Becky the Arctic Snow Fox


The first time I met my stepdad I was an arctic snow fox.

At the time, he wasn’t my stepdad.  He was just a friend of my mom’s that she was inviting to dinner.  At six years old I was oblivious the fact that single, divorced women don’t have male “friends” that they invite over for  a meet-the-children dinner.  If my mom wanted to have a friend over for dinner, what was it to me?

I had other, more important things to do.

During our lunch break, my best friends and I had sat down and seriously discussed the merits of “being” different animals.  Jackie, Alana and I had been best friends since the first day of kindergarten.  We were inseparable.  Jackie was, in a word, adorable.  She was small, pudgy, and two little crooked pigtails and a sweet little lisp that went perfectly with the scattered freckles that dusted the bridge of her nose.  Shorter by more than a head by the rest of our class, everyone loved Jackie.  It was impossible not to.  She was the class clown a, class favorite, and class mascot, all rolled into one witty, huggable package.

Alana was the class beauty – she had silky blond hair that went down to the middle of her back and large, impossibly blue eyes.   When she wore a blue headband, within a week half the girls in the class would all be sporting blue headbands.  When she started parting her hair on the side, for weeks afterwards other girls would run around the playground with disobedient hair falling into their eyes as they retrained their hair to part on the side, too.  Alana was quiet, cool, and beautiful.  Even her name fit her.  The rest of us were Beckies, or Sarahs, or Jackies.  Alana – it just rolled off the tongue with a cool, crisp, classiness.

Me?  I was the zany one.  A tomboy to my core, I disdained Barbies and dress-up.  I loved horses, and hunting, and animals, and the Discovery Channel, and above all else – I loved foxes.  Foxes were the perfect hybrid of everything that fascinated me – they had long, slender legs built for running – something that occasionally eluded me depending on whether my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis was acting up that week.  They were a predator, which made for much better role-playing games – who wants to play “we’re a bunch of deer, watch us eat grass” for recess?  Foxes could pounce, and snarl, and snap, and chase frightened field mice and savage rabbits….. and yet they were also cute.  They had large fluffy tails, and pointed, inquisitive little faces…and they also happened to be one of the main characters in the world’s greatest movie of all time – The Fox and the Hound.  I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

Earlier that week I had watched a documentary on arctic snow foxes and had found myself fascinated with their coloring and eating habits.  For those of you who don’t know, an arctic snow fox will listen for the sounds of mice beneath the surface of the snow, tilting its head quizzically left and right, until at the very right moment they spring about three feet in the air, brace their front legs, and crash through the surface of the ice, pouncing on their unsuspecting prey.

As an adult, it’s fascinating to watch. 

As a child – it was even more fascinating to act out.  I never tired of it.  Tilt head, dramatic pause, then FWAM!  Leap into the air and crash down, stiff-legged in a display of predator glory.

It makes me knees hurt just remembering it.

During recess I would gather Alana and Jackie to my side and assign them their parts.  Jackie would be a rabbit I could chase – but one I would always allow to get away, simply based upon the fact that Fox Becky would never be able to actually bite such an innocent, adorable creature as Rabbit Jackie.  Alana would insist upon being a cat, regally ignoring my spluttered, angry explanations that cats couldn’t possibly survive in the wild, much less the arctic tundra.  We finally compromised on her being a black panther – an animal much more suitable to the epic wilderness of my imagination than a plain, tabby housecat.  The three of us would dash about the playground, Jackie hopping about with her hands drawn up to her chest like tiny little forepaws and wiggling her nose intermittently, Alana slinking about with a cool, feline grace, and me dashing and pouncing with high pitched snarls and agile leaps.

The day I met my stepdad recess seemed shorter than usual.  We had barely begun our game when the bell was ringing and the three of us were forced to run and stand in our class line, miserable at being cooped up again.  It was during our reading session that we came up with a plan – why did we have to stop just because recess was over? Couldn’t we continue on during the evening, and report back to each other in the morning the stories of our escapades?  We could be animals all.  Night.  LONG!

The plans were made – our animals were chosen (although I highly suspect Alana was NOT the black panther I assigned her but rather a plain, drab, tabby housecat), and our pact was sealed.

That afternoon, when my mom picked me up from after-school care, I silently crawled into the backseat of her brown 80s Datsun, fumbling the intricacies of the seatbelt my awkward fox paws.

“Hurry up, Becky.  We need to get home.”

I tried to hurry up, but the seat belt was proving impossible without the use of my thumbs – and as we all know, foxes don’t have thumbs.

“Becky, here, I’ll get it.”  I smiled up at her in a way that I hope displayed the fact that I no longer had flat, human teeth but rather sharp little jaggedy canines.  Beside me, my sister rolled her eyes and buried herself in a book as my mom stared at me, before sighing.  “Oh.  I get it.  Are you a dog again?”

I yipped a high-pitched, insulted negative.  A dog?  A big, lumbering, slow dog?  I shook my head, then yipped twice again.

“Oh,” my mom said with another sigh, pulling out into traffic.  “A fox.”

I yipped again.  Smart mommy.

Preparing for dinner was hectic, between my mom trying to help us with our homework, do her makeup, and produce a delicious meal all at the same time.  The fact that I refused to sit at the table (have you ever seen a fox sitting at a dinner table?  Don’t be ridiculous.) probably didn’t help her stress level.  Of course, she knew better than to argue with me.  When I “pretended”, I pretended hard.

Math took twice as long, cupping a pencil with a tiny, white paw, but I was a smart fox and I figured out a way to use my furry chin to stabilize the pencil.  Whether or not it was legible, I’ll never know.

By the time my soon-to-be-dad came in, I was in full gear, pleasantly warm from the excitement of knowing that halfway across the city, a bunny hopped around her living room and a black panther (not a tabby housecat!) snarled angry responses to any questions from her captors-in-the-form-of-parents.  When our dogs exploded into a volley of barking and excited twisting at a knock on the door, I scrabbled over on hands and knees and joined them, squirming and sitting up to scrabble at the door with my pack.

“Hi.  My  name’s Dave.”  He was a man of medium height and broad shoulders, with a trim beard and kind eyes.  My sister stood up to shake his hand.  I yipped at him and sat up, offering him a paw.

Dave took my paw, glancing over at my mother.  “She’s a fox,” she explained wearily.

Introductions were made, and Dave sat down to try and charm us.  My sister was friendly but obviously more interested in her book than him, and I only yipped or snarled in response, depending on whether the answer was affirmative or negative.  In retrospect, I actually feel a little sorry for him.

When it came time for dinner, I refused to sit at the table.  My mom insisted.  I shook my head.  She insisted again.  I shook my head harder, ears flat against my skull in irritation.

“Becky, seriously, enough.  Sit at the table like your sister.”

 I snarled, and backed under the table legs, glaring.  I was a fox, darnit.  Foxes did not eat at tables, with utensils.  Not only did they lack thumbs as well as an interest in using human plates and forks, they also lacked the necessary balance to remain sitting up for that long – they ate on all fours. Everybody knew that.

“Becky, enough.  Time to eat.”

I whined, and shook my head. 

“Becky, enough.  Quit pretending.”

I snarled back at her, and felt the thick fur at the ruff of my neck begin to bristle.  Who was pretending?

With a desperate look, my mom had to make a quick choice.  Which was worse to show her date?  The strange child or the stubborn battle she knew she was about to lose?

“Fine.  Foxes can eat on the floor, but only – ONLY – if they finish everything on their plate.”

I yipped back at her, opening my mouth in a wide grin, my tongue lolling over my sharp canines.  I gave her a small wag of my tail— but only a small one.  It wasn’t like I was domesticated.  Still, she should be rewarded.

The plate slid beneath the table, and I crawled out from beneath the chair legs to hunch over it.  The green beans and picadillo wavered, then became a slice of raw caribou.  I squatted down and picked it up with my teeth, chewing the meat and growling slightly as my sister’s legs came too close to my “kill”.  It was dark, and oddly comforting beneath the table.  The legs around me looked like trees, and without any real effort they wavered slightly, and then became trees.  I was in a forest – a cool, green forest, full of shadows and unexplored places.  I was eating the caribou I’d brought down, occasionally snarling at the smaller scavengers that crept timidly forward to eat from my kill.

“So, Dave, ” my mother said, raising her voice to be heard over my territorial snarls. “Would you like some more potatoes?”

Excerpt from NaNoWriMo-land

“Ellie, I’m afraid your services are no longer required by this company. You are not a good fit for our team, and the synergy you bring to this team is not cohesive. We are looking for team players here, team members who want to bring this company into the next threshold of productivity, not tear it apart.”

Ellie was breathing hard in anger, but somehow managed to keep herself composed. “Allen, are you even listening to yourself? Can you even hear how ridiculous you sound?”

“Please, I think we can remain professional enough not to engage in more name calling,” Allen raised a conciliatory hand, trying to calm her down, but Ellie wasn’t going to have any part of it.

“No, I will not remain professional, not if being professional is being like the two of you. Allen, you’re speaking complete dribble,” Ellie raised her voice, speaking over the beginning of Allen trying to cut her off. “You sit there and speak about synergy and team cohesiveness, but you’re completely ignoring the fact that we’re not speaking about stupid ideas you learned in business school – we’re speaking about the law. What Carrie did was wrong. This isn’t a difficult concept. It’s illegal, and if you put this company’s name on it you’ll be an even bigger idiot than she is.” Allen’s mustache twitched as his mouth tightened in anger, but Ellie was far from finished.

She whirled around, pointing her finger at Carrie. “And Carrie – seriously. Do you have any redeeming qualities other than a big rack?” Carrie spluttered in anger, but Ellie just raised her voice, speaking over her. It worked well enough on Allen, after all. “Well, do you? Because as far as I can tell, your main contribution to this company consists of mincing around in skirts, passing off other people’s work as your own, and trying to see how much attention you can get by forcing us all to stare at your cleavage. If you’ve got something worthwhile to bring to the table, I think we’d all be happy to hear it.” Carrie sat there, the picture of delicate shock, covering her mouth with a well-manicured hand as her eyes began filling with tears. Ellie had to hand it to her – she had never met anyone who could cry on command better than Carrie.

Allen slammed both hands down on the table, standing suddenly. “Enough!” he roared. “Ellie, I will not tolerate you speaking to us like that.”

“Speaking like what, Allen? Honestly? What, are you so used to having people just spit your own ideas back to you that you get confused when someone actually bothers tells you the truth?”

“I said that is enough, Ellie! If there were an issue with the legality of her work, don’t you think I would have heard about it previously? What, do you have some kind of law degree that you didn’t’ divulge on your resume?”

The two of them stared at each other fuming in silence for a few heartbeats. In the chair beside her Carrie smirked, her crocodile tears from moments before completely vanished in her undisguised glee at the scene unfolding before her.

“No, I am not a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the education necessary to be able to tell right from wrong,” Ellie took a step forward, pointing at the proposal in front of her. “The proposal is a fraud. And you know as well as I do that if you decide to go through with submitting that proposal you’re just as guilty as she is.”

“So, refresh my memory. You have, what, a bachelor’s degree? In what – environmental sciences?” Allen shook his head with a derisive laugh. “I have a Masters in Business Administration – I am quite familiar with the legalities surrounding copyright infringement, and I don’t need a temporary employee to come in here and try to give me lessons on what I can and can’t do with my company.”

That was it. “Congratulations on your master’s degree, Allen. We’re all very proud of you. I’m glad to see your education isn’t getting in the way of your stupidity.” Ellie reached up to her name tag, unclipping it and tossing it on the desk. “I quit. No need to call security. I can find my own way out of here.”

September 11, 2001

I woke up with a start.

As far as I could tell, it was the middle of the night.  I sat there, still and quiet in the dark room, trying to get my bearings.  What woke me up?  It wasn’t unusual for me to be jolted awake in the middle of the night. Since Grandpa died I had been having nightmares several times a week—- horrible, emotionally draining dreams that I did my best to forget as soon as I woke up.  During the final few weeks of his life Grandma and I had taken to sleeping in the same room.  We both had our reasons, but basically it boiled down to the fact that we needed each other.  Death isn’t pretty, and knowing someone was in the house with you made it a lot easier.

I listened to her soft, rhythmic snores for a moment, glancing over at her.  No, no, everything looked normal there.

Why was I awake?  And why couldn’t I shake that something is wrong feeling?

I strained my ears, but I couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary in the house.  Besides, between the German Shepherd in the yard and the cockatiel in the hall, somebody would be hard pressed to break into our house unnoticed.

I held my breath, listening.

Nothing. The house sounded peacefully normal.  I gave a shrug and rolled over in my bed, burying my head beneath my pillow as I sought sleep.

No such luck.  Instead of feeling sleepy, the anxious feeling grew worse, twisting my stomach.  Something wasn’t right.  Something was really, really not right.

I sat up in bed quietly and glanced at the clock.  I don’t remember exactly what time it was – somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning.

Witching Hour.  I hated that term. Suppressing a shiver I lay back in bed, pulling the blankets up around my shoulder tightly.  I stared quietly at Grandma and tried to let her soft breathing lull me back to sleep, but it was no use.  I was too anxious— no, not anxious – fearful?  Filled with foreboding?

I contemplated calling my mom and stepdad to pray with me.  I knew they wouldn’t mind, but still, I felt a little silly.

Hi.  No, everything’s fine.  No, I’m not hurt.  No, I don’t need you to come get me.  Can you pray with me?  I’m nervous.  No, there’s nothing wrong.  No, there’s nothing going on in my life.  No, I didn’t have a nightmare, and no, I am not upset about Grandpa.  I just feel like something’s wrong. It’s not an anxiety attack. No, it’s not—

Yeah.  I probably should have called, but I just didn’t feel like dealing with trying to explain my feeling.  Besides,  I was comfortable in my bed and didn’t want to get out.  Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t pray on my own.  I buried my head beneath the pillow, closed my eyes, and prayed until I fell asleep. 

I slept late the next morning.  My morning class didn’t begin until late morning, and after my little middle of the night wakeup session I wasn’t feeling too perky.

I lay in bed, bonelessly, enjoying the morning, when I sensed the bedroom door opening.  Propping myself up on my elbow, I smiled at my Grandma.  “Good morning.”

“We’re at war.”

“Wait.  What?”  Her words made no sense to me.

“Somebody bombed us this morning – we’re at war.”  She spoke to me gravely, and without a lot of fanfare.  This was the voice of experience, sad experience – a woman who had lived through The Great Depression, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, and countless other battles.

I stood up quickly, peppering her with questions as she lead me to the living room, and ultimately the television set.

Where?

The Twin Towers.

What happened?

Someone flew two planes into them.

Is everyone okay?

No, of course they’re not.  The buildings collapsed.

Why didn’t you wake me?

I didn’t know it was going to happen.  I tuned in right after the confusion following the first plane, and then when everything else went down, I wasn’t sure you wanted to see it.  

I sat there numbly beside her, staring at the images.  It seemed surreal – too much for my brain to handle. 

For once, even the news stations seemed subdued.  There was no point in trying for sensationalism – it was awful enough without any gimmicks.  The worst part was not knowing —- how many?  How many died?  How many were still trapped? Why?  Was this the end of the attack, or just the beginning?

The uncertainty that had gripped me just hours before returned, settling in my stomach as I sat beside my grandmother, silently watching.  Mushroom clouds of ash, grey, numb faces…..  I closed my eyes as they showed the footage of the jumpers.

The jumpers.

I could handle the rest, but the sight of the twisting, falling bodies, choosing flight over fire…..

One rabid young reporter – cloaked in the same colorless uniform as dust as everyone else – stationed himself at the foot of one of the towers.

“This is Generic News Station One, reporting live from the base of what used to be the south tower.  Behind me you can see the decimation, the..” he trailed off, looking over his shoulder as two firefighters stumbled  from the wreckage.   “Here! Here we have two heroic firefighters, just emerging from what appears to be a dangerous trip in the unstable wreckage, risking life and limb in an attempt to pull people to safety.  Tell us – what is it like down there?”

The older firefighter stared at the reporter, then simply left.

The reporter didn’t miss a beat, simply shifting his microphone to the second, colorless, grey-cloaked firefighter.

There was a pause, then:

“You don’t want to know.”

The young firefighter shook his head, sending up a cloud of dust, voice distant.  Emotionless.  Haunted.

The reporter pressed on.  “Our viewers back home are praying for you and your fellow emergency service personnel…. they are watching, desperate to know…. what is it like down there?  Is it chaotic?  Are they evacuating, or going back in?  Were you able to rescue anyone?  How did you escape?  Tell us – what is it like?”

Leave him alone, I thought, hating the reporter, his questions, and all news media.  Savages.  Wolves.  Crows, pecking at the eyes of a fawn.  I hated that reporter, yet I held my breath, waiting for the answer.

The fireman ignored the camera, which was inching closer, zooming tightly on his grey face and bleak, bleak, seen-too-much eyes.

He stared at the reporter in silence – an uncomfortably long silence, made doubly so by the fact that it was a national news station.

“You.  Don’t.  Want.  To. Know.”  He brushed past the reporter, leaving him shaken.  The reporter stared after him for a quiet moment, before regrouping and facing the camera again.

The way he said it – the look in that firefighter’s eyes – it said more to me than any images I’ve seen.  It still haunts me. 

I remember struggling with the decision about whether or not I should go to class.  I’d had a busy day planned that day – school in the morning, followed by driving out to help Thom Cain with his horses.  A late lunch with my grandma, and homework.

But now there was—-this.  Death.  Uncertainty.  Fear. Horror.  How was I supposed to go to class when something like this was going on?

Slowly, the fear and sorrow began to evolve.  The longer I thought about the more I realized that something about the whole thing made me mad. 

And not a little bit mad.

A LOT mad.

How dare they?  What a waste.  What an absolute, disgusting waste of human life…and for what?  War is bad enough, but this?  What was I  supposed to learn from this?  I mean, they must have an agenda, right?  Who they heck were “they” anyways?  How was this supposed to make me aware of their cause?  Was it supposed to make me feel like they had something worth listening to?

It pissed me off.

Screw them.  Screw them and their planes.  I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day hiding in my house, glued to the news media.  Unlike the people in those towers, and on those airplanes, I still had my life, and I intended to keep living it.

And I damned well didn’t intend to live it in fear.  

So I went to school.

And I drove over to Thom’s house.  And I saddled up one of his stallions and rode it, despite the fact that I’d never ridden a stallion before.

I convinced my Grandma to go with me to Bakersfield for lunch.  I had no appetite, but I ate anyways.  My lips were thin with anger, my chin was jutting stubbornly, my stomach was nervously complaining, but I ate that damn lunch.

We listened to the radio the entire way and the entire drive back.

We didn’t exactly laugh and have a good time.

But we went. I was bound and determined to fill that day with memories other than carnage, and horror, and sadness.

And you know what?

The stallion was sweet, and the ride was thrilling. 

The lunch was delicious.

My classes were informative.

Maybe I don’t remember all the details of each event, but I did something other than mourn on 9/11.  I lived my life, in honor of those who had no life left to live, and in silent protest against the day.

I was twenty years old on 9/11. 

It’s been ten years.

Grandma’s dead now.  I sold my old Ford Ranger.  I am no longer living in the valley. I have a husband.  Two beautiful boys.  A career.  A savings account.

Life did go on, one tiny step at a time. 

But you know what?  If I close my eyes, I’m right back there on that faded white couch, worn leather creaking as Grandma and I lean forward, staring quietly at the outdated television 

It’s the first time we’ve had a terrorist attack on our own soil, Becky.  You watch.  This will change things.  Before, this sort of stuff has always been somewhere else.  Now it’s here.  They hit us at home.  We can’t go back.  This is going to change this land.

 I nod, averting my eyes too late as they show another clip of one of the jumpers. 


The jumpers.

I wish I hadn’t gone back to sleep.  I wish I had stayed up in those pre-dawn hours, and prayed.  No, it probably wouldn’t have changed anything, but still.

I wish I had stayed awake and prayed. 

Where’s Becky, and Why Hasn’t She Updated?

Yawning, I drag myself out the front door and sit in my car. I’d like to lean my head back against the headrest, just for a moment, but I know that’s too dangerous. I need to keep moving or I’ll fall asleep.

It’s early- just a little after 6:30 in the morning. I’m not due at work until 7:30, but I could use the extra 30 minutes to catch up. I know I’m salary and the time is not paid, but it’s worth it for my sanity.

Through sheer force of will I bypass Starbucks. I love them, but I’m never going to lose the baby weight if I keep downing 300 calories worth of coffee several times a week.

I pull into the parking lot at ten to seven….. and my cell phone rings.

The Caller ID is my boss.

“Hey, Becky, have you left work yet?”

“I’m in the parking lot right now.” I wait for this to sink in – that I’m a wonderful employee who has arrived thirty minutes early.

I wait in vain.

“Oh, good. There’s a problem with our latest project. Call me when you’ve got your computer up and running.”

I stare at my cell phone with a sinking feeling and sigh. There goes my extra time.

The next few hours pass by in a blur– by the time I surface I realize I’ve missed my pumping time. Again. My gigantic fridge stockpile I was so proud of is dwindling slowly by a few ounces every day and it’s starting to stress me out.

I stare sightlessly at the computer screen as I strap two plastic sucky things to my breasts, which has got to be the least sexy thing ever and let myself be milked like a large, overweight white cow politely powder my nose. It feels good to surface for air.

Of course, as soon as I’m done I hit the ground running again. Frantically-typed emails, phone calls, shuffling paper, mailing items, more emails, more phone calls, more emails, errands, more paper.

I surface again hours later and realize that I barely have time to pump before I go home. Great. I’m probably going to end up two or maybe even three ounces short again today. Perfect.

Like always, I leave work about ten minutes late. I really need to speak to my boss about my salary. I can’t keep giving away my time for free like this.

The drive home is nice, but sadly a little too short. I’m probably the only person in Southern California who would like a longer commute home, but those precious minutes in the car are the only time I have to myself all day.

I try to sneak in the front door, but the DragonMonkey sees my car pull up.

“Mama car! Car! MAMA CAR! MAMA CAR! MAMA CAR! MAMA CAR!”

Before my mom can stop him he has bolted out the front door and is flying down the walkway to my car. I’d be flattered, but he’s being pretty literal. Sure, he’s glad to see me, but that’s not why he’s excited. He’s thrilled because my car is home. Crawling around the inside of my car and pretending to drive is the highlight of his day. Normally I let him do it even though I generally get elbowed, bruised and generally beat up as he clambers all over me in the front seat, but I can hear Squidgelet whining. He sounds hungry.

“Sweetie, I need to get inside. Mama needs to feed Squidgelet.” I’ve tried nursing on the street before, but every time I do I end up flashing a neighbor. So now we go inside.

It’s really quite amazing how quickly the DragonMonkey can shift from ecstatic joy to rage.

NO! MAMA CAR! NO INSIDE! MAMA CAR!” I sigh, and scoop him up. He thrashes against me, back arched, howling his rage and frustration. I drop him unceremoniously just in the front door and manage to slam it behind me only milliseconds before he can dart back outside.

His screams doubly in intensity and volume. When he sees me hanging my keys on the keyring, he kicks me in the shin.

“CORNER. NOW!” He throws himself wailing into the corner, bemoaning his very existence.

I sigh, and grab the Squidgelet from my mom. I toss the baggies of milk in the fridge then sit on the couch and pop him on to nurse. Despite the ear-deafening screams from the corner, the moment turns almost peaceful.

The DragonMonkey notices my attention has wandered, so he decides to up the ante. When his screams stop abruptly I look up, just in time to watch him spit. On the floor.

I hate the spitting.

But I am just SO tired.

“Mama,” the DragonMonkey sings out. “Mama. SPIT.” He ineptly sprays the floor again, deliberately showing off just how bad he is.

I know negative attention is still atttention, and I should probably just ignore it… but I really do hate spit.

“NO SPITTING!” I dislodge the Squidgelet and lay him on the floor. He begins to wail at being at his sudden abandonment and is joined only moments later by the DragonMonkey as he sees me approaching. He does his best to stick his nose in the corner, but it’s too late.

“You spit, you spend time in your crib. Time out in your crib, NOW. NO SPITTING! EVER!”

I plop him in his crib and close the door behind me, doing my best to ignore the furious screams.

I return to the living room and rescue the screaming Squid from the floor.

Ah, peace at last.

I leave the DragonMonkey in there for about ten minutes two very brief minutes before I return. He’s a snotty, tear-filled, disgusting mess.

“Hug?” he says miserably. “Mama up? Hug?”

I use a towel to mop up his messy face, then lift him from his crib. He lays against me, exhausted from his rage, arms encircling me.

“Huuuug,” he says warmly. “Huuuug Mama. Mommy. Huuuuuuuuug Mommy.” He deepens the hug and I return it. Ah, finally. A sweet moment with my son.

He leans back, breaking the hug, and places a hand on either side of my face, forcing me to look at him.

“Hi Mama.”

“Hi, DragonMonkey. I love you.”

“Hi, Mama…..” he trails off, then smiles a little too wide and a little too bright. “Mama, car?” he asks sweetly.

I sigh. The idea of going out to sit in my car for forty-five minutes is just not appealing. I’d really rather skip it for a day.

“Sweetie, not today. Mama’s tired.”

The sweet expression slips off his face. “Mama. CAR.” It’s pretty obvious he’s not asking this time.

I put him down and sigh again. I seem to sigh a lot when I’m around the DragonMonkey. “Sweetie, I said no. No car. Not today. I know it’s disappointing, but you’ll just have to learn to deal with it.”

He stares at me in fury for a moment, and then spits on me.

You read that right. He spits. On. ME.

It pretty much goes down like this:

Furious, I scoop him up and drop him in his crib again.

Rinse, Repeat. Rinse, Repeat.

The rest of the evening passes in a blur.

Spit, scream, love, hug, scream, laugh, scream, nurse, bath, nurse, scream, laugh, hug, scream, love, warm up bottle, blankey, kiss, nurse…

AAAAAhhhh.

Both kids in bed. If I’m lucky, I’ll get an hour or two before the Squid starts crying. I hate teething.

I get less than two hours before the Squid’s pained cries wake me up. For the rest of the night, every forty-five minutes, he wakes me up crying. I can’t get mad at him – he so very rarely complains that I know it really hurts him.

Still.

Rock, rock, rock, nurse, sleep, scream, rock, rock, rock… nurse. Sleep. SCREAM. Rock, rock, rock, sleep….

BEEEP BEEEP BEEEP BEEEP BEEP!

The early morning light streams dimly through the window, painting the bedroom grey.

Morning. Again.

Time to start the whole thing over.

Peg Leg Pete

Every family has traditions.

Some families get together on the weekends and have big, happy barbecues.

Other families have movie nights or yearly trips to the coast.

My family got together on holidays, ate a bunch of food, drank a bunch of beer, and then terrorized the children with stories of the giant homicidal pirate who lived in the basement.

Peg Leg Pete.

Even his name sounds creepy.

Now that I’m older it seems a little odd that this would be my family’s pastime, but at the time we children were just grateful that the adults were willing to warn us about him.

I mean, without their help we might have actually gone down into the basement and played, completely innocent of the fact that we were inches away from a bloody, gory death.

Phew. We sure were lucky to have their help.

You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I just realized something.

Kids are very different from adults.

As an adult, if I knew that a 7 foot tall pirate with one eye, a wooden leg, a burned-off face, gigantic sword and a nasty disposition lived in the basement, I would stay the heck away from him. I’d call the cops. I’d move. I’d lock all the doors and become an agoraphobe.

You certainly wouldn’t see me anywhere near the basement.

But as a child?

As kids, we were fascinated. We hovered around the door to the basement, fluttering about like moths before a flame, arguing with each other in nervous whispers. I was one of the youngest grandchildren, so I was caught somewhere between self-preservation and a desire to seem brave in front of my older cousins.

“Open the door!”

“No, you open the door!”

“Let’s go play tag!” I’d interrupt with false enthusiasm. “Let’s go to the front yard! Let’s play tag in the front yard!”

Naturally, I was ignored.

“You open the door! I opened it last time!”

“Nuh-uh, I did! Besides, you’re older!”

It’s a universal kid law — when in doubt, refer to age as a tie breaker and argument-winner.

The hapless victim would sidle up to the basement door, hand hovering above the flimsy latch.

I’d interrupt once again, voice shrill. “C’mon guys, let’s go play tag in the front yard! Let’s go! C’mon,” I’d whine.

“SHHHH! You’ll wake him up!” Normally there was no way to shut me up once I’d started in on my whine, but this method was incredibly effective. I shut my mouth with a clap, dancing anxiously from foot to foot.

The unlucky cousin would reach a hand out, fingers scraping against the cracked paint that had begun to peel in the Bakersfield heat.

I’d bite my lips as long as I could, but come ON.

“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” I’d shriek.

“SHUT UP, BECKY!”

“You shut up!”

“No, you!”

“You!”

“Both of you shut up…I think I can hear him! Listen!”

We would freeze, ears straining for the slightest sound from the basement.

“What are you guys up to?”

We all jumped at the same time, simultaneously whirling around with alternating sounds of fright – squeals, shrieks… I seem to recall that I would usually bolt blindly in any direction away from the noise.

My grandfather was normally a quiet spoken man, but he always had the worst habit of booming out his questions every time we were trying to sneak up on Peg Leg Pete.

I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

“Grampa! They’re trying to wake up Peg Leg Pete!” If I couldn’t convince them with words to move away from the door, then I’d do the next best thing: I’d tattle on them.

“Is that right?” He eyed us all, looking down at us solemnly beneath his bushy eyebrows. “What are you going to do if you do wake him up? Where are your weapons?”

We looked at each other, ashamed. We hadn’t thought that far ahead. “We don’t have any,” we’d say, scuffling at the dusty earth with our toes.

“Well, we’d better fix that.” He’d descend the stairs from the back porch and head over to the covered bottom porch area. It only took him a few minutes to outfit us all. We stared at each other importantly, chests puffed out, steely-eyed with determination. After all, we had swords and helmets! Granted, the swords were made out of two pieces of dry kindling tied together to look like a sword and our helmets were hats folded up from yesterday’s newspaper, but that didn’t matter.

We had weapons! And ARMOR!

Of course, all that fire and determination usually melted away when we realized we still had to go downstairs.

Luckily, we had Grampa. Sensing our nervousness, he always valiantly offered to go downstairs first.

Grampa was sweet that way.

The entrance to the basement was straight out of a cheesy horror film – a dilapidated wooden door padlocked with a rusty lock. When you pushed it open it creaked eerily. Steep concrete steps disappeared into a dank, black, yawning hole that grew noticeably cooler the further you descended. My grandparents fumigated regularly but never bothered to sweep up the dead bugs, so there were always a couple of black, cockroach-like beetles curled up, waiting to crunch beneath your bare feet.

Of course the light switch was halfway down the stairs. Where else would it be?

To this day the place still gives me the creeps.

Down these stairs my grandpa would go – somehow forgetting (without fail) to turn on the light switch.

“The light! The light!” we would cry to Grampa as he passed it by.

“Oh, shoot. It’s okay. I can see just fine. You guys can get it once I make sure he’s gone.” He disappeared from view.

The steps disappeared beneath a low-hanging ceiling that blocked the rest of the basement from view. The setup was quite simple – descend the steps, walk along a narrow hallway and open a door to a small 10 x 10 room.

We’d hear Grampa open the door and wait, petrified.

“It’s okay! You guys can come down! I think he’s wandered out. But he’s left his sword behind! Come see it!”

Even with the reassurances I usually ended up lingering at the doorway, barely able to follow my braver cousins down. I mean, come ON. It was a bloodthirsty 7-foot-tall pirate with a melted-off face. What if he came home early?

The group would huddle together, wooden swords held in front of us, generally trembling with our fear. Newspaper hats were squared on the head. By the time the leader hit the light switch, we began to feel comfortable.

“Wow, this is interesting!” my grandpa’s voice would coax.

“What? What?” we would cry.

“I can’t explain it. You’ve got to see it for yourself.”

We shuffled down the hallway with greater speed, intrigued. Oooh, what was in there?

His timing was impeccable.

Just as we reached the point of no return, he would peek his head around the nearly closed door, blue eyes smiling behind his large glasses with the yellowed lenses. “There’s some neat stuff in here. You should come in and se—“ He stopped, abruptly, eyes bugging. From where he was standing all we could see was his head and his neck—

His neck, which now had a large, reddish hand wrapped around his throat. “RUN!” he managed to choke out. “HE’S BACK!”

We completely lost it.

Amid full throated, ear-piercing shrieks we scrabbled to make it back to the surface. Weaker cousins were pushed aside in the mad scramble for safety back into the baking hot sun. Forget propriety and a love for your fellow man– it was every cousin for himself where Peg Leg Pete was concerned.

“DAAADDY! DADDDY! DAAAAAAAAAAADDY! AAAAAH! PEG LEG’S GOT GRAMPA! PEG LEG’S GOT GRAMPA! AAAAAAAAAAA! RUN! RUN!”

We’d burst through the door of the house, tumbling into the kitchen frantically and tugging at our parents’ shirts. “PEG LEG GOT GRAMPA! PEG LEG GOT GRAMPA!”

“Shhhhh!” the adults would intone, oblivious to the fact that our beloved Grandfather was slowly being strangled to death by the disembodied hand of an angry pirate. “No yelling in the house.”

“BUT HE’S GOT GRAMPA! HE’S GOT GRAMPA!” Despite the horror in our voices, the adults never seemed all that concerned.

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

“NO! NO HE’S NOT! HE’S NOT FINE!” I was appalled. How could they be so blasé? “HE’S DYING! HE’S DYING!

“Shhh. No yelling, Becky. Go outside and play.”

Go outside and play? With the flesh-eating, child-hating sociopathic pirate? Were they nuts?!

Usually about the time our fear had been whipped up into a borderline hysteria, in would saunter Grampa, cool as a cucumber.

“GRAMPA!” we’d shriek.

“SHHHHH!!!! Stop the yelling!” the adults would say.

“Grampa!” we’d try again. “How did you… why… where’s… ?!?!”

“I managed to get away,” he’d say smugly. “Gave him the slip. And while he was trying to get a hold of me again I managed to grab his sword and give him a little stab with it.”

We crowded around him, enthralled.

“He won’t be bothering us again anytime soon. All the same, you kids better stay out of the basement for awhile. He’s bound to be in a bad mood after all that.”

We stared at our pirate-conquering grandpa in awe as he strode back to his favorite easy chair and set himself down with a contented groan.

Wow. Grampa was awesome.

Coyote

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! EEE! EEE! EEEEEEEE!!!!

Anguished screams come from the living room, ripping me out of my sleep again.

Crap.

Ever since Coyote learned how to hunt about two months ago, he has been dragging home his kills and bringing them in through the kitty door every night. I’d be upset with him, but unlike many cats he’s not bringing it home as a present – he actually eats what he kills. Most mornings the only evidence that he was successful is a blood stain on our nice, grey carpet.

Scrubbing rodent blood and entrails off the carpet is such a pleasant way to wake up.

You wouldn’t think a clean, southern California neighborhood would have so many rodents, but we’ve learned otherwise.

I’ve learned to identify his kills by what he leaves behind. Mice are my favorite thing for him to catch, since they only leave behind a tiny bit of blood.

Rats leave behind a larger pool of blood and have too large of a skull for him to completely finish, so if the stain is larger and there’s a set of yellowed teeth pulled back in a death grimace beside the stain, then it’s obvious he killed a rat.

Gophers are my least favorite of all. Baby gophers leave behind patches of inedible fur, a stubby tail, and what appears to be a section of intestine.

Adult gophers are too large for him to finish, and are generally eviscerated, leaving loops of intestine lying in delicate, widening spirals. They always manage to die in the most bone-chilling ways, their anguished expressions and curled toes seeming almost human. Finding a dead gopher in my living room feels like walking into a serial killer’s lair – it’s disgusting, and completely unnerving. You can almost hear the whispers of, “It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”

Coyote’s propensity for hunting is surprising, considering he’s the most mellow cat I’ve ever owned. I rescued him from the streets of Taft the weekend of my grandma’s funeral. Depressed and stifled by the press of well-meaning relatives and stale cigarette smoke, I handed DragonMonkey off to The Bean and went for a walk. I’d walked the streets of the sleepy town many times during the years I lived with my Grandma, and there was something healing about feeling the same stretch of pavement beneath my feet once again. The sun beat down on the back of my neck, and I began to relax. It was comforting, losing myself in the familiar ache of being too-hot, feeling the aching scorch of the sun making my skin tingle. I stopped beneath the shade of a tree, leaning against a block wall as I took a moment to cool down. Glancing at the house, I noticed a pack full of lanky kittens staring curiously at me from beneath the shade of a bush.

“Kitty, Kitty! Tch, tch, tch!” I waggled my fingers enticingly, and to my utter delight two black kittens began to emerge from the sleepy pile. I seated myself on the wall, and grabbed both of them. The first to arrive was slightly taller, and I could hear his purr even as he trotted towards me. The second was a little quieter, and instead of throwing himself at me in ecstatic abandon, he flopped down beside me companionably.

“You can take them, you know.” I looked up at the voice, and saw a woman peeking through her front porch, smiling at me. “You can take them all, if you want.”

“No, I’m just loving on them. Thanks, though.”

“No, really, you should take them. I don’t even want them – they’re not really mine. The neighbors across the way moved and left their pregnant cat behind. I couldn’t watch her starve so I fed them, and now they won’t go away.”

I held the first kitten beneath my chin, and it rubbed its head against my chin, purring increasing in volume. “I’ve already got a cat, thanks.”

“Well, if you change your mind, feel free to take one.” She disappeared back into the air-conditioned shadows of her house.

I flipped the kittens over on their backs, scratching their tummies and marveling at their placid behavior. For nondescript, run-of-the-mill black cats, they sure had incredible personalities. I spent a few more minutes cuddling and murmuring into their fur before returning back to the house.

As I slept that night, I couldn’t get those stupid kittens out of my head. Life for a street cat in Taft is generally short, and not easy. It gets hot during the summer months, and water is hard to find. That, combined with the unusually high number of stray dogs tends to make most outdoor cats live no more than year or two. Those kittens were so sweet. Most kittens are cute, but every once in awhile you run into a kitten that you know is going to make a once-in-a-lifetime cat. It seemed like such a waste for those kittens to languish in a front yard until they eventually got hit by a car. Besides, I felt like taking something with me – some memento, some part of Taft. With my grandma gone, I knew I wouldn’t be making the three hour drive anymore.

I wrestled with it throughout the night before finally deciding to leave it to fate. If the kittens were there on the way out of town, I would take one.

I grabbed an old laundry hamper and lined it with a towel. We said goodbye to family, loaded up the car and then passed by the house on the way out of town. I opened the car door, the late-summer heat enveloping me. I looked over at the bush, and then up at the porch. No kittens.

I felt a surprisingly sharp pang of sadness.

“Tch, tch? Kitty, kitty?”

“Prrt?” A soft noise returned my call, and I looked down at the shade beneath a low-hanging tree. The second of the two black kittens looked back at me, mellow and friendly. I waggled my fingers at him, and he stretched slowly before meandering over. I picked him up, burying my nose in his fur, tears sliding down my face, dotting him with dampness. I don’t know why, but finding him there felt like the real moment of saying goodbye to Grandma, and to the life I had known with her.

I wiped my tears away in his fur, returning to the car. It was almost unnerving the way he reacted to being shoved in a dark hamper – I expected lots of loud meowing and skittering. In stead, every time I peeked inside he looked back at me — purring.

He adjusted to life in our house seamlessly, with a mellow, friendly attitude. We named him Coyote as a tribute to the life he escaped – kittens in Taft are often referred to as “coyote candy”, a fairly realistic term. The DragonMonkey abuses him mercilessly every time we turn our back for more than a second, picking him up by his middle and dragging him around like a stuffed animal. I try to encourage Coyote to fight back— scratch him, for goodness sakes! — but he’s just too good-natured.

I think that’s why his sudden desire to slaughter every small animal in sight is so surprising. Who is this carnivore, and what did he do with my mellow, sweet, peace-loving cat?

I’m thinking of renaming him Dexter – friendly by day, serial killer by night.

The other morning Coyote brought home a gopher that was so huge my first instinct when I saw the disfigured skull in the morning was, “Holy crap – he’s gone cannibal and eaten a cat.”

At any rate, on nights when Coyote isn’t that hungry he takes his time killing whatever poor, hapless rodent he’s brought back. I used to get up and try to save them. With their large, terrified brown eyes and adorable faces, I couldn’t stand the thought of them slowly being eaten to death.

The night I walked in on a half-grown rat with a broken back changed that.

EEEEK!” screamed the rat. I rounded the corner and stared in horror as it scrabbled around in lopsided circles while Coyote stared down in bemusement, stroking it gently with a soft paw, claws sheathed.

“Prrrt?” asked Coyote, staring up at me with mellow, golden eyes. Do you see my new pet? Isn’t it funny?

“EEEEEK!” screamed the rat again, thrashing in terror.

“Prrrrt?” Look! It is amusing, isn’t it? He stood up and padded over to me, leaning against my ankles. Pet me? Hold me? I want loving and cuddles.

EEEEEK! Please, for the love of all that is holy, end my agony! The pain! The pain! Please! AAAARGH! EEEEK!” screamed the rat.

Love? Cuddles? Snuggles? Coyote continued to press against me, purring. Snuggly wugglies?

I stood there, frozen in horror.

No cuddles? Okay. Perhaps later. For now I will go back to my plaything. Coyote walked back over, sitting calmly beside the rat, and continued to pet it softly with a velvet paw, appearing amused as the rat redoubled its fruitless efforts at escape. Shhhh. Shhh. It’s okay. Shhhhh. I’m just going to torture you before eating you alive. Shhhhh.

I’m a coward.

I crept back into the bedroom, ashamed at myself for not putting the rat of out of its misery. I shut the door and pulled the pillow over my ears, trying to block out the thin, piercing squeaks. Please, just die. Please. DIE. PLEASE DIE.

I started hating the rat, resenting its stubborn tenacity to life. PLEASE, DIE ALREADY. I have to work in the morning. PLEASE? PLEASE DIE. JUST FRIGGIN’ DIE!!!!

Eventually it did succumb, and by the next morning all that remained were a few drops of blood and an anguished-looking snout.

Coyote looked up as I entered the room, stretched lazily, and padded over to me. Loves? Hugs? I love you.

With a sigh, I scooped him up, and he flopped himself bonelessly over my shoulder, purring loudly.

Creepy, serial killer cat. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

Sisters

Ring. Ring.

My sister and I stared at each other for half a heartbeat before bolting out of our chairs at the same time in the direction of the telephone.

“It’s mine!”

“My turn!”

“I GOT IT.”

“NO!!!! YOU GOT IT LAST TIME!”

Few things are more boring than a summer vacation when both parents are working. In a perfect world we would have had an energetic nanny or endless trips to summer camps.

Unfortunately, the world is rarely perfect.

Divorced and struggling to make ends meet, my parents split summertime straight down the middle – six weeks with mom, and six weeks with dad.

What I remember most about my childhood summers was the boredom – hot, stuffy endless afternoons where the roaring nothingness made you feel like you were choking. There are only so many times you can reread your favorite book, play out the same scenarios with your Breyer horses, or stare sightlessly at the mindless dribble of afternoon television. It always seemed so unfair to me. The good television wouldn’t come on until our parents returned home and wanted to watch their own shows. They always wanted to watch the most boring shows, too. What could Fox News have on Inspector Gadget or Looney Tunes?

I realize now that my parents were not entirely comfortable leaving us at home by ourselves. We were under strict instructions to keep the blinds drawn and the front door locked.

We were never to answer the door.

Even answering the telephone became an exercise in safety. While we could pick up the phone we weren’t allowed to divulge that our parents weren’t home. Or our names. Or our parents names. Or anything at all, really.

Not only did our parents drill this into us, they used to test us. We regularly received phone calls that went something like this:

Ring Ring!

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Mark. Who is this?”

“Can I help you?”

“This is Mark. I’m a friend of your mom’s. I really need to talk to her.. can you put her on the line?”

“She’s in the shower right now.” (This was our standard lie.)

“She just called me so I know she’s not really in the shower. Can I talk to her? Put her on the line. This is really important.”

“Actually, if she just called you it was probably from her work – she’s not home right now.”

At that point there was usually a soft click as the original caller handed the phone over to our mom and we realized we’d been had.

“BECKY! You are in HUGE trouble young lady! What if that had been a bad guy trying to see if it was safe to break in? You COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED! HAVEN’T I TOLD YOU TIME AND AGAIN…”

Yeah. I’ll spare you the rest of the lecture. The lecture usually revolved around the “fact” that at any given moment large herds of predatory, murderous, child-hating puppy-killers were milling about outside of the front door at all times, just waiting for the chance to pounce.

With the constant threat of our imminent deaths hovering over our heads like an evil storm cloud, it’s small wonder my sister and I freaked out the day my dad came home early.

I think it was the summer I was going into fourth grade, which would have made me around 8 or 9 and my sister, Brandie, around 11. Brandie and I had what I like to refer to as a “hate-hate” relationship. Bookish and shy, she was the kind of quiet, reserved child that most parents dream about. Unfortunately, as her hyperactive, extremely noisy younger sister I brought out the worst in her.

Our interactions with each other tended to be noisy confrontations punctuated with lots of “LEAVE ME ALONE”s and high-pitched whining.

And those were the good ones.

The day my dad came early was no different. Trapped in the house with each other, by the time the afternoon rolled around the two of us weren’t even speaking. It was hot that afternoon… miserably hot. My skin was sticking to itself unpleasantly, making me whiny. Brandie had somehow managed to gain control of the remote control, and she lounged on the couch holding it smugly. She was watching something that bored me, and I was trying to figure out how to get her to change the channel. I knew from experience that asking her to change it was of no use. Even if she was watching something she hated, if I asked her to change it she would keep it on the same channel just to spite me.

I perched on the arm of our faded orange lounge chair, picking at the material and pretending to read my book. In reality, I was biding my time. I’d seen her finish a glass of tea only a few minutes before. If I was lucky, when she went to the bathroom she would forget to take the remote with her.

I reread the same page of the book three or four times, growing impatient. While I may have been quicker and more energetic, Brandie had an endless supply of patience, especially when it came to torturing me. I was just about to give up and see if I could whine enough that she would change channel when we both heard the garage door open.

We both froze in our seats, eyes widening.

To better comprehend our sudden terror you have to understand that our dad never came home early. He NEVER. Came. Home. Early.

EVER.

It’s small wonder my sister and I both came to the same conclusion when we heard the creaking whine of the ancient garage door opener slowly creeping into action –

This was it.

This was IT.

The herd of child-murderers was finally breaking in. They had found a way to open the garage door and were heading in to steal all of our secondhand furniture and kill us both.

We were going to die.

Choking on our terror, the two of us simultaneously bolted for the only door in the house that had a functioning lock: the downstairs bathroom.

Under normal circumstances I was faster than my sister, but terror seemed to give her feet wings. She reached the door half a step ahead of me..

And slammed it in my face.

I heard the sound of the lock sliding into place and began jerking on the handle, wailing. “Let me in! Let me in! You locked me out!” I started crying, pounding on the door with my fists.

“NO! Go AWAY!”

“LET ME IN! HE’S GONNA GET ME! LET ME IN!” I alternated between pounding on the door with my fists and jerking on the handle, trying to force it open.

“GO AWAY!” Brandie’s muffled, equally terrified voice held a peevish tone. “GO FIND YOUR OWN HIDING SPOT!”

“THIS IS THE ONLY DOOR WITH A LOCK!” I howled.

“TOO BAD!” came the reply.

‘LET ME IN! HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” I scrabbled at the door frantically.

I feel I can honestly say I’ve never known more fear than I did in that very moment. There was wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in my mind that a masked, knife-wielding man was about to round the corner and take my life. I could feel the fear in my throat, gagging me, and I redoubled my efforts.

“LET ME IN! PLEASE!”

“SHUT UP OR HE’LL KNOW I’M IN HERE!”

“LET ME IN! PLEASE! LETMEIN, LETMEIN, LETMEINLETMEINLETMEIN!”

“NO! Go away or he’ll find me too!”

And that is how my dad found us on the day he decided to surprise us with some McDonald’s for lunch— me, red-faced and terrified, throwing myself against the door and screaming for sanctuary … and Brandie, safely ensconced behind the “safe” door and hollering at me to go get killed somewhere else so I didn’t give away her hiding spot.

Parenting. It isn’t for the weak.

Oh, and Brandie dearest?

Mary

Her name was Mary.

I was twenty years old when I first saw her in the parking lot of Mimi’s café.

Ricky and I were lingering after a breakfast date. We had time to kill before our work shifts started up. I was a waitress at a local café and he delivered pizza for Domino’s. We met in our pre-Calculus class at the local college, both of us sensing a kindred, carefree spirit in one another.

We were both perpetually broke, but we didn’t care. We were young, healthy. Carefree.

Old enough to be considered adults but too young to have taken on any of the stress and responsibility that inevitably comes with the position, it was an easy time of life.

That morning we’d driven across town to splurge on a restaurant breakfast we really couldn’t afford. We stuffed ourselves to the brim, then put the rest in a Styrofoam “doggie bag” box. We dawdled at the table until our waitress began to glare, both of us loathe to let the morning end.

We finally trickled outside to linger in the parking lot, sitting cross-legged on the tailgate of my old Ford Ranger as we laughed at each other’s jokes and stories. The sun baked down on our doggy bag of leftovers as it sat forgotten on the hood of our car. It wasn’t much – a few spoonfuls of chicken pot pie and maybe the remains of some kind of appetizer. By the time we got home it would probably be inedible, but we didn’t care. Our bellies were full, and we had more important things to attend to – like laughing and flirting.

“Excuse me?”

She was tiny, almost frail. Sun-baked, wrinkled skin stretched tight across feathery bird bones. Her hair was an indeterminate color – neither grey nor brown, and was tied back in a limp, greasy ponytail. Even without standing I could tell her head wouldn’t reach my shoulder, and her painful thinness made her seem even tinier. Her eyes were large, a clear soft hazel with a gentle, sorrowful look that made me feel like giving her a hug.

You could tell at a glance she was homeless.

“Hi,” I said, watching her curiously, waiting to see what she wanted. Beneath my gaze she blushed, hands twisting the corners of her baggy t-shirt. She looked for all the world like a kid hauled into the principal’s office, trying to find the courage to explain away some naughty behavior.

“I was just wondering,” she took a deep breath, “I was just wondering if you guys were going to.. you know. Eat that.” She gestured with her chin at the Styrofoam container on the hood of my car. “If, you know, you weren’t.. I was, uh,” she trailed off, deeply embarrassed, before finishing in a rush of words. “Wondering if I could have it.”

It was one of those moments when you are embarrassed simply to be you. It was like shoving a wad of pizza in your mouth at the exact moment a “Feed the Children” commercial comes on.

We couldn’t say yes fast enough. Even so, I found myself blushing. The thing I remember most about the first time we met up with Mary was how embarrassed we all were.

Don’t get me wrong – Ricky and I were happy to share. It’s just that it didn’t seem right, that we could sit there so nonchalantly in our mall-bought clothes and leftover restaurant food, while yards away from us there was a woman. Starving.

The lazy warmth of the morning was doused in an icy dose of reality, and it was a shock.

Mary was embarrassed to be asking. She lingered by the food, embarrassed to pick it up, but too hungry to leave it behind. She chatted with us for a few moments, asking us our names, and trying to make the situation less socially awkward than it already was. Hunger was getting the best of her, though, and I could see her gaze flitting to the box every few moments. When she finally did reach out to pick up the box, I looked down at the pavement. It seemed wrong to watch her.

Once she was holding the box, there seemed little to talk about. Mary made a lame excuse about having to go, and Ricky and I echoed it vaguely.

I squirmed when she said thank you – especially because she really meant it.

As she turned to walk away, shoulders square in her too-big t-shirt, I met Ricky’s eyes. There was a silent moment where we just stared at each other. I remember clearly that we both nodded at the same time, and both stood up at the same time.

“Mary!” I called out.

I watched her shoulders tense and felt a little sick inside. What did she think I was going to do? Yell at her? Take back my half-eaten food?

“Hey, Mary!” Ricky echoed.

We bounced down off the truck, jogging after her across the parking lot.

“Would you, uh…” I felt embarrassed to be offering. “Umm… would you like some more food?”

She looked up at the two of us, wary and tense, waiting to hear the catch.

“I mean, uh, I can’t give you money because I don’t…” I trailed off again, embarrassed. How do you tell a homeless person that you won’t give them money because they’re homeless?

Ricky stepped in, smoothing the situation over. “Would you like some groceries?”

Mary’s fingers tightened around the box. “Well, uh, if you guys wouldn’t mind…”

She tried to sound nonchalant.

She failed.

“Sure, what do you need?” Now that the embarrassing part was over, I was feeling more upbeat.

“Maybe some peanut butter?” She sounded hesitant, as if unwilling to believe her good fortune. “Maybe a bag of wheat bread? Is that too much? If it is, just anything will do.” She sounded so apologetic.

“We can get you more than that,” Ricky said softly. “Are you sure you don’t want some meat or cheese?”

She shook her head. “It spoils. Peanut butter and a loaf of wheat bread would be great.”

We left her in front of a Barnes & Noble, driving quickly. I think we were both afraid she might lose her nerve and leave before we came back.

We dashed into a corner store, trying to strike a healthy balance between what would last, what she could physically carry, and what our overly-strained pocket books could afford. We bought her two loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter, some crackers and a couple of other munchies. We splurged on one or two pieces of fruit and a big carton of milk.

We asked for everything to be triple-bagged to make it easier to carry before practically flying back to the parking lot.

She was still there.

She couldn’t say thank you enough.

And when she saw the carton of milk, her face lit up with a brilliant, infectious grin that transformed her face. She looked decades younger.

In the warmth of the morning I felt myself grinning back at her without even fully understanding why.

Is Stupidity Contagious?

Oh, good heavens.

Same Starbucks, different day, different employee, ACTUAL CONVERSATION:

Customer: “I’d like a 2% vanilla latte.”

Barista (making random conversation): “I’ve always wondered… two percent of what? Where does the other 98% of the milk go? Ha, ha.”

Customer: stunned silence

Barista: “I mean, why are we getting so little of the milk? Where does the rest of it go? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Supervisor (stepping in): “It’s referring to the fat content. This milk only has 2% of the fat left in it.”

Barista: “Wait, so the percentage has to do with how much fat is in it? Milk has fat in it?”

Supervisor: “Yes. Whole milk has all of the ‘fat’ still in it, and 2% milk only has 2% of the fat left in it.”

Barista (sounding stunned): “How do they get the fat out?”

Supervisor: “There’s a whole process they use where they boil it and then collect the cream off the top.”

Barista (sounding doubtful): “So, then, what’s skim milk?”

Supervisor: “Milk with no fat left in it at all.”

Barista: “So there aren’t different kinds of cows out there that give different kinds of milk?”

Supervisor: “No. No, there are no skim cows running around.”

I really need to get my family out of this state before it’s too late.

How Do People Like This Survive?

Did I say I was taking a two week break? Whoops! I meant a month. My bad!

At any rate, I feel much better, despite the fact that I am now approximately 427 months pregnant and large enough that small objects in our house are starting to be sucked into my gravitational field and rotate around me like a mini solar system. The good news is that I only have about five weeks left to go.

The bad news is that I have about five weeks left to go. I wonder how soon I’ll feel like riding a horse again after I pop out the Squidgelet?

Anyways, moving on:

This morning I stopped by Starbucks on my way to work.

I know, I know. I hate the idea of Starbucks just as much as the rest of you.

It bugs me that they have stupid names for their sizes (Graaaande… Veeeeeenti… Whateeeever…) .

It annoys me that they’ve given their employees pretentious names like “barista” instead of “person standing behind the counter”.

Their coffee isn’t that great, they’re way overpriced, and every time I walk in there it makes me feel like I’m selling out.

On the other hand, getting a coffee at Starbucks also makes me absurdly happy. They have the world’s most delicious whipped cream, and while the actual coffee doesn’t taste that great, I love the flavors they offer, the familiar cups, and the old-timey jazz they pipe through the speakers. And I love their whipped cream. Did I mention the homemade whipped cream? Mmmm. Whipped cream. I’ve said it before: that whipped cream is addicting.

My name is Becky. I live in Orange County, I work in Newport Beach, and I like Starbucks coffee. I’m such a cliché.

During the winter Starbucks offers their seasonal specials. I always order their pumpkin spice latte, and over the years I’ve learned how to tweak it just right for my taste buds. I’ve spoken the order so many times that it rolls off my tongue like a script.

Me: “Good morning. I’d like to order a grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whipped cream. (Pause for them to write it down.) However, instead of putting the pumpkin spice powder on top, can you put the cinnamon dolce powder instead?”

Average Barista: “Sure, no problem. That’ll be [an exorbitant amount of money for one coffee].”

It’s usually a quick, painless, seamless transaction.

Not this morning.

This morning, I had the world’s dumbest person taking care of me today at Starbucks.

Me: “Good morning. I’d like to order a grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whipped cream. (Pause for her to write it down.) However, instead of putting the pumpkin spice powder on top, can you put the cinnamon dolce powder instead?”

Barista: “Wait. What?”

Me: I’d like to order a grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whipped cream. However, instead of putting the pumpkin spice powder on top, can you put the cinnamon dolce powder instead?”

Barista: “Did you say you wanted a cinnamon dolce latte?”

Me (realizing I needed to use MUCH smaller words): “No. I want a grande pumpkin spice latte.”

Barista: “Okay!”

Me: “With extra whipped cream.”

Barista: “Would you like any whipped cream with your latte?”

Me (sighing inwardly): “Yes, please. Extra whipped cream.”

Barista: “Okay!”

Me: “Now, you know how you put the pumpkin spice powder on top of the whipped cream?”

Barista: “Yeah!”

Me: “Instead of that, please put cinnamon dolce powder. I don’t like the spice powder.”

Barista. “Uh… okay.”

Me: “Thank you.”

Barista (hesitating): “Okay, so, uh… you just want an extra shot of dolce syrup with your latte? Is that it?”

Me: “NO. NO EXTRA SYRUP.”

Barista: “Ummm…”

Me: “THE POWDER. The pumpkin spice POWDER?”

Barista: “Yeah?”

Me: “I don’t like the taste. Please don’t put it on there. Please put the cinnamon dolce POWDER instead.”

Barista: “OOOOH! OH! I GET IT!”

Yeah. I don’t see nuclear physics in her future.