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Thursday, January 29, 2009

How to drive

How to drive
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 3100

Y'all need some help, and I'm here to offer it. You're probably already seated, but you're going to need some paper and a pencil for the notes I know you'll want to take. Alternatively, you can print this tutorial, and make your notes in the margins. In this case, you may also use a highlighter. I suggest pink, but other colors are acceptable if you simply cannot do any better.

We are going to frame this learning using the context of my drive to work, which will include a railroad track, a convenience store, and an interstate. You're getting it all wrong in every situation, which takes a special talent, and this framework will give you the concrete visualization you need.

The driveway

We have a quarter-mile of driveway. In this country, we drive to the right. You should do the same. We do not drive in the center of the driveway except during those rare snowfalls when you should just stay home anyway. Even then, you're going to occasionally meet someone coming down the drive. When you do, drive to the right, dang it all. Do not make the other person stop, pull up on the curb, and wait for you to pass. You should seek to be more neighborly.

Your vehicle is not an explosive device under normal circumstances. You do not have to stop before each speed bump, pray to your personal deity to deliver you safely over the speed bump, and then creepy-crawl over the bump while holding your breath because you do not trust your personal deity. The bumps are in place to help maintain the 20 mile per hour speed limit, and you can go over them at 15 to 20 MPH without doing any damage whatsoever to you or the vehicle. Of course, that cup of coffee sitting on the dash could be at risk. I might hold the coffee. If you go over the speed bump at 50 MPH, you'll need to visit a dentist when they release you from the ICU. However, you might also be a ward of the state at that point, and your dental care will be a lot cheaper. Bubba will be so pleased with your frugality.

At the bottom of the drive, we turn right onto Blue Ridge Road. I do not mind that you might want to turn left. I'll gladly wait the two hours until the traffic clears, though I'd really like it if you'd reciprocate when I'm turning left, even if I am doing so at non-busy times and will only need 30 seconds for the road to clear. If your left turn is an erstwhile u-turn into the Kmart parking lot, I think you are about the laziest thing on this planet, and I wish someone on a bulldozer from the business down the street would just mash you and your car flat, leaving the residue on the road as a warning to your peers.

The speed limit on Blue Ridge is 45, and that's miles per hour, not warp. In addition, there's a police substation in the office park to your right, and one day they're going to notice your speeding bohunkuss. Remember that you can drive 50 here, and arrive at the dollar movie exactly two seconds sooner, and you'll loose those precious seconds trying to turn into the lot, and then scouting the vacant space closest to the door. I also hope your movie theater is filled with small, unhappy, and very vocal pre-schoolers.

A little further down Blue Ridge, we have a pair of traffic lights for the two intersections that are separated by the railroad tracks. These lights are not there to brighten your days with colors. There are also extra lights that go with the railroad tracks. These extra lights are important to you when they are flashing. Ignore them, and your beneficiaries will be thrilled unless they were hoping to get the car.

In your approach, the first light is for the street that more or less parallels Hillsboro Street. The left turn lane at this intersection is specific to this intersection. It is not a preamble to the left turn at the next intersection. This small specificity is not generally known in the motoring public, despite the minute-by-minute citations issued by Raleigh's officials. Maybe those autographs are good for a free drink downtown or something. If you have one, let me know.

We want to go straight through both intersections. I suggest that you accomplish this using the left go-straight lane. Otherwise, you'll just have to change lanes further on where the traffic is usually thicker. The lights for these two intersections are synchronized, and you are unlikely to be stopped in the middle unless you're doing something wrong. Why is that, you might ask? The middle contains the railroad track, and if you're stopped there, and a train comes along, it's gonna hurt, and Bubba will not be there to help you, no matter how much he wants to be.

However, you'll occasionally reach this intersection such that you do not have to stop. This is your lucky day. Bear in mind that there are many ways of celebrating your freaking lucky day without becoming the mote in my eye. As with the speed bumps, you do not have to worry that your car will explode as you cross the tracks. It probably won't even fall apart, though there are a few of you driving cars that I wonder about.

A reasonable speed for crossing the tracks is about 30 to 40 MPH, a little slower if you planning to turn right or left, though I hit at at 40 to 45 when I can because I know my car will not fall apart in doing so; I'm also going about as straight as I can or ever will.

At no speed, will you damage the tracks. You have no need to slow down to make your lucky moment last an hour. If you really need to kill some time, stop at the adjacent Shell station, say good morning to the friendly people there, get a fountain Coke, buy a lottery ticket, and count your many blessings this day, not the least of which will be that you're not in my freaking way this morning.

At some point, you're through the intersections and on your way. The traffic thickens as you approach the top of the hill past the Fair Grounds. Aggressive driving is still at a minimum here because of the NC Highway Patrol station just to the right. People drive better here out of respect for the Patrol's used car lot. Those old cruisers have been through a lot. I know; I have one, and it makes you slow down at night. Wait until I get that CB radio antenna on it. You also slow down when I wear a straw hat, especially at night, and I assume you're trying to get a better, more admiring look at it, if not me.

Go over the Wade Avenue bridge, and prepare to turn left. This will put you on Wade Avenue, the last part before reaching the interstate. The speed limit here is 55. Just a mile earlier, the limit was 45. In this final section, The problem is that this last section of Wade Avenue looks like the interstate, and people start driving like it was. I suppose a few are looking to get their speed up so they're ready for the merge, but I suspect others have different motives. For example, a lot of people drive to work in the morning like they're going to get laid upon arrival. If this is true, perhaps I should change jobs.

On Wade Avenue, I get in the left lane and set the cruise control at a touch over 55, and I do mean a touch, like one or two over, not 20 or 30. I do this for two reasons. First, this is the lane that will take me straight to my work exit. If I settle here, I do not have to make a lane change on the big road. My other reason is to elevate your blood pressure, especially after you realize that I'm not with the federalies. You'll ride my bumper and curse my slow speed in the high speed lane, and I will send you vibes to inform you that the speed limit of 55 applies to all lanes. It's a limit. It is not a challenge or a suggestion. I might even point to the sign if I really want to tick you off. At some point, you'll flash your lights at me. This is my signal to slow down to exactly 55. You're quite welcome.

At the top of the hill, the left lane of Wade Avenue becomes the right lane of I-40. We have about six miles to go. As the merge is in progress, I press the cruise control button to speed up. You should too. However, you won't because you don't use cruise control, and when I am the Queen of the Realm, you will be in even more trouble. For my part, if you don't use cruise control on the big road, you do not deserve to live on this planet. There is no reason why we should be taking turns passing each other out there because you can't hold your speed while talking on your cell phone.

Within a few hundred yards, I have my speed set at 69 because it humors me to think that I'm doing 69 on the big road. You are long gone because you peeled off to the left and burned a lot of gas to reach work earlier and maybe get laid. You're probably playing Frogger too. Think for a minute. Do you remember how Frogger ALWAYS ends? You really do not want to play Frogger on the big road, or anywhere else for that matter. This admonition is even more true if you're riding on two wheels.

While we're discussing motorcycles, we all know that the federalies are not likely to chase you at 160 MPH, or slower, and certainly not faster. However, they do have radios, and those signals travel a touch faster than you, and they have helicopters, which can track your speeding bohunkuss for a long time, probably for longer than you have gas to run on. If you need to go that fast, find a track somewhere. First, the track will not have debris on it, at least not much of it. Hit a piece of gravel the size of a walnut at 160, and watch you and the bike go into low earth orbit. Yeah, that'll be fun, up to but not including the undeniable sudden stop down the road.

The second reason is that I will not be on the track. This means that you won't be scuffing my bumper as you discover that the laws of Physics still apply to you.

We exit the big road at the west airport exit, turning left, away from the airport. We go to the airport often enough as it is. We do not need to add more trips. Turn left at the light, and stay in the left lane drive. Be careful. Your colleagues use the left turn lane for left turns from the other side. Why y'all try to turn left from the side of a 5-lane highway, I do not know. Find a counselor for that death wish. It's a recipe for a miserable death. It also gives me the opportunity to irritate you again because I will not yield to such a turn if I can help it.

You also need to watch out for the tractor-trailers that park in the middle, left-turn lane. They are allowed to do this by the Morrisville police because they are buying biscuits at Bojangles, and you know how the drivers need those biscuits. Now, why Bojangles could not build a better parking lot, I do not know, but they will when I'm in charge of this Realm.

That's it for getting to work. Now, we need to return home. Let's fast forward to driving home.

On the way home

If it's between 4 and 7, there is little need to try. Your ten mile drive might happen in the usual 12 minutes, but more likely it'll take between 30 and 90 minutes. You're better off doing something else until past 7, and then driving home. I suggest you work later, make the boss happier for the free labor, and then stop somewhere for dinner.

Wendy's in convenient, and it's possible to eat there without cardiac arrest, but you'll eat the triple with fries anyway. Tell the medics I said “Hi.” The mall has several eateries in the food court, and you'll be the only one there. Carmine's offers some of the best roast pork you'll find this side of my grandmother's kitchen, but you'll want to go easy on the Cuba Libres. Too many, and Cuba might go free, but you won't, and Bubba will be delighted. Where ever you stop, make it a place for a slow meal, and make sure you have a stoplight for reentering the road.

At some point, you're back on the road, and you want to be in the right lane as you approach the interstate. This means you don't have to deal with a lane change when you reach the on-ramp. Your challenge is that your driving friends are are using the right lane to pass cars in the left lane. Even though the entire world knows the right lane is right turn only, these peeps use the right lane to pass those who are going straight and maybe turning left. Your peeps who do this deserve some special loving from Bubba.

The on-ramp to the interstate at this point is characteristic of most on-ramps in this world. Not all, but most. By that, I mean it over a half mile long and, in this case, downhill. The idea is that you use the distance and the downhill to reach road speed, which is 65, before you merge. If the traffic is all backed up because of someone else making memories further down the road, maybe you merge at a slower speed. The thing is, you need to merge with a speed that matches the existing traffic.

Here's what I watch you do. You creep down the on-ramp like an innocent citizen headed to the gallows, and you merge with all the vigor of a bored ninth grader taking a spelling test. Get with the program, people! We're trying to drive here. Merge at freaking road speed. If you merge at 45 while everyone else is going 65, or more likely 80, pretty soon, we're all doing 25 or less. Do not frickin' do that. Do I need to send Bubba over for an introduction?

Twenty years ago, Raleigh had a public service campaign. It was called “Let one in.” The idea was for the road traffic to work in concert with the merge traffic. If you're driving on the road, when you reach the merge and there's traffic waiting, you let the next car in. The car behind you does the same thing. By doing this, there is no competition for merge access. Each merging driver know a chance is coming. It worked perfectly well, even when there was one beltline.

Now it's every car fighting for access. I ignore all this nonsense, pull up to the first spot that's half a car length or more, signal my intention, and the merge. If you do it, they will stop. Yes, it's almost rude, and I'm surely not waiting my turn, but if I wait my turn, I'll be waiting the better part of the night. The thing is, if you don't let me in, you'll rearend me, and that means you'll get to spend some special time with Bubba at the county lockup. For as much as I'm sure you miss Bubba, do you really want to be late for dinner?

There are many reasons for the slow traffic on the way home. I'd like to say it was knowing that you were leaving the place where you got laid, and that might be true, but my replicated observation is that you like to stop and show your respects for the place where you know an accident once occurred. You slow down, stop, maybe get out to take a picture, and then drive away slowly. People, there is no reason to do this. You're living in the past, and you're giving those behind you the opportunity to make similar memories, which only serves to perpetuate the moment. Get over it! Live in a future where your tires actually make a revolution now and again.

OK, at some point way further in the future than is necessary, you reach the merge from Harrison Boulevard. This one is totally a mess. From my experience, not one driving soul merging onto I-40 from Harrison should be permitted to ever sit behind the wheel. First, I see no evidence of being able to merge. Even when there's little or no traffic, and the road is clear, these special people merge at 35, look, wait, and them slowly speed up, only to play Frogger five miles down the road. I just do not get it, but I wish Bubba could get a little more.

Here's a word about the Harrison Avenue merge. You'll be siting in dead still traffic waiting to get to your dinner. You'll see that the merge lane to the right is perfectly clear. You'll pull into it to pass a few cars, which only serves to make the rest of us wait longer. Understand that you are now eligible for post-natal abortion. Bubba will pick you up directly before dinner. You have a very special moment coming.

The rest of the way is a straight-forward undoing of what you did to get to work. If there's an event at the RBC Center, you're doomed. If there's something big going on at the Fair Grounds, you're doomed. The truth of the matter is that you're doomed if you drive I-40 . If you can make home before 3:30, you might actually have a life. Otherwise, you have a crap-shoot, and can't count on it. I drive to RTP at 10 a.m., and suffer the slings and arrows of those who don't. At least I don't suffer the traffic.

Remember: All those boo-boos you met upon the way only serve to increase the chances of you spending a wonderful evening and night with Bubba. You'd rather spend the time at Starbucks.

Monday, January 26, 2009

How to make chili

How to make chili
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 2444

The question arises as to exactly how one makes chili such that a human can eat it. The following text presents the general rules. Bear in mind that chili is a very personal food. You make it like you like it. Nothing else counts. Get used to it; you'll like it better that way.

Fetching the ingredients

Go to Food Lion, and take your credit card as I doubt you have enough cash to make this transaction work. Also take those reusable Food Lion grocery bags that you paid a buck for. If it's much of a drive, take your driver's license if you have one. I do not. I was driving tractors and trucks at the tender age of six, and I do not need the State of North Carolina telling me what I can or cannot drive. At Food Lion, park at the back of the parking lot. The extra twenty steps will do your fat bohuncus some good. Besides, you won't have to deal with the 800 other fat bohuncusses trying to park inside the store. The other 800 fat bohuncusses are an abomination to your fat bohuncuss.

Get a cart; you're gonna need it. You do not want a little plastic basket. Get a cart with wheels that turn. There is little worse than a cart with odd wheels, and you don't really need to get a workout in the grocery store. Head to the right as Salisbury expects that you will. Ignore the deli. You do are not want Food Lion sushi, no matter how hungry you are. Maybe get a pizza if you're famished, but I can tell you now that the frozen pizzas are better. Think di Giorno pizza., no matter that it's a Kraft product now. http://www.kraft.com/Brands/featured-brands/digiorno_ultimate.htm

In the produce section of the Food Lion, pick up some mushroom pieces. Two little packages. Do not get whole mushrooms. If you get the whole ones, you're just gonna chop them anyway. You might as well pay less for mushrooms swept from the floor. If you want fresh fruit and veggies, get what you want; just don't tell me about it. I do not need to know about your culinary perversions. You will need need two medium, or one huge, onion. White is best. Yellow will do. Purple is an abomination.

At the end of the produce aisle, turn left and reconnoiter the Mexican aisle. You want a quart bottle of Texas Pete. You won't need a quart for the chili, but why scrimp? You'll need about a cup for the chili, but you'll need the rest for all the other stuff you cook.

There's nothing else you need here, so head on back to the dead animal section. Look for ground beef. Call it hamburger if you want. Less included fat is better. I search for two pounds of seven percent fat or less. If they have buffalo or venison, another word for Bambi, get some, but I doubt they do. This is Food Lion, remember. Remember: you want the very low fat hamburger. You can get the other kind, but you're just going to dip out the grease from the pan later on, or you're going to have a fine crust of grease forming on the top of your chili when it cools in the fridge.

You can also pick up whole pieces of beef. It doesn't matter what kind. I usually get London broil because it's often cheaper, but you could splurge and pick up a sirloin if you want. Sometimes, you'll find packs of beef already chopped into bite size pieces. I rarely get those, even though it would save me a little time. Whatever you get, you'll need about a half pound or so, even though I use a pound. Yes, the London broil is bigger, and that's why I get it. I like having extra meat in the house.

Remember that the better time to buy meat at a Food Lion is mid to late Monday morning. About 11 a.m. is perfect. Now why is this, you might be asking. You see, the meat manager of each Food Lion schedules meat preparation knowing that the weekend will see the most sales. Of course, it's a big job to set out meat for the big weekend all on a Friday afternoon. Besides, you'd need extra help, and Food Lion does not like paying for extra help. Instead, the meat manager schedules everything with an eye to the big weekend, and slowly builds the supplies throughout the week. What this means is that Monday is the big day for meat going out of date, and it'll all be marked down substantially, often to the point where I can afford to buy it.

Marked down meat is naturally tastier. Get as much as you can because you can never have too much marked down meat. This is why I told you to bring the credit card.

Now go back to the Mexican food section because you forgot the beans. Walk on past the dried bean section. You do not want any. However, if you're feeling perversely self-punishing, roll it back to yesterday because you'll need the extra time to cook the beans. I will not go into the chore that is cooking beans from the dried state. That'll require additional provisions that can only be purchased from the State.

Instead, you want your beans in a can, preferably canned with some chili flavoring. You can find several name brands of chili beans. Don't buy any. Look a little more, and find the Food Lion chili beans. They taste exactly the same and cost half as much. That means they really taste better, twice better to be exact. You'll need two or three cans for the chili, but you can buy more so as to have handy cans of snacks laying around the house. Besides, you can shoot the empty can in the back yard.

Somewhere on this aisle, you'll find the cans of chopped tomatoes, although the label will say diced. Somewhere in the 800 varieties, you'll see a variation that includes green chili peppers. You want this kind. However, be careful. It's easy to get caught up in the brands, such as RO*TEL (http://www.ro-tel.com/index.jsp), and I can tell you already that RO*TEL is perfectly good, perhaps even excellent, but you'll find that the Food Lion brand is sufficient for this purpose. It's chili, people! With the reduced price, I find the Food Lion brand even better.

Whatever you decide, pick up three or four of the bigger cans. The little cans aren't sufficient for this purpose. However, they're just fine for use with the cans of snacking beans. Get you some if you want to economize on your trips to the store, but I prefer to keep a sharp focus on my shopping. Remember that the smaller cans also make good targets in the backyard.

Time for the beer. The beer is in the far corner of the store. You probably know your way by heart, but you can ask for directions if you need. You'll need at least two dozen cans or bottles, regardless of how they're packaged. It also doesn't matter about the brand with a few exceptions, those exceptions being the mass-produced American brands. Take Bud for an example. Fizzy water with a molecule of alcohol in all it's variations. It would be better to pick up something bottled somewhere else on this planet. Think of it as culinary travel. If you must buy one of the variations on horse urine, get the very cheapest you can find and drink it as cold as you can get it.

This is not to say that imported beer is a sure thing. Red Stripe from Jamaica is rarely worth the trouble, even when purchased on the island. Besides, Jamaica supports a social structure that is substantially homophobic, perhaps the most homophobic on the earth. The people are poor, and the country is beautiful, and it's sad to not be able to help by purchasing beer is such counts for helping. Of course, I don't drink Blue Mountain coffee either, and for the same reason. Besides, Blue Mountain coffee makes Starbucks look cheap.

There's also Corona from Mexico. The quality is erratic, and that's caused by the very reason I sometimes buy it, that reason being the beautiful, clear, painted bottle. That clear bottle lets the light reach the beer, and the light, then, spunks the beer. Not good. Not even Mexicans buy Corona, I suspect. However, a 24-pack of Corona does let you practice your Spanish.

As usual, it would be better to pay for your victuals before you leave the store. Unfortunately, social convention is now codified, and you really don't want to sample the beer on the way home. Our fair governor has uniformed representatives positioned along the street, and their duty is to give you an autograph good for several nights' room and board with the State. As tempting as a free vacation might sound about now, I suggest you avoid it all costs. Bubba already has enough girl friends.

Preparing the chili

When you get home, put the beer in the refrigerator except for one can. Leaving the rest of what you bought on the counter, take a load off on the porch, and enjoy your beer. If you're on the front porch, tip your beer to those driving by. You know they're jealous. If you're on the back porch, sip the beer while shooting pine cones off the tree with the pistol. If you're on the side porch, shoot the neighbor's mangy-butted, horse crap eating, ugly dog with the BB gun while you're working on that beer. If you do not have a porch, you are doomed. Why do you even bother?

At some point, go into the kitchen for another beer, but this time, you stay in the kitchen. It's time to make a chili. Find the large iron pot, and put it on the stove with the burner set to high. Dump in all the meat you plan for the chili. Burger first. Remember that you need to dice up the large chunks of meat into smaller pieces. I'd like to say you're going to cut a pound of London broil into many half-inch cubes, but we both know you're going to slip up, use the Metric System, and make a bunch of centimeter-cubed chunks of meat. When that happens, just remember it's chili; it's not suppose to be perfect.

Sit at the table while the meat browns. This will take a while because you probably have three pounds of meat in that pot. Notice that it's about browning the meat, not burning it beyond recognition. You're going to have to stir the meat periodically, and probably turn down the burner. Sit at the kitchen table, finish your beer, get a new one, and stir the meat more often than you think is necessary. Be glad that you bought the burger with the lower fat content. You'll still have some grease to dip from the pot, but it'll be far less than the gallon you might have had.

By the way, the meat will brown better if you keep the lid on that iron pot. You also won't have so much grease splatter to clean up later on, and it'll all make less noise. There will also be less smoke, which means the fire alarm will go off later, and as we all learned from our mothers, the fire alarm means that dinner is ready. We do not want the dinner bell sounding early, bringing all the peeps to the kitchen, finding dinner not ready, and then drinking up all the beer, something that is definitely not good. Avoid the early fire alarm at all peril.

At some point, the meat is all brown. Turn the burner down to something about two-thirds the way to high. If you bought the cheap burger, start dipping grease, and do not let me hear about you complaining over the extra work. You brought it on yourself. Dip, baby, dip! And I do not mean snuff. You are denied beer while the dipping is in progress. Think of it as a developmental opportunity.

Add the onions and mushrooms. Yes, I know you forgot to chop the onions. You were too busy with your beer and porch sitting and probably dog harassing to remember the onions, but they have to be chopped. Get cracking!

After you have added to onions and mushrooms to the pot, add a couple of cans of beans, and then the cans of chopped tomatoes with green chilies. A couple will not be the exact amount you need. You'll have to look and taste to be sure. Add another one or both as you see fit. It really doesn't matter as long as you like it. This is the point where you'll add a large dollop of Texas Pete, followed by some salt. Remember this is all to your taste.

You probably need another beer. Get it while you can.

For the next three hours, you simmer the chili. This is why you have much beer. Add water to the pot as necessary. Keep the lid on the pot except when you check the chili. Keep the beer going. Keep the weapons loaded. I would also mention keeping the powder dry, but I doubt you reload anymore. After three hours, add some water, bring the pot back to a simmer, add a fist full of sage if you like, turn off the heat, put the pot in the fridge, no matter how hot is is, and take a nap until dawn. You've earned it. Pee as necessary. You know you need it.

Eating the the chili

At dawn, rise, curse the day, and proceed as normal, the only exception being bringing the chili back to a slow simmer for lunch. Add water to keep the simmer going without burning the chili. It's the law.

By noon with a very slow simmer going over the last six hours, the chili is ready for the unveiling. Serve unadorned in a bowl. No raw onions. No rice. No hot dog. Certainly no freaking cheese. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, CADET? Serve the chili as the Deity intended, alone with a beer, assuming you must share the chili in the first place.

Now, go shoot that ugly dog with the BB gun again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

For want of a Diet Coke

For want of a Diet Coke
Copyright 2009: Jim Penny
Word count: 1849

Last August, I was working through a series of straightforward, but numerous, projects. The challenge was not in what I was doing, but in how much I was doing, finding time to thread all the activities in a 70-hour week and still find time to occasionally breathe, if not bathe. Fortunately, I could take advantage of flextime and telecommuting to make the work, and a small bit of life, efficient. Although going to the office is a necessary evil to maintain social networks with colleagues, it is also an extremely inefficient way to get things done. Add to that the ability to take advantage of occasional bouts of insomnia, and we have a recipe for expedient production when exact work hours and location are not a concern.

During the second Wednesday of that warm month, I found myself finishing one project about three hours ahead of schedule. At 2 p.m., I closed my computer, took a deep breath, and wondered what I might do with this little respite. Yes, I could start another project, and I knew I would soon enough, but I also knew that I needed a little reward. Oh, what to do?

Diet Coke! One of my many vices is the fountain Diet Coke, and the machine at the Shell station about a mile from my apartment called to me. It usually does once or twice a day. Besides, I knew I could press the button just so, and increase the amount of syrup mixed in the carbonated water. Off, I trot. Well, not literally. It was 85 degrees, and the AC in the car made a lot more sense.

I parked the car to the side of the station under the shade of an oak tree with picnic tables that are rarely used. I noodled across the parking lot with my Crocs skipping on the pavement, my blue parachute pants from Goodwill swishing one leg to the other, and my pink t-shirt sinking lower as it absorbed the sweat that was cascading from my chest.

I must have been quite the sight, but I know the store manager and most of the people who work there, and they probably couldn’t produce a green card among them all, so I doubt they’re going to say much about my clothes. Besides, they are good people who are glad to sell me a roller dog and Diet Coke, as I require. They also don’t mind selling me gas and candied peanuts either. They are very friendly and quick with a smile, which is likely due to the amount of business I do there, though I like to think it’s because I smile back.

All right. I have my 64-ounce Diet Coke in the white cup, if such a thing can be called a cup, with it’s red lettering announcing to the world that I’m drinking Coke of some description. The cup has a lid and a straw, but no ice; the Coke from the fountain is sufficiently cold as is, and it tastes better, which is something I picked up in Europe, The Netherlands to be precise. I generally hold the thing with two hands because it’s huge, heavy, and somewhat unwieldy. It is also precious to me.

I exit the store, holding the door as best I could for the person entering after me, and I walk across the parking lot lost in thought, detached from the tight focus of work, enjoying my Coke, and generally being happy being me. I am alone in that world, which is where I need to be that day.

A thread of reality pokes though my ear. Someone is yelling. They seem far away, then closer, and I slowly realize there’s more than one voice. However, I’m still mostly oblivious as I stand by my car, breathe the cool air under the oak tree, and sip the Diet Coke. Yet, the yelling continues and grows. I turn to scan the perimeter, thinking probably some friends are calling to one another.

Friends are not calling to me or anyone else. Oh no, friends are definitely not calling. What we have is a raggedy car, not that I’m in any position to pronounce another car raggedy, with three 30-something black men, sparse of tooth, rolling toward me, making various rude hand gestures, screaming “faggot,” and going into loud detail regarding what they were going to do with my faggot ass. Should I tell them the correct term is Dr. Faggot?

Maybe the rainbow sticker on the car set them off. Maybe it was the pink t-shirt. Surely it was not the Diet Coke. Regardless, I found myself wondering why they were calling me a faggot when they have surely been called nigger themselves. Did they learn nothing then, and more to the point, why are they upset? Is it the Diet Coke? Did they think my careful handling of the cup was a come-on?

I detached from the moment and reviewed my situation. They continued to roll toward me, yelling with even more vigor, anger, and hate. I placed the Coke on the hood of the car, and then wished I had already unlocked the door. I do not keep firearms around me anymore because of the way American society indicts the user of a firearm regardless of the situation. However, I do keep edged weapons, ax handles, and hammer handles nearby, figuring that if I popped someone with a handmade oak ax handle, the press might be a little easier on me before I got to trial.

There is no time to fumble with the car keys, and I don’t even try because doing so might incite these men, if men is the appropriate appellation, further. I also feel no need to run, though I do know for a distinct recognized-at-that-moment fact that if they had firearms, I was already dead.

What these gentlemen did not know is that some 25 years ago, I took a week off from work to write parts of a dissertation that I later dumped in the trash. The thump resounded through the dumpster. During that week, I went for lunch at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant every day. Mama Ly cooked for me and me alone, or so it seemed. This restaurant was located in a bad section of town, probably because the rent was cheap, and Mama Ly with her daughters served hotdogs in addition to the best chicken curry you will ever experience.

On the Thursday of that week, I was sitting at the round table in the second room all by myself. I arrived late to avoid the usual university crowd, most of whom I knew well enough to want to avoid during my erstwhile vacay. As I worked on my rice and thought about the failing dissertation, I started to hear angry conversation in the other room, the room with the checkout table. Two men were refusing to pay for their hotdogs, not because there was a problem with the dogs, but because the men were bullies, sort of like the grown version of those idiots who populated my grade school.

The argument escalated, and I half expected to witness some version of a Bruce Lee movie, but all I saw through my diverted eyes was the grinning men walking out the door and down the street with four hot dogs while the ladies shouted something probably derogatory in their native language, though one did find enough English to pronounce the men stupid.

I finished my lunch in silence, left enough extra tip to cover the dogs, and went home deep in thought, but not about the dissertation. Why had I chosen to do nothing but sit there? The truth devastated me. I made the decision to do nothing not because there was nothing to do, but because there was nothing I could do. The next day, I enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do studio. A very few years later, I held the black belt. A few years after that, I changed schools to follow the teacher I liked best. To this day, I still train.

This, my 30-something men in the raggedy car did not know, not that I’ve ever thought of myself as a badass or street fighter. In fact, I’m very sure I’m not because I know a few who are, and they really are. Only three times have I had to use what I’ve learned. Twice, once in Montreal and another in New Orleans, I encouraged a couple of gentlemen to sit down on the sidewalk. They did so without complaint. Once, a pair of football players wanted my coffee money in an alley at 8:30 p.m. They didn’t get it.

With my Diet Coke on the hood of the locked car, I turned to face the men. They continued to approach, yelling louder, gesturing harder. No weapon was in sight. Time stopped. My senses expanded and touched everything in the parking lot. I felt the bark under the sparrow’s feet above my head in the tree. I tasted the blade of grass in the grasshopper’s mouth below the tree. I heard the carbonation bubbles breaking in the Coke behind me.

There was no time. There was infinite connection. These men were about to hurt to the degree they required to disengage. However, there was no gloat in that thought. There was no satisfaction of coming punishment. There was simple causation. They would act, and I would react. The moment lasted somewhere between one second and one year, and the car sped away, the men still yelling, still gesturing, still hating what they did not understand.

There was no fear in this moment. It was simply and timeless matter of fact. Shortly afterward, I took my Coke, got into the car, and drove away for an errand, which I accomplished in a robotic manner. I returned home about an hour later with the plan of finishing a brief work task. As I sat on the couch, my computer on my lap, I realized what had happened, that I wasn’t going to work any more that day, and that I needed to thank those idiots once I calmed down.

Why? Because they reminded me that the one thing I needed was still there, despite the neglect, despite the people telling me to forget it. However, it took me the better part of 24 hours in Marine-issue jungle boots to calm down and realize all that.

The thing is that these men were alarmed over something, something that I don’t specifically know about, and something that they surely do not understand. Rather than deal with their own problem, they chose to make their problem my problem, and they succeeded for a while, though the end was not what they might have expected. Did they leave because of something I did? I doubt it. More likely, they were cowards as all bullies are, and when they thought I was afraid of them, they left.

However, they did not leave me unchanged; they left me stronger, and I must thank them for that.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My birthday celebration

My birthday celebration
Copyright 2009: Jim Penny
Word count: 1318

Yes, even here with me old as dirt, birthdays still occur every year, just like clockwork, on January 18. Two of my friends have managed to freeze time, holding at 29 and 39, respectively, something I have not figured yet, and so time marches on, leaving me more, shall we say, distinguished every day. Distinguished? I don’t get it either, and I certainly don’t feel distinguished, but that’s the word often used to describe the aging male, especially by the female of the species. When I hear it, I smile and wonder what would happen if I used a gender-equivalent expression to describe her age. Or weight.

The celebration of my glorious birth began promptly at 6:20 a.m. when I popped out of bed wondering what time it was. I was also thirsty and needing a bit of bathroom time. With a quart of water and a tab of generic levothyroxin sodium down the hatch, I started the coffee pot, fired up the computer, and checked the Weather Channel. I would like to report that my coffee of choice was Jamaican Blue Mountain, but the requirements of full disclosure require me to write that my coffee was, and still is, Food Lion Extra Blend, which was probably an MVP special when I bought it.

Within the hour, I was well along into the pot of generic coffee, Facebook notifications wishing me a happy birthday, collecting gold for my Facebook Fairy Garden, Weather Channel, and CNN Headline News. I had also eaten first breakfast, which this morning consisted of three hard-boiled eggs smooshed with a fork and mixed with mayonnaise and Texas Pete. For dessert, I had a large tab of Benicar HCT with an l-theanine chaser. For as much as the left-handed OTC enatomer from The Vitamin Shoppe warms the cockles of my heart, I believe it is the smooth mouth-feel of the potassium sparing diuretic that is the HCT part of the Benicar HCT that makes my morning complete.

At 8 a.m., it’s time to slam a BC and hit the gym. Yes, I’m running later than is my norm, but it’s my birthday, and I can take it easy today. Besides, I’m not sure this is going to work. I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions because I can find easier ways to disappoint myself, but I did decide to work on a little physical conditioning when the year started, and it did help that Josh was working on his physical fitness assessment for the Air Force. Yeah, watching him run made me yearn myself.

Initially, I had been walking a little, maybe a mile or so twice a day, at a pushed pace. After doing a sorta-run with Josh, I decided to try the gym in the apartment building. The treadmill there doesn’t expose me to traffic and the misery of cold weather and rain. For the last couple of weeks, I had been going twice a day for a walk at 3.5 MPH, thirty minutes, inclination ranging from 3% to 15%. The on-board computer told me that each of those 30-minute walks burned 386.6 calories, and I liked knowing I was dropping an additional almost 800 calories a day. However, I figured that soon enough a foot would blow out, and I’d be piled up on the couch again.

For the two days before the celebration of my glorious birth, I had declared double days. The Japanese have a formal name for those days in physical training where you double up, and years ago when I had a life, I knew that word, but no longer. Friday and Saturday in the little gym had been my double days. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I went in for an hour. When I finished Saturday, I wondered if I’d make it back up to my apartment. However, for two days, I had dropped some 1500 calories each, assuming we believe that machine, survived in a manner of speaking, found some respite in that, and smiled on my good behavior while settling in a the Most Dangerous Night on TV from the Sci Fi Channel. Oh yeah, I was asleep by 8 p.m.

For thirty minutes, I walked, sweated, ignored the stiffness in my legs, and stared at the TV. All done, I left the gym with a nodded grunt to the rounded young thing on the elliptical trainer, cursed the abject misery of breathing in the brutal cold for thirty seconds, and soon found myself back in the apartment with a quart of Crystal Light.

At 9 a.m., I gathered the laundry. There were five loads available, but I only took three because that’s what the basket would hold. The other two could go later. Sunday morning is usually a good time to visit the laundry room. My fellow apartment dwellers either go to church or sleep late, and I don’t have to wait for a machine. This day, the news of my glorious birthday celebration appeared to have everyone in fevered preparation. One day, I have to find a laundry with wash, dry, and fold service.

After folding the warm laundry and putting it away, I returned to the gym towards 1 for another 30 minutes of afternoon delight on the treadmill. This time, a couple of gentlemen from the Middle East were there, pretending to lift weights. Mostly, they provided an exhibition of grunting and straining. Why men bother with this activity, I have no idea. It’s not like they’re doing anything other than strutting a little testosterone. A workout with weights is certainly worth the trouble, but these guys needed a little instruction. However, with the TV on and the treadmill whining, I tuned them out and drifted off into my personal aerobic high.

By 2 p.m., I’m back in the apartment cooling down, thinking about a shower, not taking a shower, applying deodorant instead, and suiting up for a walk to Kmart to fetch a set of bathroom scales. With all this good living, it seems reasonable to track my tonnage. The walk to Kmart is uneventful but cold, and I notice my legs wanting to assume the gait from the treadmill. Of course, I forgot to bring Kleenex, and my nose decides to drip, this, right after stepping into a puddle with my muddy Crocs. I am going to make a fine homeless person one day.

By 3 p.m., I’m back in the apartment opening the bag from Kmart. I have a Homedics Thera:P blood pressure machine, three packs of American Fare faux Nyquil, and one large box of Mucinex-D. Someone forgot the scales, and I scold that someone, but then remember that tracking blood pressure is probably as important as tracking tonnage. Now, scales now appear on the grocery list, but it’ll be Monday before Food Lion comes up.

At 4 p.m., it’s time for a snack, which means a carrot first, and then a salad. I curl up on the couch for a dull flick on the Science Fiction Channel, and towards 5:30, it’s apparent that it’s gonna be an early beddie-bye for this bonzo, not that I’ve been out of PJs long enough today to make the case that I was ever out of bed. By 6, I’m wrapped in a bundle of afghans on the glide path towards my pillow. The tab of Zocor melting slowly in my tum, turning it’s attention to the evening’s duty in my liver.

Somewhere between 6 and 7, the boss calls. He and his husband want to step out for an evening of dancing. I point out that the place they’re planning to visit has karaoke on the evening’s schedule. We chuckle over that. However, I decline the offer as I’m already half asleep. By 8, I’m mostly asleep, but still vertical. At 9, I crash, bringing the celebration of my glorious birth to it’s ribald end.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Toot-n-Tell

The Toot-n-Tell

What is the Toot-n-Tell?

The Toot-n-Tell is a family restaurant in Garner, North Carolina. You probably have never been to anything like this before, not to eat anyway. This restaurant started out two or three generations ago as a drive-in. I do not know that the waitresses wore roller skates then, but I do know that they do not now. They do, however, frequently wear cutoff jeans, and I do mean cutoff, very cutoff, excessively cutoff. My mother, in her usual state of dementia, has some sharp comments about the attire and additional hairnets needed, which I hope the ladies do not overhear.

Where is the Toot-n-Tell?

The Toot-n-Tell does not have a web site, and there is no surprise in that, especially to those of us who have eaten there. They didn’t start taking credit cards until a few months ago, and even now if you want to include the tip on the charge, you have to mention it ahead of time so the owner can add the amount to the total bil. They do not use the post-charge follow-up as most restaurants do. Of course, I believe I am the only person to have used a credit card in the establishment, but then, I’m not permitted to carry cash, whatever cash is.

The restaurant is located at 903 West Garner Road, Garner, North Carolina. At the time of this writing, Google would find applicable restaurant reviews of the Toot-n-Tell just by typing “Toot-n-Tell” in the search bar. If you go online, do not read these reviews. They will not heighten your enthusiasm for a visit, and you really do want to eat here once. Of course, once is about enough unless you have Yankee visitors in town who need to be put in their culinary place. If the Yankees are from Boston, the boiled cabbage you’ll encounter will foil your plan for culinary adjustment.

If you’re planning to ride Jenny to the Toot-n-Tell, you’ll need to be careful. The restaurant was built directly after Highway 50 was moved westward. It used to branch northeast at Wimpy’s, intersecting Highway 70 a few miles to the east of where it does now. Jenny will not likely remember this, and she’ll want to take the old road, which is now covered with housing developments from the 50s. Remind Jenny with the firm placement of your heels to her ribs when she gets to Wimpy’s. Of course, you’ll also want to stop Jenny from jumping onto Highway 70 when she reaches the bridge. It wouldn’t be prudent to ride a mule on Highway 70, regardless of the hour or season.

Parking at the Toot-n-Tell

Parking at the Toot-n-Tell is easy, as they have a huge parking lot, which is generally holding more than one dump truck and two tractor-trailers. Park where you want. I generally park by the railroad tracks, which are located behind the restaurant on a ridge about 20 feet above the pavement. I do not know who cuts the grass on that embankment, but I do pity the poor soul, and I hope that one day he receives a green card.

Sometimes I arrive before my dining companions, and I need to kill some time, not that time actually dies when I kill it; mostly, I think I’m the one doing the dying then. One option you have is to explore the train tracks. If you do, bear in mind that the Amtrak train blasts through just before noon. You really don’t want to be on the tracks at that point. Being there then would stunt your growth. On the other side of the tracks is a copse of woods with lots of little paths. I do not know who made these paths, but they appear to be miscreants, given the wee treasures I often find, usually with filed serial numbers.

To the east of the Toot-n-Tell is an ancient graveyard with a small church just a few steps further east. The church does not appear welcoming to me, despite the ramp beside the steps. I often cruise the graveyard to chat with the withered souls there. Some graves are 200 years old. Others are from the last century. Many have trees growing in them, and I like to think that the old wooden coffins have given way to the invading tree roots, permitting the old souls to stand in the sun again, or at least share in the midnight beer parties that appear to occur nearby, what with the piles of bottles and cans.

Entering the Toot-n-Tell

Brace yourself. You enter the L-shaped foyer of the Toot-n-Tell and face the community bulletin board, covered with business cards for this and that, none of which you’ll ever need, want, or use. Next, you’ll see the menu of the day. Ignore the menu. It hasn’t changed in 30 years, though it is still accurate. Passing through the second door, you’re facing the check-out counter. The people lined up to pay their tabs are probably in your way. Be as nice as you can.

The first room is where you sit if you want the waitress to bring your food to you. You can order from the menu, but bear in mind that your food will probably come from the bar. In this room, I had a fine plate of fried chicken livers some 30 years ago with my Other Mother. Chicken livers are not on the menu now, I think. Of course, I haven’t looked at the menu in ages. Smoking is permitted in this part of the restaurant. If you don’t smoke, just be quiet as you walk through, and you’ll be safe. Utter one of those patented non-smoker comments, and you’ll find yourself in the fatback fryer.

The second room is where the bar is, and as you might expect, this is where I sit most often. However, the bar is about food, not drinks, so don’t get your hopes up, no matter how much you think a drink would improve this dining situation. I usually sit in the booth either to the right or to the left as I enter, as those are the two seats that my mother can now tolerate. Occasionally, I sit at a table, but doing so presents a developmental opportunity to Mama, and I avoid developmental opportunities at all costs. You may not smoke in the second room; I do not know why not other than the signs say so. However, you can watch TV in this room.

The third room is usually reserved for large parties. It’s also a room in which one may smoke. I’ve been in it twice. Once for Christmas lunch with my mama, and once for dins with a bud. The walk to the bar would now confuzzle my demented mama, and we don’t go there much any more, at least with her.

What to eat at the Toot-n-Tell

The Toot-n-Tell is known for it’s excellent fatback. I disagree. The fatback is very salty. You could leave a strip on the back steps for months, and the salt content would protect it from decay. However, the pounds of salt are not my complaint. Actually, I like the salt part. What I object to is the degree of frying. Although frying is the way God intended for her fatback to be cooked, she did not intend for the fatback to be cremated in the oil. Rather, she intended that the fatback be removed from the oil when the strip becomes translucent. Cooked in this manner, the skin is still chewy, which means that I’m not at risk to need another crown after gnawing down a couple of pounds.

The hot bar will have more than fatback. Often, you’ll find ribs, beef or pork, boiled in a tomato barbeque sauce. (You’d think they’d know better.) Sometimes, you’ll find meatloaf. Many times, you’ll find chitlins. Be careful with the chitlins. The chitlins are often directly beside the chicken stew. I do not know why, and the two often look very similar. It would be very easy to go for a bowl full of chitlins, but wind up with a bowl full of chicken stew. This could stunt your growth.

The veggies on the bar are the usual. Beans. Peas. Greens. Corn. Sweet potatoes. All boiled beyond recognition, with a chunk of fatback lurking somewhere in the pot. Get what you want; it doesn’t matter which, as they’re all extruded from the same vat sorta like a Pringle, but without all the crunchy goodness.

By the way, they always have mac-n-cheese when m’Lily visits.

The dessert part of the bar will include banana pudding, chess pie, coconut pie, chocolate pudding, and some other stuff I do not recognize. I rarely get dessert, mostly because I’d gravitate to what looked like chess pie, but oh no, it’d have lemon juice in it, and that would stunt my growth.

I often spend my time with the salad side of the bar. That’s where we find the perfectly browned lettuce, the yellowed broccoli, the translucent cucumbers, and the chopped boiled-until-green eggs. Pile your plate full of these aged raw vegetables. Once the plate is sufficiently mounded with yellow and green things that should be green and yellow, head to the Ranch dressing. Make everything white with the dressing. It’s safer that way.

There is also fruit on that side of the bar. Eat at your own risk.

Paying at the Toot-n-Tell

After you finish your meal, you’ll need to pay on your way out, which is probably facilitated by the local rescue squad. I suggest using cash if you have it because it’s more easily tossed to the owner from the gurney. Leave the tip on the table. From my careful observation, the modal tip is $1, regardless of the number of people at the table. I leave $5, mostly because of the dialogue with m’mama that I’m sure the waitress overheard. Because of my tipping habits, the waitresses come to our table faster, leave our water sooner, and check on us more often, all of which irritate m’mama.

To my knowledge, the tips have not done a thing for the cutoff jeans, and I do not know about the extra hairnets.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Fishing on the millpond

Fishing on the millpond
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 829

The middle of tobacco season is no fun, and 1966 was no exception. Frankly, there never was an exception, not one in the thirty summers I gave to that crop. The day began at 3 a.m. when we arose, shaking off the unresolved aches of yesterday and the days before, to drive the tractors with flat trailers through the dark of not even morning yet to the barn filled with dry, dusty, freshly cured tobacco.

I would climb onto the second of the ten tiers, take the sticks down two at the time, and pass them to the person on the ground, either my mother or brother. The other would pass them to my father on the trailer where he would pile the sticks, still two by two, carefully. When the barn was empty, we drove to the pack house where we moved the tobacco by hand, still two sticks at the time, from the trailer to the room inside where it would stay until we had time for the next steps in the endless process.

Breakfast passed, and we went to the fields. The men worked in the fields, pulling the sticky green leaves from the stalks and piling them in a trailer for the younger boys to drive to the barn. The boys took the leaves from the trailers, and piled them on a long table at the barn. From the other side of the table, the girls gathered the leaves in groups of three or four, depending on the size of the stems, evened the stems with a tap of a palm, and handed the bundles to the women who tied them to the sticks. A boy would carry the heavy sticks to the racks by the side of the barn. This process continued in endless repetitions until the end of the day when the men returned from the field, arranged the trucks to light the work, climbed into the barn, and arranged the sticks on the ten tiers as the women and children passed the sticks from the rack to the barn.

This work continued without relent for six to eight weeks. A late season would see the opening of schools delayed by a week or two. Not even the opening of dove season pulled the men from the fields and barns. The only respites were Sunday and church, the occasional snake to be killed, and the daily beating of a child for mishandling a precious leaf.

One blessed Wednesday, a rare event occurred. We had no work. Dibs were had for the couch and recliner, the rockers on the porch, and the lawn chair under the pecan tree. I took none. I wanted my afternoon elsewhere. With my Zebco 33, tackle box, water, and snacks in hand, I took my bike, wobbling under the load, to Wilson’s millpond, which lay about a mile down the dirt road. My stated goal was to fish in the shade. My intent was to nap in the shade.

I left my bike in the grass by the boat shed, and loaded the small boat. My boat of choice was about seven feet long, hardly two feet wide, and designed to hold a single person. I paddled the boat slowly across the pond, the hot sun roasting me twice, once directly and once in its reflection from the brown water. The swirls in the water from the cautious paddling drifted out and away, fading long before reaching the side of the pond. I aimed the boat for a stretch of water shaded by a large canopy of willow oak stretching from the muddy bank.

From the shady side of the canopy, I cast my line into the water. The ripples around the cork settled quickly. No breeze blew this day, and the reflection of the leaves carried all the depth of reality that appeared in the leaves above. My boat drifted with undetectable motion on the surface of a mirror, and I leaned back into the seat, smelling the slightly soured water molding on the bank, ignoring the sounds of humanity stirring unseen in the far distance, giving passing recognition to the occasional twittering bird, and slipped into the blessed sleep so long denied this season.

The snake fell squarely between my feet, squirmed, rose, and greeted my awakening self with a nose-to-nose hiss. Not being one to argue with a snake, I abandoned the boat, leaping toward the shore, the boat rocketing away from the shore, and I fell face first into the water that moments before had been directly under me. Seconds later, I had traversed the 20 feet of millpond, and was crawling, if not writhing, up the ten feet of festering pond bank. At the top, I turned, breathed, and saw my boat still sliding across the water. The snake lifted his head above the side of the boat, looked my way, grinned as only a snake can grin, and slipped soundlessly into the water.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lloyd’s mama went fishing

Lloyd’s mama went fishing
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1072

Lloyd’s mama wanted to go fishing that warm, foggy morning in the first week of June. The year was 1948. The early birds sung of worms, bugs, and seeds aplenty. The sun was just high enough to lift the fog from the newly yellow-green of the piney grove down the way. The seeding grass by the mailbox dripped the cool dew of the moonless night. Lloyd was not yet the knowing twinkle in his mama’s eye, and his older brother tugged at his fisher-mom’s apron, urging her to find a bonnet and drown a worm, or two, in the creek by the bottom field some mile below the house.

The line, it’s twirl and spiral set by age and sun, would first float on the brown water, draping gently from the tapered end of the old cane pole, and loop downward to rest on the surface of the barely moving water. It would lead to the rocking cork, pierced by line and match stem, holding the baited hook just above the bottom slime that swayed in the ghostly current.

In unrecorded time, too long in the living and too short in the remembering, the line would snap taut in the violent jerk, the fevered snag, of the hungry shad fighting his certain fate, darting deeper, pulled higher, splashing, swinging, suspended, admired, dressed, and fried in the grease of yesterday’s bacon.

Her shadow stretched far across the field, the rows of beans and corn rising from the same earth, the dew-moistened soil clinging to her shoes and tighter to the boy’s toes. The tracks crumbled, softly at the edges, strewn side by side, hers and his, all the way back to the mailbox, the flag still up with yesterday’s light bill payment waiting.

Her right hand held her favored pole, bobbing in step, monofilament line twined along it’s length from top to bottom, the line looped back from the end just far enough for the hook to catch the crumbling cork where a kitchen match held the line in the middle. In her left, a smaller right hand, years younger, swung syncopated with the pole. In his left, a can, dented, made a third beat in time with the pole, the rust staining the little fingers that grasped so tightly the can filled with worms, grey and red and musky, dug from the edge of the garden where the pea hulls lay.

The large dog, her long brown hair beaded with gray sand and dew, walked a respectful distance to the rear, her paws leaving claw-pocked tracks. Panting early, her tongue hung to the right of her whiskered and grinning snout, her tail twitching, flipping sand, side to side, occasionally dropping to brush the ground, and often riding high when the happy memory of running with the boy flooded her synapses, moistening the shining brown eyes of her lop-eared fuzzy head.

She walked behind knowing she was not welcome on the trip, not understanding how a frisky, wading dog scared the fish. She felt her duty, her place, this freshened morning and stepped forward, head down, nearly invisible, but not enough so, and there it was, the snapped command, nearly cursed, to send her to the porch to sleep, to become the pillow of the child in the afternoon. The dog turned. Lloyd’s mother, satisfied if not surprised at the obedient response, turned back to the path, her boy, and her fishing. The dog stepped from the path, dashed silently across the field, through the beans, and disappeared unnoticed into the woods.

The path entered the bramble as it snaked from field to water, and the boy now stepped carefully behind his mother who held the vines and branches to avoid switching the boy in the face, while looking forward and downward to mind her steps through the rocks, sticks, and briars. The bramble soon cleared, giving way to the taller broadleaf trees that leaned out over the creek, their entwined ancient roots forming twisted footholds along the washed out cut that brought the path to its end by a sandy bank swept clean by occasional high water, and framed by elephant ears, muck-loving ferns, and tendrils of poison ivy and honeysuckle. The boy pressed his foot into the cool, coarse, grainy sand. The brown water filled the depression of heel and toes, to drain slowly back to the languid creek long after the fishing was done.

A dragonfly dozed lightly on the end of the cane pole, the countable moments of its brief life flickering on the shadowy ripples in the water below. The boy pressed mud about his feet to build houses for the homeless frogs by the creek. The mother, sitting quietly in the humid shade, eyes resting closed, awareness expanded, attention unfocused, surveyed the colors dancing behind her eyelids. She drank deeply of the primordial strength of summer morning, son in tow, and felt her cares float back up the earthen bank and vanish in the tangled knot of limbs and leaves.

The boar exploded from the brush across the shallow water, stems cracking, fragments screaming on radial paths, froth slinging from curved tusks, eye burning, intent to visit death on these two intruders. Lloyd’s mama leaped between the boar and son, wielding her pole as a samurai meeting the last challenge, knowing she offered no semblance of defense to her son or self, but prepared to meet her maker with cane and son in hand. She did not feel the water seeping into her shoes, she did not smell the slow decay of the wooded creek, she did not see the dragonfly darting down the stream, and she did not taste the lingering sweetness of the honeysuckle above her head. She only faced her fate.

The dog flew from the bank behind and above her head, a spangled shadow, feathered wing of guardian angel passing over, grinning jaws closing tightly about the boar’s throat until the canine fangs had crossed. The pair fell to the water, rolling a step from the mother and son. The dog held, paused, and then stood over the now dead boar as the last thread of gasping breath slipped from the pig’s cold nostrils into the muck and mire of the disturbed creek.

The mother, pulling closer her son, stared intently at the dog, which from that day forward slept in the house by the stove, unless she chose the bed or couch.