
Rinse the peeled eggs, one by one, under a running faucet. Make sure the water is warm. If it’s too hot, it’ll burn your hands. If it’s too cold, you’ll get aches in your joints, and you probably didn’t buy enough beer to recover from either trauma. Leaving the water running will produce enough ambient sound that is loud enough to give you the excuse to say you didn’t hear the offer of discussion regarding the noise from the popping of the eggs against the counter.
Making the salad
After all that work, you’ll need a rest and a beer, and that’s fine, go ahead, but at some point you’ll be hungry and needing some egg salad. Here’s what you do to make a single serving of two sandwiches. If you have company, multiply accordingly. If you find you don’t have enough eggs to feed your assembled herd, order pizza. Domino’s is fine, but I generally use Papa John’s. I order online so that (1) I don’t have to deal with the language barrier, and (2) so I don’t have to use up my cash. While you’re at it, order enough to have leftovers, and while you’re waiting for the delivery, send someone for more beer. Neither pizza service will bring beer, which is a serious problem in North Carolina, but that’s another matter for another day.
By the way, I have just learned that Papa John’s contributes my pizza money to conservative religious groups. If that trips your trigger, go for it. If I confirm this alarming news, I will be changing my pizza business. Let’s hope my informant is ill-informed. The Papa John’s deliverymen are often cute, if somewhat slow to get here. Note: I have just confirmed that alarming news. ¡Adiós, Papa!
For me, two sandwiches make a single serving. That means I need three of the eggs, which I hope you put in the fridge after the peeling. If you didn’t throw out what you have, and start over with the trip to the FoodLion because you’re gonna need a lot more beer now. However, the mayo and Texas Pete are probably still OK.
To get started with making the salad, you have to smoosh the eggs. Some people do this with a store bought egg chopper. I find these hinged contraptions far too dangerous to keep in the house. When I nick my finger, there’ll be trouble when I need to grab the shotgun behind the door.
Eating the salad
I use a fork, generally. If a fork is not available, I use a knife, though doing so means I keep the 911-speeddial loaded on the phone. Somehow, by whatever means works safely for you, chunk and smoosh the boiled eggs beyond recognition. Get out some of the mayo that I hope you put in the fridge, and smoosh it all around in the smooshed eggs. Yes, it takes a whole lot of smooshing to make egg salad. It is permissible to sip the beer during this process.
With the mayo in, I have to make a decision. It’s either time for a splash of Texas Pete or a sprinkle of red pepper. Oh, I forgot to mention getting some red pepper at the FoodLion. This might be a good time to send someone back to the store for pepper and beer. Careful: Black pepper is an abomination unto the salad. The red pepper needs to be powdered cayenne, which you could scarf from those Papa John’s packets that I’ll never see again.
If I’m feeling fat, such as happens when I step out for an evening with my buds, or when I accidently try to wear last season’s 501s, I forego the mayo in favor of straight Texas Pete. Using Texas Pete makes the salad especially good when eaten for breakfast. Keep in mind that I rarely bother with the bread. Bread is just one more thing that I usually forget, and that would require another trip to FoodLion, which is unnecessary unless the beer is out. I just eat the salad with a spoon or fork, whichever comes out of the drawer first.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 547
How that nickel came to lie in the middle of the left lane, all scuffed and scratched, still smiling, still tender, calling to me as I sit waiting at the light is a mystery to me. I doubt it fell from the pocket of a pedestrian; a pedestrian would have left a body on these six busy lanes. Perhaps a workman had noticed a door ajar, and eased it open for a quick slam, with just enough crack and pause for an errant bit of drive-thru change to rattle into harm’s way.
Perhaps an overstuffed, ill-mannered, residually angry middle management patron of the Chinese food restaurant some half-mile up the road staggered from the first twinge of a deserved headache, and dropped the change he should have left for the waitress, the one whose failing language produced the wrong order, the nickel rolling faster than the reaching hand, escaping through the parking lot, across the drive, down the road, and to the intersection where the smiling Fates of Nickels Lost introduced a wobble and then a teeter that ended the roll with a rattling, spinning fall neither heard nor seen.
Now, that nickel called to me, sitting there, driving to work, third in the lane, and I wanted to pick it up, roll it in my hands, not for the five cents of commercial value, but to add it’s luck and wealth to my jar of foundling coins, to revel in the accumulated quart of now claimed luck, but I sat tight, still, hands gripping the wheel, eyes mostly forward, peripheral vision denied. There wasn’t time to shift to neutral, set the brake, open the door, hop out, fetch the coin, and undo it all before the car approaching behind me crested the hill, entered the lane, and crushed the life from my greedy body.
I knew the car was coming. I could feel the rumble in the pavement. I squinted at the imagined glare from the polished hood ornament. I dared not act, dared not risk life and limb for the five cents that would hardly buy the bubble gum that I could already smell untwisting, dusty, from the waxed paper wrapper, that I could feel crushing, cracking, hard edges turning soft between my amalgam-filled molars, that I could already taste turning stale after only one minute of chewing satisfaction. I waited, and the hated, feared car arrived, taunting me further in fact as it had in mind, coming to rest in the nickel lane. I sat still, safe, knowing, not admitting, that I’d had all the time I needed.
The nickel sang to me. I didn’t move. The light would change before I could complete the task, and the car behind me would honk in righteous anger. The nickel screamed it’s final chorus across the car-filled lanes. Space, time, life curled before me, urging me to leave the lane, turn around, left or right, return the other way, park by the road’s edge, sprint through the traffic, kneel briefly on the morning’s warming asphalt, seize the bright shiny, absorb it’s five-fold gift of God-sent luck and wealth, feel the weight in my right pocket where it would spend the day before it settled into the jar with all the other lucky money, our fates merged.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 112
It calls me across One day, stepping past,
the space, the time between us, eyes left, wall right, I dare not;
demanding my soul. too young to die, now.
When dare I listen? My name is not there,
Moan or scream or siren’s call, yet we both know it should be.
they are all the same. Death cheated, denied,
I saw it, drafted, another day, I look
a model on a table, beyond the wall, the children,
Black specter, my friend, pausing by my place,
it was, it is, now, rubbing someone’s name,
the death I should have known then, remembering someone’s face.
but by a breath, missed. Dry tears, silent cries.
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 43
World spinning away
From me; fumbling, aimless,
Knees hitting the deck.
Coughing, strangling, bile
Staining the planks beneath me.
Cleans my belly; lumps, froth, smell
Disgust those watching.
Rising, stumbling on,
Steaming leavings wafting still;
I am better now.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 1445
This story was first told on 31 December 1995 as a bedtime story. It was told once more on 21 March 1996 at the first chapel service of spring held by Greensboro College. The dudes required fresh stories every night; repetitions were not allowed. I had to apologize for the repeat of this story, even though it was a chapel service.
Note: Thbpt is that rude noise we refer to as a “raspberry.”
It was a warm mid-morning in early summer toward 1961, and Grandmother, already dusted in White Lily self-rising flour, was busy in her kitchen getting lunch, what she would call dinner, together. The entire family was coming in today for some reason I don’t remember, probably because I was too little then to remember details outside my own world of precious stones and toads.
The nine-pane window over the double sink was open, and the morning breeze fluttered the yellowed curtain, tugging lightly from the sash where Grandmother had tied it earlier that morning while the first streaks of dawn painted the sky.
She hummed to herself, sometimes in tune with the birds in the pecan grove by the house, sometimes with last Sunday’s choir, but never in tune with strange and unfortunately familiar thbpting sound that drifted through the window, a sound laced with the other, sweeter, sounds of summer’s morning.
Had she not been so busy with the big lunch for her family, she might have taken time to investigate that thbpt further, and if she had, she would have found, yet again, it was Tootles, the blue and green Muscovy duck, chasing a grasshopper through the garden. Seeing Tootles taken with honest labor would have warmed Grandmother’s heart toward the old duck, and Tootles needed all the human sympathy she could get, especially sympathy from Grandmother, but she didn’t investigate the sound, she didn’t see Tootles hard at work debugging the garden, and Tootles missed a golden opportunity to win a kindly thought and perhaps a morsel of table scrap.
This morning, Tootles was ready for a snack. No, she needed a snack! She’d had a big breakfast of corn sprouts that morning, and Grandmother had not yet noticed the missing sprouts even if they were in the first row of the garden. The bean sprouts planned for lunch were waiting in the next row. Tootles needed her mid-morning snack, just like everyone else on the farm, and she had her eye on a grasshopper, one just the right size for a hungry and hard working Scoby duck.
The problem was that the grasshopper had his eye on Tootles. He also had a rascally bent about him, something not uncommon for a grasshopper, and he was not inclined, not in the least, to be a duck’s snack, but he was inclined to tease a hungry Scoby duck, and that was just what he was doing this morning.
Tootles was hunkered between the beans, stalking, as best a duck can stalk, this green and brown grasshopper, one she knew would make a crunchy tasty morsel before her mid-morning nap in the garden. Her big feathery wings stuck straight out, her large webbed feet stepping through the sand and dust in slow motion. You could hardly see her breathe. She might as well have been a Ninja Duck.
The Grasshopper was not unaware of Tootles’ shenanigans this morning. Au Contraire, he was in complete control, and poor Tootle didn’t know it. How could she? She was a hungry duck. Just before Tootles was close enough to nab her crunchy snack, the hopper would twitch his fuzzy bottom. (No, science doesn’t not yet know why hoppers have fuzzy bottoms. It’s still a mystery.)
Well, that was just too much for this easily excited and very hungry duck, making her lunge and thbpt just a step too far away, giving the ornery hopper all the time he needed to jump off the bean, spread his hoppery wings, fly away on a looping arc, and buzz down on another bean on another row where he munched on his own snack while waiting for Tootles to find him again. Boy hoppers can be rascally that way.
Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. What a concert it was! A drama extraordinaire, it was, all morning long.
In the house, we had all gathered to eat lunch, though it was more a feast. If you can imagine it, if it were food, if you could find it in or near the garden, Grandmother had cooked it. Collards, turnips, corn, snap beans, butterbeans, and garden peas. Biscuits, cornbread, and hush puppies. Chicken, ham, and turkey. (But alas and alack, no duck.)
In the middle of that table, surrounded by all that food and a gaggle of hungry people, were two beautiful, white coconut cakes for our desert. We ate with a vengeance, like soldiers on a mission, and the object of our culinary battle was those two cakes, placed before us all, unattainable until we had cleaned our plates, twice.
Out in the beans, Tootles was at her limit, her ducky patience about gone. She had caught onto the hopper’s evil plan, and now she had one of her own, a design surely to get that crunchy bug in her beak, to end the rumbly in her tumbly. She took bigger steps. She lifted her head less. When the hopper wiggled his fuzzy bottom, she waited to lunge, just a tiny bit, and then she did it.
She lunged and thbpted like no other Scoby duck in all the history of Muscovy had ever jumped or thbpted before, but this time, with Tootles’ beak so close, the hopper suffered a shock; the kind of shock from which a hopper dates! A close brush with mortality can do that for a bug, and he spread his brittle, hoppery wings and flew like the wind, or as best to like the wind as a locust can fly. Just behind his fuzzy, now flying, bottom was Tootles, first running, then jumping and flapping, finally just flapping, thbpting on every stroke of leg or wing. She wanted that bug!
The two made a fine summer symphony of buzz and thbpt, and they were headed straight for the open kitchen window.
We had finished with lunch, and were admiring the cakes. Grandmother was standing to the side of the table preparing to slice the first one, smiling at the empty bowls and scrapped-clean plates spread before her. We had done our job well, declaring that we just didn’t know where we’d find room for the cake, knowing full well we’d eat a slice, maybe two, even at the risk of exploding.
So taken were we with the moment that no one noticed the little hopper sail through the window., but we all noticed Tootles as she spread her wide Scoby wings, put on her feathery brakes, let out one last giant thbpt, and then land perfectly on the table, one foot in each cake.
Grandmother was not amused.
We all sat at the table, frozen in surprise. Tootles was stepping in the cakes, puzzled by the sticky frosting clinging to her feet, legs, belly, and wings. She was nibbling a few beans off my plate when Grandmother attacked her with the broom, a handmade broom of straw gathered by my grandfather from the field across from the house. She swept that duck across the kitchen, over the refrigerator, under the counter, knocking dishes from the drainer to the sink, touching every base, and making a tremendous mess in the process.
Finally, the pair, sweeping, thbpting, flapping, thbpting, and molting were at the top of the backdoor stairs. Grandmother pulled back the broom in a form from which Arnold Palmer could have learned, and she swatted Tootles square in her feathered bottom, launching the poor, still hungry, duck through the gap in the pecan trees, high above the garden, and down to the round pond towards the end of the field.
Tootles barely missed the pigs rooting in the mud at the edge of the pond as she plomped down without ceremony into the shallow water, telling the pigs that she meant to do that. It took a while to wash the icing from her head, wings, and tummy. Her feet took longer. The pigs, being just a notch above Scoby ducks on the evolutionary ladder, were much amused by the incident. The fish in the pond enjoyed the special icing treat.
As for the grasshopper, he flew back out the window to the beans in the garden, enjoyed his lunch, and settled down for a long siesta under a shady leaf.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Copyright: Jim Penny, 2008
Word count: 614
The sky is blue in patches, in places, at times, and the shade varies by circumstance, season, and time of day. There is that deepest, most mesmerizing blue of the welcomed cool that signals the end of summer when the first push of Canadian air since last March shoves the resident Bermuda high into the central Atlantic, replacing the languid Caribbean humidity with a bracing pre-arctic chill, and there is the faded blue of the day just before when the air was nearly saturated with briny vapor brushed from the edges of Montego Bay, the Yucatan coast, and the teal phosphorescent waters of Bridal Cay where the clawless lobsters grow.
At dawn, the sky can be black with a red, yellow, sometimes orange, glow on toward the east greeting the birthing of the day, the waning of the stars, and the coming of sun, streaking, staining the angled, crumpled, stretching, hanging clouds; all sailors take warning. Sometimes the sun just rises without ceremony, witnessed by the grove of pine occluding the early glow, the black fading to gray, to blue, to bluer, to day, the stars erased from east to west, the dreams of fading slumber, embracing lovers, floating on the cool breeze of the morning, new again to burn to cinder and crumble in the piercing rays of risen sun.
Dusk, a dawn from the other side, is often more intensely colored, perhaps because the depleted air of ending day is warmed by the whispered despairing of mortal prayer, perhaps because the eyes of those who stop now to search the fading glow for what they missed in the light of day, perhaps because the upward lifting faces of the oh so many more who see, sharing, shining, blending, lending aura of the many human colors, tint the ending day, setting sun, holding hands, entwining fingers, and coming night, melding hues afresh, anew, each day.
The sky is gray in steady rain that falls and chills the silent bones of stalking winter hunters, that falls and warms the wiggling toes of laughing summer children chased by dads who warn of grass carp, that falls and whispers lurid taunts of long denied afternoon repose, that falls and lulls the morning sleeper back to dream again the colored thrill before the pain of morning light invades the sleep-filled eyes.
The sky is green and black and yellow and brown when summer storms hang moaning, low in the early afternoon, boiling, filled with wind and lifted summer ice, streaking fire; swirling, washing, rending, forcing unwanted focus to sentient thought, no longer glancing, leaping, rock to rose, now the simple point of ragged survival, an uplifted empty opened beak, screaming, sitting, rocking, off at an angle in the garden path, cracked eyes seeing shades and shapes, whispers of feathers that will never fly, wondering, wordless, the heartless strangely intense and newly felt radiant life giving warmth that will soon reduce the heart to dust.
Many colors make a sky, evolving verse and human condition, punctuated by cloud and star and bird and vapor trail, written on the skinless underbelly of heaven, calling for an early morning read by the few who can shake the spell of dreaming sleep, settling for the short lived glance in day of those who haven’t the time to read between the lines, spreading gentle solace to the fevered brow that needs just one more promise before the one day, and bundling tight the children sleeping and entangled lovers, who dream of one more day to play and love.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 2450
Where to stay
If you’re staying at Bon Maison, this is going to be a lot easier. Mind you, I’ve never spent an evening at Bon Maison, though I have gazed longingly through the gates onto the courtyard. Most often, I stay in the hotel that the people paying the bill tell me to stay in. Occasionally, I’m using hotel points. Regardless, Bon Maison is on my list for a visit one day as it’s situated right in the middle of where I need to be.
You’re more likely staying at a mainstream hotel such as a Hilton affiliate. I have no problem with the regular hotels, and they generally work quite well, especially when I’m there for work, but they’re also a bit more removed from where I want to be in the evening. Sometimes, that bit of distance is not a bad thing, especially if something out of the ordinary is going on. Other times, I find myself wondering if I’m going to make it back to the hotel after a long evening of ribaldry.
The Doubletree at the bottom of Canal Street works very well if you have the money or Hilton Honors Points. The view across the water can be a delight. The bartender there saved my life with his Healing Bloody Maries on a New Year’s Day after I ate a rare burger to be described anon.
I generally use the Hilton Garden because of the oh-so-fine breakfast they provide, always prepared to my exacting specifications, and always cooked with a smile by a handsome Cajun man who likely learned to scramble my eggs at his grandmother’s side. This hotel is about a half-mile walk from the good stuff, and I find that, when coupled with the magical breakie, well worth the hike.
More to the point, you step out the door, walk a block, turn left, and head up to cross Canal Street and enter Bourbon Street, which means your return trip is very easily negotiated, and that is important because you probably aren’t thinking clearly, much less walking straight, not that I ever walk straight, at 4 a.m.
However, the entrance to this hotel is weird and difficult to negotiate when sober, which is why you should have the cabbie stop at a drive-through hurricane kiosk on your way from the airport. The door is off the side of a parking deck, and the signage is minimal. Registration is up somewhere towards the 11th floor, and that can present a challenge at times. The rooms are even higher. Very high. High as a Georgia Pine.
There is a Hampton across the block, and it’s equally convenient to Bourbon Street. I’ve never stayed there, mostly because I don’t want to be exposed to the risk of the Hampton breakie while I’m in New Orleans where bad food is especially difficult to find.
You can also make use of the Embassy Suites way down on Julia Street, which will involve a long hike down Tchoupitoulas Street to reach Canal near the Doubletree. Having stayed at this Embassy Suites several times, I can report that it’s a perfectly reasonable place to take one’s evening comfort. In addition, it’s a straight shot over to the French Market and, of course, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which comes up for review a little later.
I can report that on one of my visits to New Orleans, I was walking back to the Embassy Suites at about 2 a.m. when a friendly woman called me from across the street. She wanted to know if I needed some company for the night. I explained a few details to her, and she remarked that I must be undercover. I spent some time on the rest of the walk wondering how to amend my wardrobe. Apparently, a brown leather jacket over 501s and GI-issue jungle boots was broadcasting the wrong signal. However, I’ve never been particularly GQ material, and I let the matter drop.
There is also Le Pavillion. It’s a perfectly fine, upscale hotel, and it’s conveniently located to a smoothie shop that I cannot remember much about. I’ve stayed there twice while spending Other People’s Money, and now I receive the unending emails to prove it. The web site comes with music; click fast. One attraction here is peanut butter sandwiches in the late evening, something that I do not get. Go the New Orleans for PB&J? Not likely.
Where to eat
The Clover Grill is my favorite place for quick food, prepared under a hubcap, and served with a smile that lets you know a tip had better be forthcoming. The trick is to find the place, and many never quite get there.
You’ll most likely step onto Bourbon Street where it intersects Canal Street. Most people do. Walk down the street. During the day, you’ll want to use the sidewalk. Make mental notes of where you want to stop for a drink and some music. Be mindful that there are more places to visit than you can accommodate, and you want to weigh each in the balance carefully.
On the second block from Canal, on the right hand sidewalk as you’re walking, stop in the middle and cast your vision to the concrete. This is the spot where I encouraged a street hustler to sit down and to take a load off. You see, as I was walking along aglow with a tum full of cheeseburger, the kindly gentleman walked up, told me that he could tell me where I got my boots, and proceeded to put his arm out to grasp my opposite shoulder.
As he spoke the ruse, I dismissed him because I already knew where he was headed. I got my boots on the sidewalk of Bourbon Street. The follow-up reach brought my attention back to him, all up close and personal. As he reached for my shoulder, I took his wrist in the one hand, rotated the arm, and applied knife-hand undeniable pressure to the back of his elbow with the other hand, encouraging him to sit upon the pavement and rest a spell. He seemed content to remain in place as I walked away.
Keep walking down Bourbon Street. Maybe stop for a beer or hurricane along the way. At some point, you’ll cross into the 800 block. You are home free now, and you’ll notice this by the change in scenery. In particular, rainbow flags and shirtless men will be in abundance. Drink it all in. You are all welcome here. Sidestep the occasional wingnut ministry; they are not worth the trouble, though they can make an interesting diversion when viewed from a balcony with beer in hand.
The Clover Grill is on the 900 block, on the right side as you’re walking. Step in, say hello, and have a burger as the Deity intended: Cooked under a hubcap. Get extra fries. Get a milkshake. You can diet when you return home. Get anything on the menu. It’s all good.
Do NOT order the burger rare, no matter how much better rare burgers are. I have been there and done that. Rare commercial burgers lead to an all-too-interesting 36-hour follow-up. Remember: You’re in New Orleans. Codes are different there, and if you want it, you can generally have it if you can pay for it. Have beer for breakfast if you choose. There is no way you want to pay for a rare commercial burger. The hotdog kiosks on the street are less risky, and the dogs are excellent, I must add.
At some point, you might want a culinary change in venue. Any kitchen in New Orleans, as best I can tell, is worth your time and tum. One spot of interest is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville near the French Market. I try to stop by once a trip for a Cheese Burger in Paradise.
Do understand that you’re at risk to have a cute, if cretin, waiter here. He will not likely know what you mean when you ask for the cheeseburger the “way Jimmy likes it.” In that even, let me encourage you to lead the other diners in a rousing rendition of Cheese Burger in Paradise, complete with table dancing, and remember to leave a good tip for the mess you’ll make.
I generally eat at the bar when I visit Margaritaville. That’s because the bartenders are often cuter than the waiters, and they are always more adept with flirty chat. This means that my appetizer is, usually, one or two Incommunicados. I have one more with the Cheeseburger in Paradise, despite the song calling for a cold draft beer. For desert, I order one more Incommunicado, and then a double to go. Yeah, it makes for an interesting stroll through the French Market.
Music in the Quarter
With all my passion for Jimmy Buffett, I have never been to an evening’s show at Margaritiville. Instead, I preferred to start with the Corner Pocket, unless I’m sufficiently distracted by a group at another bar. The Corner Pocket is now far different from what it was two years ago when last I visited. The scenery has definitely improved, but I suspect the music has gone downhill. Think disco and techno-tribal.
When last I visited, the Corner Pocket was a straight bar with friendly wait staff and excellent southern rock. Now that it appears to be a twink bar, I’ll just aim for the nearest strain of “I hope Neal Young will remember…” Besides, twink bars don’t start rocking until after midnight.
My favorite band in the Quarter, At Fault, appears to be no longer in existence. I might require counseling now. They have entertained me countless hours, both in person and by CD. The world is lessened in their absence.
At some point, there’s the need for something different. One inviting place is Parade upstairs from the Bourbon Pub. The trick here is to pay the five bucks and go upstairs to sit on the woofers while the twinks dance under definite chemical influence. The energy they produce is not natural in the human species.
You might want some earplugs before you go in. I find the foam plugs work well, and it’s not like you’re going to miss much in terms of sound. How the nails stay in the walls of the 200-year-old building, I have yet to understand. If it is of interest to you, the couches with the velvet curtains have been replaced with tables and chairs, representing a definite source of depression for me.
Finally, it’s time for a settee. That’s why we have Jean Lafitte in Exile. You can stop by the café if you’re hungry, though I never have, what with being smitten with the Clover Grill across the street. Instead, I step into the bar, smile at the cute bartenders who always smile back, find the stairs up, which is not a minor feat, and go to the second floor. At the top, I grab a drink from the second cute bartender, and noodle along to the balcony, where I set up camp for an evening of people watching.
While you’re at Jean Lafitte in Exile, show some respect: You’re drinking with Papa, Papa being the shade of Ernest Hemingway. Prepare to express yourself in short, pithy, declarative sentences that drill to the core of human existence. Save the best ones for the occasional street minister attempting to save your soul below on the street. Don’t throw the cup, no matter how much you want. As your drink grows short, revisit the bar, and tip my favorite bartender well. Remember the bathroom off to the side. Don’t make a mess as I use that one often. You can leave the seat down.
Jean Lafitte is likely the best bar in the known universe. Casual. Unassuming. Accepting. Judgment free. All forms of human life pass through the doors and along the street below. You are advised to follow suit and make no trouble here. There are bears about. I also need to mention that at 8 a.m., they serve the medicinal Bloody Mary, which you’ll likely need before your visit ends.
Drinking in New Orleans
Alcohol is available 24/7 in New Orleans. Abuse the convenience, and you’ll rue a day or three. Don’t be like the young man I encountered at 4 a.m. in a doorway by Bourbon Street. He was a veritable fire hydrant of puke. I crossed the street to grant him some privacy and to save my boots.
Remember that the average human can process about one ounce of alcohol per hour. Have two drinks in the first hour, and one drink per hour thereafter to manage your buzz. Eat something occasionally! Limit the amount of sugar you snarf. Sugar is a stronger poison than alcohol in humans, and your liver will focus on the sugars first, leaving the alcohol to ride through your blood stream and oxidize, at some point forming carboxylic acid, which will seriously perturb your blood ph, leaving you with a hangover that will last for days. Trust me: I once taught organic chemistry.
Also, remember that New Orleans has both drive-through hurricane kiosks AND open container laws. It’s not an open container until you remove the lid or you put a straw in it. However, I wouldn’t pretend to drive in New Orleans. I did that once. It’s better to park at the airport, and then take a cab to the hotel.
I have yet to meet the municipality that would not benefit from following a model such as we see in New Orleans.
Halloween and New Year’s Eve in New Orleans
Mardi Gras is over-rated. You’ll be knee deep in street crap, and yards from the nearest bartender who can hear you. Halloween is better, followed by New Year’s Eve. Go for it. The crowd is smaller, and equally boisterous. Remember you can flash above the waist for beads, male or female. Flash below the waist, and it’ll be fun, but you’ll likely be visiting the county lockup, which will be less fun because the county lockup does not come with a bar.
Men wearing kilts receive far more attention than any other gender and dress combination. Oh yeah, I know this for a fact.
Note to Da Dudes
Years ago, I promised both of you a trip to New Orleans when you turned eighteen. One of you has reached that age and more; the other is on the cusp. My promise remains, though I think you’ll enjoy the visit more at 21. Regardless, my requirement of trumpet and trombone screaming “When the Saints Come Marching in” remains in effect. It’s gonna be a moment from which I date.
Necessary links regarding partying in New Orleans
1. Bon Maison: http://www.bonmaison.com
2. Doubletree: http://doubletree1.hilton.com/en_US/dt/hotel/MSYTCDT-Doubletree-Hotel-New-Orleans-Louisiana/index.do
3. Hilton Garden: http://hiltongardeninn.hilton.com/en/gi/hotels/index.jhtml?ctyhocn=MSYORGI
4. Hampton: http://www.hamptoninn.com/en/hp/hotels/index.jhtml?ctyhocn=MSYDTHX
5. Embassy Suites: http://www.embassyneworleans.com/
6. Le Pavilion: http://www.lepavillon.com/
7. Margaritaville: http://www.margaritaville.com/
8. The Clover Grill: http://www.clovergrill.com/
9. The Bourbon Pub: http://www.bourbonpub.com/
10. Cheese Burger in Paradise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq69l32DCKs
11. Incomunicado: http://www.margaritaville.com/index.php?page=drinkrec
12. Jean Lafitte in Exile: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60864-d146957-Reviews-Cafe_Lafitte_in_Exile-New_Orleans_Louisiana.html
Monday, November 10, 2008
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 1105
A version of this essay was published in Assessing Writing as an example of a high school student writing in response to a question regarding the fictional character who has had “the greatest influence on your life.”
Of the fictional characters who’ve made an impression on me, I’d have to pick Batman, not because of any one thing that he ever did, but because of what he could have done, or more precisely, what I could do were I Batman. What is it I would do were I Batman, you ask? Well, were I Batman with wealth untold, with physical resources unimaginable even to the United States military, and with what appears to be nearly Jedi-like training, I would banish from this realm the malevolent newspaper editor who removed “Henry” from the Raleigh News and Observer.
Now why would I do such a thing? Why would I fight for a newspaper cartoon that never used a single word, that was more often printed in black-and-white than in color, and that described the odd world of a bald-headed boy with a round nose, a silent boy who thought mostly in punctuation marks, who always wore shorts, a tucked-in t-shirt, black lace-up shoes with rolled down socks, and little more except for maybe a scarf in the snow?
Why would I blast that editor from the face of this planet, and let Martian Moon Maggots gnaw the fetid remains that somehow survived the searing ionic blast of the polyphasic batpistol from my goody-packed Batman utility belt? Because he, she, or it saw fit to end the one cartoon that my grandfather read to me while I sat on his knee every Sunday for as many Sundays as I remember being small enough to fit on his knee and for a good many Sundays after that. He could even read the weekday Henry cartoons, and make them seem every bit as good as the Sunday color cartoons though they were black and white on the weekdays.
You want to know what else? No jury of my peers would find me guilty of anything more than justifiable homicide for doing so.
My parents would visit my grandparents nearly every Sunday, either for dinner or just after dinner. (Dinner is what we called what the rest of the world called lunch.) Papa, that’s what I called him, would lift me up on his lap, and proceed to find a 30-minute story in the maybe 10 colored panels of Henry in the Sunday paper. I know now he was keeping me out of the kitchen while my mother and grandmother finished putting our meal on the table, but then I thought he knew secrets untold as he spread the paper across my lap atop his.
You know what? Now that I think about it, he probably did know some secrets.
This man taught me to how to select ripe watermelons so Grandmother could make preserves from the rinds, a process that proves enough sugar can make about anything good. Gathering watermelons from a sandy field in late July or early August isn’t really the kind of work you would expect a young boy to remember fondly, so you might be wondering a little here, and often, a snake or spider will make a home under the larger melons, presenting quite the start when you reach to break the stem and take the melon up in your arms.
Well, the thing about it was that he and I ate the cool sweet heart from each melon, and fed the rest, full of seeds, to the chickens. We only took the rinds, still wet and sparkly where he’d scrapped the red melon meat away with his pocketknife, back to the house for my Grandmother.
Papa was a bee charmer with a dozen or more hives along the edge of the small field near his house. When he gathered honey in the summer, I’d appear as though summoned to help. Of course, my kind of help was to scoop honey from the large washtub with my fingers, and to chew errant chunks of comb as fast as his gnarled fingers could set them aside for me. The gentled bees swarmed all around the tub, the trays holding combs waiting, the jars filling under the corncob-stoppered spout at the base of the tub, and the sweetened boy-fingers racing from dripping rack to smacking lips, all golden laden with fresh late spring honey.
Papa taught me to shave a scalded pig with a wet blade, not dry, the blade being a straight-edged razor. The water protected the edge, and prevented Papa’s early return to the sharpening strop. He taught me to fish for bream and bass with dead crickets gleaned freely from the wooden box in which the chirping living crickets awaited the paying customer, a sharp hook, and sure watery death in a gaping fish maw.
He taught me to water and feed the earthworms he farmed, to select only the largest, and to be sure I counted to 100 and a little more as I filled the rusting soup can for sale to our neighbors and other gentlemen from the church. In the parking lot of Wimpy William’s Emporium, he explained that I needed to wait outside in the car, a green Nash Rambler, rather than go in with him to deliver fresh worms for sale; Wimpy sold beer in there.
In the summer of 1968, Papa carried my limp grandmother up the trembling flight of wooden back steps that he built some decades before, laid her dead by massive stroke on the squeaking bed, and called his sons, one my father, to ask them to come. “Mammie’s dead,” he said. That’s what he called her, and that’s what they called her.
The brothers then sold the homestead, and Papa moved from home to home for the next several years, an eternity I’m sure it was to him, intruding on the patterns of life, long ago established in the absence of extended family, until he settled alone in the white frame house across the now-paved road from where we lived. A few years later, the brothers, my uncles and daddy, settled Papa’s estate and shared the resulting $75.
So there, you have it. In my opinion, the Henry cartoon should appear in the front page of every newspaper in the land, and when I’m king of this realm, I’ll make it required reading. Maybe I’ll even create some Henry classes, which would be a definite improvement over those about Homer Simpson. That’s why I would like to be Batman, if for only a moment.
Friday, November 7, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 1700
There are many variations on the chicken stew. My grandmother, Lily Penny, made the best that ever was and ever will be. Be sad if you never sat at her table. What you’re about to read is my variation on her stew. I would never try to match hers. There are easier ways to fail in this world.
Go to Food Lion, and buy a whole chicken. Make sure it’s a fryer, not a stewing hen. A stewing hen can be cooked for the rest of time, and still, it will not be edible. You’ll find a carcass of a stewing hen that I left by the road in Tunis, NC. The hen is on the right side of the road where we parked the RV fifteen years ago and pretended to cook. I boiled that beast three hours, and it remained unchanged. It smelled good, but a magician’s rubber chicken would have done better in that pot. Dins that evening became beer and corn chips.
Grandmother did not have a Food Lion available. She had to send Papa out to the backyard with a hatchet. You can do that too, but I doubt you’ll find a chicken in your yard. If you do find a chicken in your yard, you’re in for a treat.
Alternatively, Food Lion sells chicken in cans. The small tins found near the canned tuna section are what I buy. Three or four of the small cans will do. If you buy tinned chicken, you’ll also want to fetch a couple of liters of chicken broth.
You want to avoid the canned whole chicken in the big tin. That particular product is an abomination unto the stew.
While you’re at Food Lion, pick up some beer, at least a 12-pack. Get a big onion too.
Preparing and cooking the chicken
If you bought a whole chicken, there will be a pack of chicken innards inside the bird. Use your own discretion here. For some, it’s not a stew without a giblet lurking about. However, I toss the giblets into the trash, despite how much I enjoy a big dinner of fried chicken livers. If you put the giblets in the stew and I’m there, make sure the beer you bought is readily available with a bourbon chaser, as I’ll need serious medication and sedation if I accidentally chomp down on a boiled chicken heart.
If you got your chicken from the yard, the innards will be in about the same place, but not so neatly arranged and removed.
I’ve never found innards in the canned chicken, which is one more reason to buy chicken in little tins.
Put the chicken in a large pot, cover it with water, add a fist full of salt, and set the pot to boiling until the chicken falls apart. I usually turn the chicken a few times in that process, and when the turning breaks off chunks of the chicken, I know I’m done.
Turn off the heat in whatever manner is appropriate for your cooking site, and remove the chunks of chicken from the pot. Put the chicken chunks in a bowl, and let them cool. I usually let the chicken cool long enough to have two beers, which are medicinally required to heal the fingers I just burned.
Disassemble the chicken. I retain only the chicken meat, which I shred into wee pieces, but there is nothing wrong with keeping the skin, knuckles, and other parts. In fact, my mother would search out the chicken knuckles, were she at your table. Laurie would seek the tail. My grandfather wanted the saddle.
The above steps involving chicken dismemberment are not required if you bought tinned chicken. All you have to do is open the cans, dump the chicken in the pot, add the broth, and boil it all for a while. You’ll still want those two beers to heal the cuts on your fingers from the tins.
Bear in mind that your duty with the stew is to meet the mystical requirements of your guests.
Making the pastry is a bitch. The cleanup is the mother-of-all-bitches. This is why so many people make dumplings, which are an abomination unto the stew. If you’re going to make dumplings, just move north and eat corned beef or something.
The pastry is made from water and white flour, plain or self-rising doesn’t matter except in one step to be described anon. The brand doesn’t really matter either, though I buy White Lily flour as my finances permit. More often, I buy Food Lion flour.
My grandmother was ever poised to make pastry. She had a small room off her kitchen where she made pastry and biscuit dough. She also chased chickens and the occasional duck out of that room when they’d fly through the window, but that’s another matter not germane to the current discussion and certainly beyond the scope of this instruction.
Into a large bowl, dump a lot of flour, add water, and work the mess into a smooth, not sticky, ball. The trick here is to stop earlier than later. Work that ball of dough too long, and you’ll need a steam roller for the next step.
Coat a large flat surface with flour. Do not underestimate the amount of flour you want on that surface. Grandmother’s countertop in that little room was deep in White Lily flour. Pull off a small ball of dough, and flatten it on the flour-coated surface. Heavily dust your rolling pin with flour, and start rolling. I find it difficult to get the pastry thin enough because I prefer very thin pastry. However, some people like thick pastry, such as Laurie. When he was present, I leaned hard into the rolling pin, which probably accounts for extra beer he chugged at that moment.
If you bought self-rising flour, remember that the pastry will rise and make thick pastry. Remind Laurie of the rising, and he will smile. In turn, he might also drink less beer, which will mean you have more.
At some point, you have a sheet of dough of some thickness. Slice this sheet into long strips, and layer the strips on a platter with generous dustings of flour between the layers. Here is where you can get thick pastry regardless of the rolling you just did. Two perfectly thin noodles will merge no matter what, providing evidence of your sorry status in this world. Get used to it. Besides, this merging will produce a big smile from Laurie, and he will tip his beer to salute the General.
It is acceptable to curse the merged pastry strips.
I no longer require the punishment that is pastry making. Yes, I can self-loathe easily enough without the help. I pick up a box of Aunt Anne’s frozen pastry. At Food Lion, the frozen pastry is a few steps from the beer. The real Aunt Anne makes her pastry in Downeast, North Carolina. She freezes it in the freezer out on the front porch. Do not confuse her with the northern knockoffs.
Bring the pot of broth and chicken to a rolling boil. While waiting for that to happen, chop the onion into little pieces, and toss them into the pot. It’s permissible to have a beer while waiting for the pot to boil. It is not permissible to watch the pot, unless you need another beer.
Now we reach a controversial point, that being the inclusion of sage in the stew. I like sage in my stew, and I tend to use it in excess. My grandmother would have my hide for that. Of course, she would also have a little something to say about the beer in the fridge. We won’t even think about her reaction to the onion. Laurie likes sage and onion in his stew. We agree on something. Go figure.
The point is that now is the time to add sage if you want.
By the way, the best sage is freshly rubbed by a barefooted, young man wearing overalls with a single gallous and nothing else but maybe a straw hat sitting atop his tousled mane. He should rub your sage gently with calloused hands in a white, slightly cracked, bowl on his lap, with respect and pride, while sitting on a folding chair under a pecan tree. For this essential service, he may sit this night at the big table for the stew.
When the pot is finally in a full rolling boil, chug the last of your current beer, and start dropping the pastry strips into the pot, doing so one strip at the time. With your third hand, stir the pot to keep the pastry from sticking. I drop pastry strips into the little swirls of boiling broth according to my mother’s explicit instruction. You should too.
The pastry strips are cooler than the broth, especially if frozen. If you drop them in too fast, the boiling will stop, and the pastry will clump. Clumped pastry is an abomination unto the stew, and you should throw it out with a flourish and a curse. However, Laurie will object to wasting perfectly cooked thick pastry. Be prepared to fight for what is right, and remember this is why we have beer.
At some point, all the pastry is in the pot. Bring the pot to a rolling boil, stirring as needed, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let the pot simmer until the thin pastry strips are translucent. It takes about one beer for proper simmering to complete.
Take the pot off the fire, and plunk it onto the table, preferably on a towel or something so you don’t have to refinish the table tomorrow. Spoon the steaming mass of manna onto chipped plates from a previous generation, listen to Laurie complain about the stew being too hot to eat, remind him of the beer, and settle in for a meal that links you directly to the lineage of North Carolina peeps who dined on this fine meal long before there was a North Carolina. The Sons of Liberty and Lumbee Elders are smiling tonight.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 760
Versions of this essay have been published in the Greensboro News and Record and the Blotter
We were picking up early-season sweet potatoes on the second blistering afternoon of a hotter than normal August in eastern North Carolina. 1968, it was. The deep furrows of the potato plow bared the cool sand that had not faced the brutal sun in well over a year; the brown, damp soil turned quickly to gray, dry dirt, pocked with sweet, swollen, orange tuberous roots, occasional quartz stones, and errant rusted bottle caps from hot seasons and thirsty diggers past.
We were an invading force, stripping the land of the luscious blue-green vines and occasional potato blossoms, leaving in our wake the naked, drying soil, ripped in rows long hidden, tangled with withered, stringing vines and yellowing leaves.
The fruits of our labors were lines of wooden crates from Mexico filled with “Number One Sweet Potatoes” bound for the early market of North Raleigh. There, the going price would be two, maybe three, times what we would get next month. The boxes were arranged in jagged lines along corridors in the dusty field, awaiting the men who would grunt, lift, and stack them on my daddy’s old flatbed truck with six in-line cylinders, dual rear tires, and a growling bull-gear. The truck was barely able to heave its load through the axle-deep sand of the newly pillaged field.
Six of us worked quietly in bare feet, short pants, thin or no shirts, and, occasionally, hats. The vapid conversation of the cooler morning had left with the dew, and now, an hour past lunch, the discussion of the food that was and the weekend that would be had both withered in the unrelenting heat. We went about our labor, automatons bent on simple, if ragged, survival, approaching the ends of the rows, each in turn, those in front helping those to the rear, no one getting to far ahead or too far behind. I was rarely the first or the last, but usually toward the middle, sometimes helped, sometimes helping, always pulling the countless tubers from the ravaged soil.
The end of each row meant a break in the shade, a cup of cool water, a chance for some to sit and for some to lean, a brief rest in the welcomed breeze that stirred the shade of the wild cherry trees. Our water sat in an orange Igloo cooler on a concrete block under the tallest cherry tree, five gallons, a chunk of block ice, one cup, and six people, five black and one white: me.
I was second in line to drink, and for the first time in my fifteen years, I faced the certain and undeniable prospect of drinking behind the coloreds. Ahead, a young woman of about my age drained the cup, sighed in the lingering pleasure of cold water on a hot day, and handed the cup, a molded, dimpled smoke-green glass of undistinguished design, to me.
I reached for the wet cup, still cool from the chilled water, the intensity of the moment searing my brain, burning my soul far beyond anything the glaring, scoffing sun, glinting from the lip of the cheap five-and-dime glass, could ever do to my shirtless back. White people didn't drink after coloreds, an unexplainable, heretofore immutable, and now apparently untenable law with me at the cusp of eternal damnation.
There I stood, cup in hand.
There was no visible spit on the rim, but I had watched those brown lips, heard that soulful sigh, and even imagined a slight string of spittle spun from lip to glass as she lowered it, closed her eyes, and swallowed the water that cooled her.
I wonder if she saw, or felt, my pause. Did the others? Did they feel the same for having to drink after me?
I held the glass in my right hand not wiping the rim, drew my water with the left, raised the cup to my face, gazed at the distorted reflection of my nose, lips, and tongue, and drank it all, ignoring the cold chill that burned my throat.
Was this burning the mutation I feared? Was it my soul in flight, fleeing its soiled and impure vessel? Was it the end of the life I had known? Would friends and relations shun me? Would dogs chase me? Would God cast me beyond purgatory, now that I was one of the damned, one who had drunk behind the coloreds?
My throat thawed while the chill spread through my heated innards, bringing a shiver to my spine, and I handed the cup to the smiling, wizened gentleman behind me.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 1028
She walked absently across the barely greening university lawn, patches of a late season’s wet snow still clutching to the shadowy edges of roots and walls. Her mind remained in study for the end-of-year and end-of-school exams beginning in a week. Her jeans were damp at the cuffs from the lingering, melting snow, and the chilled breeze discernibly warmer than last week passed unchecked through the open front of her jacket. She walked the brick-lined path in habit, following her custom to check her mailbox before going to supper, entering the ancient dormitory without knowing she was there.
Her feet followed the grey marble steps to the basement, the edges worn and rounded by the countless steps of others on a similar course. The warm air of the mail room drifted up the stairs, lifting a tendril of long brown hair to tickle her ear. She brushed it away as the long fingers of the other hand traced the brass handrail along the wall. The coolness of the metallic touch registered distantly in a mind otherwise occupied with focused analytical study. She nodded to friends passing through the doorway, one holding it open as she passed.
Through four long years she had received her mail in this one place. The combination of the mail slot, she knew in her fingers, the memory having long since migrated from brain to hand, leaving only the vestiges and shadows of letters and numbers too faint for recitation. The small door opened to reveal a single letter sitting corner to corner, top to the right, slightly bowed downward.
She recognized the writer by the shade of the paper, the script and style of the addressing, and the ancient seal of wax only he would use in this age of instant, and more reasonable, communication. She paused holding the letter in her hands, turning it from front to back, as though divining the words and message from the patina of the envelope, the spatter of the wax, the assemblage of ink flowed from gold nib onto cotton paper, and the wrinkles of too many days in transit.
She knew this letter would require solitude; they always did, and she retired to her room, delaying her meal, to open and read in private. She hung his moon, and he expressed that feeling with every breath, syllable, and word, palpable and serene, colored and profane, his life arising, as smoke from flame, in the pages he wrote and she held.
This was not to be a moment she cared to share; she never did. She never would. The envelope cracked and tore as she carefully opened it by the edge, taking care to preserve the stamp, always a stamp from God-knows-where, and a single page spilled to her lap, both page and envelope of an ancient form likely pressed by weathered hand, or so they always seemed.
Come, sail with me. A day, a week, a month, a season, a brief portion of our lives. Taste their food, drink their water, breathe their air, and forever a part of you they will be. Frame my sun and hang my moon. Count the stars, your eyes, reflecting in the sea.
“Why does he ask me such a thing now? He knows what I’m doing. He knows what I have before me. He knows where I’m going in the fall. It was his idea. They were partners. Why does he ask me now? Doesn’t he know? Surely he knows. This all started last winter when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday,” she went on to her mother, the two seated together at the kitchen table. “‘My silhouette in the moonlight,’ he told me, and we spent the winter break on the Gulf Stream. You had to pick me up in Bath because he won’t use the real harbors.”
“Yes, he knows what you’re doing, what you’re facing, and he might even know what he’s doing, but it’ll be a while before we can see it. You know he lives in a different world. Who else on God’s green earth, after funding half that university with grant money won on nothing more substantial than ‘I have a good feeling about this,’ would have recorded every full moon of the last two years? You know he ships those pictures to that lawyer in Raleigh for safe keeping. The storage alone costs a small mint, and what he plans to do with them remains a mystery to everyone with the possible exception of his Maker, but you also know he named that boat after you. The Lillian Rose, he calls it.”
The unopened letter, incongruous with it’s surroundings, sat on the polished wooden desk before the university president. He read the flowing address, examined the weathered envelope, smiled over the indented wax. He didn’t need to read the letter to know the sender. They had studied, then worked, together many years, more than either cared to count, the theories of the one guiding the experiments of the other.
Walking across the creaking floor to the ancient cabinet used and left by the original president of the school, this president retrieved a dusty bottle of aged rum, poured a small glass, and stood before the window, toasting the setting sun he knew they shared. Separated by miles and now years, a convergence was upon them again.
He returned to his desk, retrieved the hand carved letter opener he’d received a year before with a scripted note on brittle paper indicating he’d have need of this one day, and carefully opened the envelope, feeling the captured tropical air waft across his face. Some brief time later, he took his own pen in hand to write.
Many opportunities face both student and university. This school has waited over two hundred years for you to arrive, and if you need, he needs, it can wait a day, a week, a month, a season, a brief portion of your life. We are ready, and we can wait until you are ready, whenever that may be. I, as he, have a good feeling about this.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 883
In 1960, I was seven years old, playing in the yard one warm summer Saturday afternoon. Sitting barefooted by my sandbox mounded high with yellow sand gathered from the low spot in the road below the house where the creek threaded through a cracked culvert, rusting store-bought toy earth moving-equipment, and old discarded farm tools from another generation, I filled my world with the usual play of a young boy.
For some time, I had felt the pangs that spoke of a need to visit the bathroom indoors (the outhouse had been retired by then), but as many boys, I ignored the call as the cramp passed, thinking I’d have some additional time to play before needing stop and to step into the house. Finally, the urge was too great, and I stood.
Five steps towards the door, a terrible thing beyond a boy’s control happened, and I filled my shorts. This is a bad moment for any boy, and it was not the first time I had waited too long, but it would be my last.
As I entered the house, my father recognized my condition, and he was not amused. He stopped me in the doorway, and told me to strip on the porch, which I did. He spread old newspapers in the middle of the living room floor, and told me to stand on them. He described that if I was going to act like a dog, then he was going to treat me like one.
There I stood, shifting on my feet, hands hanging pointless to my side, naked to the world, while he read his paper and listened to the baseball game on the black-and-white Sylvania TV in the corner of the room. The smoke from his ever-present cigarette curled above his hand, rose over his head, drifted through the screen of the front door, and dissipated into the yard where I had just moments before found escape in childhood innocence.
A very few minutes into this scene, the gravel and sand crunched in the driveway telling of arriving company. My father commanded me to remain where I was, and his aunt and uncle, Addie and Tink, both as old as the dirt on which we lived and both the very definition of over-educated fool, walked into the house.
Daddy explained what he was doing, and the both of them nodded in knowing, inhuman agreement as they sat on the couch, taking up a conversation regarding the farm and this year’s crop as though the now motionless spectacle before them was as common as a mockingbird singing at sundown.
It was at that moment that I learned to become invisible, to stand alone, to stand naked, humiliated, uncaring, a beaten dog with untrusting yellow eyes, and disconnect myself from the tortuous reality of a cruel world and its unthinking people.
I do not know how long I stood there. I do not know how long Tink and Addie visited. I remember nothing more of that day beyond the sounds of my mother working alone in the kitchen. My memory of the hours beyond that point forms a blackened chasm, a pit with no bottom or light, from which not an echo arises.
Twenty years later in our last conversation before our estrangement, my father, sitting with me at the kitchen table, recalled the event with regret, asking if I remembered, looking away from my darkening countenance as the tormenting memory clouded my mind, saying how he felt that one moment represented a defining change in me, placing a distance between us that we would never bridge.
He was correct. I never cared to win his pleasure again after that Saturday afternoon. I learned to abrade him obliquely, taking my pleasure in watching his anger rise, knowing that in time he would break, grab me by one arm, and beat my ass with his farm-calloused right hand while he and I danced in ever-growing pain, anger, humiliation, and planned retribution.
A half-century beyond that sunny afternoon, I have made a certain peace with my father, or at least his memory, as I find him lurking within me more with every passing day, especially in the recognized seeds of self-destruction I carry, sow, nourish, embrace, and slowly exorcise. I wonder which of those demons I have passed to the next generation.
Yet even with the cold peace we’ve made in the certitude of death, yet even with the blessed absence of the nightly dreams in which I hold him by his gnarled and aching feet while flailing him to a bloody pulp on the trees and rocks of our shared hell, yet even with his ashes buried in the sand behind Providence Presbyterian Church where his father once preached, and yet even with the mentholated cigarettes I’ve buried by his granite marker, I can’t help but think this now ancient scar still pains me as a broken bone, healed, only to ache anew on a cold morning, precluding a step forward into the warmth of human intimacy, the intimacy that makes us functioning human beings worthy of standing on the simultaneously cursed and blessed soil of the American South, and face unblinking the glaring sun that warms our seed and parches our skin.
By the way, he hated mentholated cigarettes.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 908
First, I need to clarify a word, that word being “lunch.” I have never eaten lunch with my mother. We have breakfast, dinner, and supper; we never have lunch. The only exception to the use of that word was the school lunch menu, which she would read with me, the both of us giggling over snicker-doodle cookies.
My last mistake with those words left me dining alone one evening, and her being miffed that I had stood her up. It was clearly my mistake, and I needed to apologize for it, which I did profusely. To this day, I still perform mental gymnastics when speaking of the noon and evening meals, lest I blow it again.
As usual, I called yesterday to see if she was planning to have dinner today. We often have dinner on Saturday at Toots, a home-style buffet in Garner that has more trouble keeping it’s sanitation rating up than does Waffle House. If you saw it, you would understand completely. Rather than describe the restaurant in detail, let me just say that the always have fried fatback on the bar, and on Sunday, you will find chitlins. I think you know where we eat now.
To make that date for dinner at Toots, I always make sure Buck, my stepdad, is on the line. Mama is sliding deeper into dementia with every day. Some days are better than others are, but the downward spiral into darkness is indisputable. The doctors prescribe medication to slow her progress, but nothing will stop it. She knows it, and she asks Buck to not tell the boys.
How he lives with it, I cannot understand. My short hour on occasional Saturdays is nearly unbearable. I remain in recovery from the Saturday afternoon in which I had to introduce her grandchildren to her, and I will likely remain so for a very long time.
Like most sons, and especially the Gay ones, I do not view Mama as an ordinary woman. Our mamas love us when no one else will.
We do not know her age because her birth was not recorded, not even in a family bible, just in the memory of the one sister who testified at the Smithfield courthouse when Mama decided it was time to file for Social Security. I suppose this is what can happen when siblings are counted in double digits.
The family sent Mama to the orphanage in Middlesex at the age of three. Her mother had died. Her father was overwhelmed by all the children, and the rest of the family rejected the children because they really didn’t like the father. His apparent sin was riding a white horse to the house while wearing a military uniform, sweeping my grandmother up to the saddle, and then taking her off to marry. The rest saw him as uppity on that horse and in that uniform.
Mama learned to survive at the orphanage with the better part of her dignity intact, though at times it cost her. The girls were forbidden to use nail polish. Doing so is a sin, you know. Mama painted her toenails red and wore socks. Is there any question as to why my own toenails are often purple?
Mama tells the story of the day some old rich woman from Raleigh came to the orphanage to give all the children a silver dollar to spend at the State Fair. Such a magnanimous act, it was. The children, gathered in the dining hall, were bouncing the coins on the tables, making a big racket. The housemothers called for silence so the generous old rich woman from Raleigh could speak.
Mama told this story as true, and I have no reason to dispute her.
There she sat in the hard dining room chair after making breakfast biscuits while standing on a pile of drink crates at 5 AM, silver dollar in hand, thinking to herself at the tender age of five that she came into that orphanage with her dignity, and she would for damn sure leave with it that way.
Her words, I assure you.
She raised her hand in the silence and dropped the coin. The plinking sound riveted all attention on her, and the coin with it’s included trip to the fair was lost. Years later, she always made sure that we went to the fair on opening day to eat foot-long hotdogs. I still have recurring dreams of those visits, $25 in hand.
So today, I leave the apartment early enough to stop for flowers on the way to Toots. I selected a dozen yellow roses with a slight pink tinge. Yellow was always her favorite color, and the yard was always full of yellow roses in various shades, purchased on a Saturday afternoon from the nursery in Angier near the IGA where we bought groceries.
Along the way, I was thinking about Mama and her flowers. She was always took forever to throw out any bouquet, and I knew this dozen would sit on her table for weeks until the last petal fell, if not longer, and even then, she would be slow to throw them out and sad when she did. No matter how withered, she would speak of how beautiful they are.
Then, as though seeing the mysteries of the universe unfold before me on Highway 70 South, I understood. She does not see the flowers as they are; she sees them as they were.
And there, I believe, is how I have to see her as she slips into darkness.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 354
He leaned, propped by arms tanned from five decades of outdoor labor, on the polished metal of the sloping hood. The reddening streaks of sunset teased the curling grey hair spilling across his weary shoulders. The fading sunlight splashed the same colored hood, reflected into the low hanging willow, and was lost to human eyes. The humid air drifted through the sedge from the tree lined creek he couldn’t see, its brown water sliding without ripple along the unmeasured length of meandering valley, too shallow to deserve the name. The stream evaporated faster than it flowed, and neither the distant sea nor the enveloping atmosphere slowed their immutable and fathomless pace to reckon with any human certitude the accumulation of the droplets unseen.
A younger man by twenty years lifted himself with straightening arms, reaching the curved lip of the right fender, finding his seat by the other. He pushed his bare legs forward, the tender arches of his narrow feet framing the setting sun. He turned the soles forward, the red glow spilling through his flexing toes. The pale light streaked his freckled knees, racing along his outward turned elbows, finding its fate in the eternal shade of the drooping willow. His sun-streaked hair pooled as he arched his back. He cast closed eyes to the waning glow of the ending day, breathing deeply the sweet wet air of this after-work, with-him, before-night evening.
The final light of day flickered beyond a distant pine, and time was gone, leaving the space no longer filled by day and not yet filled by night, a moment passing unseen to the eye cast forward in anticipation, or behind in worry. Yet a moment missed not this day and not this night and not by these two, this one, who by common breath captured, safe for the now, this fleeting moment that shims the penetrating light of day from the all-absorbing darkness of night. Brotherhood slipping one measure further along an unfettered progression, the breaths of the two becoming the breath of the one, warmed air expanding, forming a cloud unseen, drifting timeless toward the waiting sea.
Monday, September 15, 2008
By Jim Penny
A version of this story was published in The Blotter a few years back.
“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21)
A faceless boy of ten years walked the dusty road in the dark, no moon, only stars over his head, the black speckled sky streaked by the occasional meteor rendered to dust and vapor by the heat of its passing, reflected in the characteristic sheen of sweat on the black face. He walked at night in the relentless summer heat of 1931 and
He was months and miles from home and her, driven away by the guilt of his hunger.
A yellow light down the road drew his attention, and he stepped into the shadows. The light flickered but did not move, and the boy stepped slowly forward, mindful of the danger such light could harbor. Closer, moving soundless, a manner of walking he knew but didn’t know, a manner arising from a past unknown, untellable, and held in raw suspicion by the world through which he passed. Closer to the light, the boy drew.
Shielded by brambles, blackberry, and poke, he saw a commissary illuminated by kerosene lamps, just a few, each one old and rusted. He stood, taking long slow breaths, worried that his beating heart might bring unwanted and surely deadly attention. An owl swooped unseen, unheard, and exploded on a field mouse in the spot of grass that somehow found its life in the otherwise barren soil surrounding the building, soil strewn with rusting bottle caps, its dust bound by discarded motor oil. The hound of indeterminate origin lying by the front door barked twice in transient resolution, and then lowered its head after turning to see the man looking through the half open screen door.
The boy crouched lower on his haunches, making a smaller target for the always-suspicious eyes, and the dog lifted his head to sniff the night air, turning toward the unexpected tendrils of sweat laden vapors threading back to the bramble. The boy’s ragged cap and shirt were damp with the perspiration produced not only by the countless miles of silent walking through the heat of summer nights but also by the fear he had grown to accept as a natural state of his being and earthly existence.
The lights flickered and expired one by one, as the man lowered the greasy charred wicks of the lanterns, save the one that illuminated his steps out of the store and toward the mare that he would ride to his home, the suspicious hound trotting by his side. The rhythmic steps of the plodding mare faded down the familiar road, leaving in short time the night sounds to fill the boy’s ears.
Breakfast had long passed the woman aged beyond her twenty-five years as she labored in the kitchen, her sanctum, her domain of counters, linoleum, chairs, and table, to prepare the meal her husband would need before returning to his field with the supplies he was purchasing in town that morning. The mixture of white flour, lard, and buttermilk, soon to become the biscuits that graced the table with every meal she prepared, streaked her arms from wrist to elbow. Ham, cured late last fall in salt from another generation, sizzled in the iron skillet atop her kerosene stove.
She was pressing the large balls of dough onto the baking tray blackened years ago from the daily use of the cook before her, each biscuit retaining the indelible impression of her first three fingers, when her husband entered the kitchen, inhaling deeply the accustomed and welcomed invitation of the noon meal. He placed a small paper bag of peppermint candy, salt, black pepper, and vanilla flavoring on the counter.
They sat together at the table, eating ham biscuits with grape jelly and hoop cheese, savoring the cool sweet tea made of the soft water drawn in a bucket from the hand dug well just steps from the back door, the well by which she would leave this world some 35 years later. He told her the story of his trip to town, including a mention of a boy who had robbed a store just last night, only to be tracked down by dogs following the scent from the cap he had left with the wrappers of the candy he had eaten by the counter of the store. The sheriff’s posse had found the boy hiding up a tulip poplar tree back in the woods some four miles from the store, and the people in town were calling for justice and an example.
Six feet of southern womanhood in bonnet, billowing faded farm dress hand stitched from chicken feed sacks, and old black lace-up shoes purchased in the Hudson-Belk across the street, strode intent of single purpose across the sparse lawn of the county courthouse. She walked with undeniable purpose towards the group of twenty hooded men standing before the sheriff at the door of the white frame building, its paint peeling from the aging pine clapboard veneer. Their shotguns, both group and sheriff, were held at the ready, the shade of the blackjack oak reaching toward them, the soft coolness of the tree’s respiration fading, if not averring, long before it reached the shifting perimeter of the gathered men. The impatient dogs tugged at their leashes. Gnats swarmed from dog to man, a thin black cloud intent on sucking sweat and tears.
The sheriff was fully cognizant of his limits this day.
She spoke, greeting them with assurance but also with the irrefutable and undeniable voice of maternal command, and the group turned toward her. The sheriff turned as well. Why they turned, they did not know, but they knew to do so, and had known to do so since the cradle. To a one, they knew her, and she knew them, calling them each by their given name: Ezekiel, Ezra, Ulysses, Ben, Zachariah, John, Howard,
One man and erstwhile leader, stepped toward her with the false confidence of assumed authority, Ezekiel, his double barrel shotgun resting in the crook of his tanned arm, incongruous with the white robe that not so many days before was a castoff bed sheet, and he told her there was no business here for a woman today. The men could handle this concern.
She stepped forward, toward Zeke and the assemblage of men, pulling herself upright and far beyond her physical measure, her shadow joining that of the ageless tree spreading behind her, its limbs reaching in embrace, the sun and its searing heat growing by the minute, as though in another moment it would never shine again.
“The men can handle this concern? The problem is I see no men here today. I see only cowards and fools hiding behind sheets, masking their faces lest they be seen for who and what they are, but I know you all. I know your boots. I know your families. We have all prayed together at church. You have all broken bread at my table.
“You are each a disgrace to the name your father gave you. Have you forgotten already what I know your mothers taught you? These dogs carry more honor and dignity than you do this day. Look at the gnats that blow your fetid flesh, here years before your Eternal Reward for what you seek to do this day.
“What man descended of Adam and worthy of the designation responds to a hungry boy with shotguns, dogs, and rope? Now listen to me, all of you, and listen to me well, as I will only say this once, and may God Almighty strike me mute if I do not mean every word, and may He rain lightning on your heads if you lift a hand contrary in purpose to my intent this day.”
With that, the out-stretched fingers of a single dark cloud, swollen with summer rain to come, occluded the sun, chilling the unseen sweat-drenched laborers of the surrounding fields while gathering thanks from the farmers who savored the brief respite from the heat and welcomed the promise of rain. A breeze from the west rustled the leaves of the oak that stood to her flank. The robes of the men shifted in the unexpected coolness as goose bumps rose across their covered flesh.
They shivered in the Fear of That before them.
She held her New Testament high in her left hand as she gestured with her right, a manner they had each seen countless times before on the Sunday mornings she led the congregation in prayer. Thunder rumbled in the not so distant west.
“That boy is now my son, he will live in my home, he will sup at my table, and he will grow into manhood as none of you has yet to do. You will not harm him this day or any day to follow, but you will step aside, and you will do so now.”
She took her first step of many.
"And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.” (Exodus 14:28)
Buck did indeed grow into manhood, just as Grandmother had said he would. He worked on my grandfather’s farm for years, as all the children did. In time, he left for