VARIETIES OF AGING TONICS

“You have the air of a young person who mistakes complexity for wisdom.”

“You’re an old fat tree.”

“That’s true,” Harold mused.

I began to kick off my sneakers with an impromptu urgency.

“What the hell are you doing, kid,” He groaned, letting his branches rattle in the wind like a well-deserved stretch.

“I can’t stand wearing shoes anymore,” I murmured angrily.  I peeled off sweaty, dirty socks and threw them into the river in front of us. They floated on top, releasing little crumbs of sweaty soccer field.

“What are you doing?  I drink from that water, bozo!”

Indeed, I leaned over and saw that Harold’s roots acted as a waterfall to the little cliff of grass—a puff of green hair, and then a drop, as though a piece of cake had been cut out of the earth.  And Harold’s roots, ducking and burrowing somewhere dark on the side of the murky underwater world.  If the earth were a cake, water would be the ice cream, and it would be Harold’s favorite flavor every day.

“I don’t want to teach my dad how to rollerblade anymore.”  I said, drearily pressing my toes into mud, hoping to divert the conversation from the socks, which had floated out of immediate sight.

“So don’t.” Harold huffed.

“It’s not that simple. It’s a bonding activity.”

“Right now I’m bonding with your dirty socks.”

“Oh come on, can you really even tell the difference?”

“Angela, you may be an athlete, but you aren’t very disciplined.”

“Those socks are at least fifteen feet downstream by now.”

“Don’t litter. Go get them.”

I rolled my eyes, pulled my yellow ponytail in two so that it would tighten on top of my head, and stood up.  I ran, still barefoot, through the thinly wooded swamp. For a moment I was up to my shins in cool, groping mud and it made me smile out loud, in front of all those trees and everything.  I rolled down a small hill and somersaulted up, gracefully ending in a calm walk.  Ten points for Angela, I thought as I waded into the river to retrieve the socks.  Once in hand, the socks were glad to see me, and I decided I would have missed them, too.

By the time I got back to Harold, he had fallen into a comfortable snooze.  I laid the socks next to each other, neatly drying in the last of the afternoon sun.   In Harold’s cold shade, I shivered and felt for the first time how wet all that mud and river really made me.  Then the Doc and Shirley came by, and I said Hey Doc, Hey Shirley.

“Angela, please call us mom and dad.”

“It’s so cliché of you to respond like that.”

“It’s so cliché of you to call us by our first names.”  Damn. Shirley was always right.

“Harold and I are having a chat, so I can’t come in yet.”  I patted his old trunk.  He snorted, folded his bark over, hiding his face.

“Angela, Harold is a tree. You know better by now.  You’re a smart kid,” The Doc had his worried face on.

“You’re a smart kid too, daddy-o.”

Shirley squatted next to me.  She was wearing high waisted denim shorts and hiking boots.  She smelled like squash.  “Angie, see how much bark Harold is shedding these days?  And how about that half-bald look?”

“It’s just a phase he’s going through.”

“And the bark?”

“He likes to hide his face.”

I felt them look at each other, all worried and confused.  Then one of them coaxed the other to speak.  But I wasn’t listening anymore.  They kept talking, and I faced the river, swinging my feet just above the surface.  Teasing my skin with more freezing water.  I imagined the canyons of my own skin, and how hiking through flaps of fingerprint could feel like a narrow fleshy maze.

Then Harold spoke.   I could hear him over my parents’ rambling, as though the volume of their voices had gone down and the lines of their bodies blurred.  Harold was suddenly neon, Harold was new.

“Save my bark and plant your toenails where my roots will rot.  That way I can see you grow up to be a dumb-witted kid.”

“One day I’ll be old like you, Harold.  I won’t be a kid.”

He scoffed. “One day? How vile you humans are.  As though the sun’s presence makes any kind of difference.”

“I wish I could save you, Harold.”

“Hey,” He lowered his voice, and I looked up from gazing endlessly at the tips of my toes.   His hollow little oval eyes grew wider, taking up his whole trunk, like a sulfuric erosion in high-speed film.

“Don’t take any wooden nickels, kid.”

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She Only Said it Once

The problem is, the kind of person I want to meet is the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy socializing. I dislike attending loud gatherings, and I abhor “wacky freak encounters”. You know, the ones where a woman with her nose in a book is walking down the sidewalk, and bangs her head into unconsciousness at the unexpected arrival of a lamppost in her face. The young man would pass by the scene, smirking slightly at the adorableness of the fall, and of course, at the pale blue dress this girl is wearing. The savior would rush to her rescue. Upon waking, she takes, one look, and she KNOWS! OH MY GOD SHE KNOWS! He’s the one.

No. I would prefer to already have someone. To skip the rather boring practice of meeting and getting to know. I detest the notion that I am required to ask someone what their favorite ___ is (Or any Yes/No question for that matter). Perhaps this is the root of my recent tendency to stay at home Friday nights with a body pillow and my laptop, laughing coyly once in awhile to the body pillow, nudging it slowly, and eventually, making out with it.

This creative solution to my loneliness lasted about three weeks. Until around May 20th, when the old lady started showing up. I mean, It’s kind of awkward to make out with a pillow when the ghost of an old lady could be standing at the foot of your bed at any moment. At first she’d just stand there, and we’d stare at each other until I’d start to nod off, at which point the old lady would put a fur hat on her head, seemingly out of nowhere, and let out a short, huffy, “HA!”, the sound itself was like a puff of smoke. POOF. Then she’d disappear. It left me sleepless, more neurotic than usual, and an even less pleasant person for others to be around.

Naturally, I told my dentist about this. She was the only person, after all, who I came to trust in the matter of my dental health. Who else would understand the fragility of this information?

She didn’t respond well. Actually, she grimaced, as though uncomfortably withholding a much needed bathroom break. She excused herself—I assumed to visit the Ladies’. But she didn’t come back. Instead I ended up spending the night in the hospital psych ward, where they stuffed me full of “I See”s and “Oh, a ghost? Wooooow. So take these pills here…”

The next morning I drove home, cradling a prescription for sleeping pills and a five hundred dollar hospital bill. Not to mention the loss of a trusted dentist, which I embraced heavily in the shoulder region, it was slumping me down, into bed, into the face of the old woman again.

“Look, lady, I burned sage in here when I first moved in—maybe you didn’t get the memo. You should probably, just you know, move along into the next world, or face your earthly purgatory, or turn into a turtle—you know, whatever you—“

“HA!” a finger pointed at my face, the hat again.

“Right. So, leave or, I’ll try to…vacuum you or something.”

The old woman crawled into my bed and sat on my stomach. There was no weight to feel, however the sheets and my squished stomach reacted to her normally, making indentations where frail, decrepit limbs should be.

I was thankful that I didn’t have to actually touch her rotten skin, her drooping muscle far too dramatic and walrus-like to belong to a normal senior citizen. Her face was almost unrecognizable because the skin was flaked and chapped all over. Even her dark, beady eyes had their own mustaches of flaky peach fuzz. It was as though her soul had continued rotting, as her body served platters of worm food somewhere.

She whispered to my face, her S’s hissing and her body visibly shaking. It seemed a great feat to be able to speak.

“Turmoil over Yosemite.”

“What?” I squinted. She seemed to be fading away. She stared at me like the Cheshire Cat with horrible news. Her eyes remained after everything else was gone. The entire room had gone darker, but the whites in her matted eyeballs were still bulbous and glowing. Then they too, were gone.

My stomach felt squeezed together and angrily acidic. I turned on the light. I opened the blinds. It was sunrise. Which didn’t make sense, because it was definitely only eight p.m. when the ghost lady first appeared.

I must have been abducted by aliens, I thought instantly. This thought felt way more comfortable than An old lady appeared and creepily said one sentence that turned the night into day.

At that, my dog Clarence jumped on my bed and wagged her fat corgy tail at me. I screamed “yes!” out loud and made a touchdown hand gesture as Clarence licked me, pinning me down to the pillow and happily chose my neck as a place to lay her front paws. I was relieved to have a reason to get out of bed at sunrise.

It was dewy and harshly cold outside. The air felt like it was splintering my nostrils when I breathed in. Clarence immediately lifted her leg at the curb of the driveway. She was a masculine little gal. Always got my mind off things like taxes, loneliness, and elderly ghost aliens.

The garbage man pulled up.

“MORNING!” I yelled over the engine of the truck. He gave me a nod.

“SO I WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS LAST NIGHT!”

His mouth moved as if to say. “What?” but I couldn’t hear his voice. So I repeated myself. He turned off the truck, walked up to me and guessed, “Suns is seducted my checkerboard?”

“So I was abducted by aliens last night.”

He turned around, his face unchanged, mumbling something about how he never should have left Minnesota. Then he got in his truck and left, my recycling untouched.

“Shit”, I thought, staring vapidly at Clarence’s mid-poop squat. “This is for real.”

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NOT NOT FICTION

 

My phone rings.  It’s a muffled sound.  it’s—

“Bill from SDF health associates…you sent us your resume through Craig’s List this morning?”

Oh, it’s Bill.

“I see you went to school in Massachusetts.  My hometown is right up route two…Grizzly Falls?”

“Oh, yes…”  I say drearily, “I did send you my resume.  Strange, I drove all over New England in college and don’t remember any Grizzly Falls”

“Oh.  That is strange, yes.  So Rachel, the position is for an Office Assistant, and the person who we have now is leaving this week.  Can you come in tomorrow for an interview?  Say, 1pm?”

“Absolutely.”  My voice smiles but my face doesn’t.

“Well, anyway, the position is with ten men in one room. We just want you to know that.”

“Sounds intense.”  I am bored.  I see visions of assholes dance in my head, wearing khakis.

“Um, it can get a little rowdy.” Bill lowers his voice.   “Are you comfortable with that?”

“What do you mean rowdy?”

“You know, just…”  He lowers his voice more, chuckles creepily, “just jokes.”

“Ok. Looking forward to meeting you, Bill!”  My face and words are ironically ecstatic.

“You too, Rachel!”

I hang up.  I stare at the ceiling.  I am bored again.

The following morning.

I already don’t want to go.

I have to convince myself that this job could possibly be worth getting out of bed for, despite the obvious sexism and overall questionability. That morning was a silent war in my room, between the super ego and the whining, screaming, bribing heart.  The never ending internal war affects my posture, because the tension in my shoulders often reach through the nape of my neck, into my jaw and down my throat.  At times like these my throat swells up and it is difficult to breathe effortlessly.

This happens almost every morning, whether it is a crappy job interview or a grocery store trip, I find something all the same–though not as much since I’ve been in San Francisco.  The air here has a calming effect that New York simply didn’t provide.  It’s a difference I attribute to my own ability to leave most of my life behind.

The bus.

Is So slow.  The old ladies.  Are speaking Chinese feverishly, gesturing to seats as though someone were dying to steal it away.  Spandex-wearing SFU students holding their phones so effortlessly, apple products could be mistaken for extra limbs.  And then, when they are all gone, and you’ve realized that your stop does not exist, because you are on the WRONG bus, at quarter past one, and the road you are going down has three members: the bus driver, yourself, and the sole crack head, the dynamic of the moment is put on its side.

Now, I do not judge him as a crack head right off the bat.  He is a person of color, a scraggly looking, older looking, and perfectly nice-seeming man.  He smiles at me from across the bus, and I smile back.

Then he is sitting next to me.  His face is the only image I am able to view when I turn my head to the right.  He is asking me questions and trying to find my facial attention.  I look at him, smile and politely nod when he says that it is a beautiful smile.  Then he asks me to guess how old he is.  I have a feeling inside of me that comes with being a young, apparently approachable white woman.  It starts as a suggestion of a feeling, right when you first realize that the person you are talking to is trying to have sex with you.  It’s a powerful thing, and as I have learned, a lady can often turn the dialogue around, or end it entirely.

In this particular instance, however, I find myself at a loss for words.  He is not being an asshole in any respect, and I am thoroughly enjoying the game he is playing.

His skin is not wrinkled, or even damaged-looking in the least. He has some graying dark hairs in a beard and mustache.  He has grey eyebrows and black hair.

It is 1:20pm.  My stop still hasn’t appeared.

“I bet you’re 40.” I say with my eyes on my iphone google maps.  A lump in my throat is slowly making itself known,

He cackles and slaps his knee.  “Me?”  He smiles big, and I laugh genuinely, because this entire day is outrageously depressing to me.  Unfortunately, my eyes tear up uncontrollably and I am forced to look down and muffle shakily:

“Yes, you.  Ok.  How about 50?”

“Higher” He is trying to find my face, I can feel it.  My cheeks become hot.

“55?” I manage to look up and smile.

“Higher!”  Laugh, cackle, knee-slap.

“60?!” I truly can’t believe it.  I slap my forehead.

“I am 63 years old.  So where you goin’ girl? What’d he do to you?  Come on, talk to me.” I let my eyes fall on his, he half-smiles, like he knows something I don’t.

At that, the bus stops and in comes a very skinny, petite lady with brown skin, black hair and all but one tooth.  She speeds past the driver, who lazily waves her away, and closes the bus door behind her.  She zealously lands her flailing self in front of my new 63-year-old creepy friend and me.

“Got any quarters, I REALLY need quarters” She looks me straight in the eye.  I look at her right back.

“I really honestly just spent my last two dollars on this bus.” I say steadily, intensely looking into beady, tired brown eyes.

She looks me up and down.   I am in my best pantyhose, velvet skirt and silk blouse.  But yes, it was my last two dollars. And yes, I decided, I have missed that interview, because I didn’t want to go.

“Come on what you got!” She yells.  And her lack of teeth is suddenly startling to me.  I find myself feverishly afraid that I am loosing all my teeth.  I stare back at her, my eyebrows crinkled, as if to say, “I’d give you my blouse, but this creep would totally jump me.”

Creepy Friend swoops in, “Come on, get lost!  She ain’t got nothin’!  Get lost girl.”

The bus stops at the next corner.

The lady flies off, screaming incoherently.

“Thanks.”  I say.  My eyes are steady now, my body is distracted by the guilt of my privilege, and the anger turned inward, anger because I even acknowledge my guilt, as though I’m asking for my own false pity.  Thank you, Hampshire College.

“No problem, you know it’s so crazy they be crazy you know you just gotta try and be happy, be happy, you know?  Come on what’s your name? What are you doing out here, you got a boy?”

“I’m Gertrude.  I do not have a boyfriend.  Just trying to get somewhere.” I smile again.  Now I really want him to go away, but I am clearly stuck.

“YOU don’t have a boy? What?”  He starts cackling again, and I become bored again, and want desperately to get off of the bus because now it is—

—-1:40pm.

There is no excuse.  I’m just lost on this bus.  With this man.  And I missed the interview. But I got up early. And I got dressed up, and I thought I knew the way, I thought I had it all figured out.  I wore a trench coat even though it’s too warm out.

Am I sabotaging myself or saving myself?

“Hey Trudy,” my friend says.

“Hey, what’s your name?”  I am teary eyed again.

“James.”  He says, looking at my face again, trying to see me.  But I don’t let him.  I’m glancing around, averting my gaze.

“So girl, talk to me, what did that boy do?”

“I don’t have a boy.  I’m fine.” I turn my back to him.  I take out my book.  I want him to go away. But he doesn’t care.

“You wanna smoke it?” He whispers.

I look at him.  He is gesturing at an imaginary pipe that is very clearly not intended for marijuana use.  You see one never lights pot from the bottom. It’s unseemly.

I smile again.  “Yup. Sure. I’ll give you my number.”

“Really?  WOW! WOW Trudy!  GREAT!!!”  He hands me his flip phone.

I type in a phony number with a Connecticut area code under “Gertrude”.

“There you go.”  I say, and hand it back to him.

“WOW!  Imma call you Trudy!  Imma call you like…how bout this weekend?”

“Sure James, give me a ring.”

He scampers off at the next stop, screaming into the bustling edges of fisherman’s wharf, “I got her number! I got her number!”

How I went from getting dressed for an interview, to being alone on the bus at fisherman’s wharf, I can hardly remember. I crossed the street, lowered my head and sulkily walked toward the bookstore at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, wondering if they still had those Fanny Brice CDs.

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THE OLD WOODEN HOUSE

Wayward tales and dusty sails line the shipyards far away, off somewhere, on the edges of the country. Here, there is no water, only that which is filtered and re filtered and hosed through the ground underneath our shoes. There’s well water, too. The bugs like that, and so do the aliens, I think. The aliens are everywhere, and they lay traps for us that we can’t see. In the old wooden house, on the old dirt street where the scent of burning wheat fields is always aglow, there’s a ghost that sits in a rocking chair, on the second floor. He laughs a lot, and when he laughs he sounds like a crow. A hacking crow, a rabid bird, a two-headed alien. Who knows. There’s an old lady on the first floor, she said that she asks the ghost for rent every month but he always says no. He stinks up the toilet, he overflows the bath, he laughs and creaks his rocking chair around, so that it echos a horrible sound, and the lady on the first floor never knows where he is, he just goes and goes.

Out there by the ocean there must be a change. A hark, or a bellow, a small one even, like the crunching sound apples make while horses chomp, chomp, chomp. There must be another way to live than this, a way that involves shiny People talking on the street, in a shop, on a boat. People yelling, and laughing, with live vocal chords and shadows.

Remember what the pastor said. It was just their time. You carry on the farm by yourself. You’re a man now you can do it. And I just looked at him and saw my parents lying on a tree, pushed over a carriage whose horse had all but left the scene entirely. Their heads looked purple, swollen, hollow, their eyes both open, still looking.

The farm is mine and so, I will never see the shadows on boardwalks and that is what it is. It is just the old man in the rocking chair who refuses to pay rent. The aliens watching me, the wheat-smoke burning perpetually, staining my bed sheets with the secure feeling of time passing, and grains growing, and people-less miles, for miles and miles, until you can’t see the spec that was a stop sign, about an hour ago.  The rock that was a landmark, before you knew the road.

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