The Laundry Experiment

From The Summer of the Riotous Walls, a work in progress

Before we even ran out of clean underwear or decided something had to be done about the bedding, the kitchen towels presented a problem. At least to me they did. How do you clean up a mess with something that’s dirty? Believe me, I tried. But no matter how careful you are, you only make the mess bigger. We started the summer with three towels, but there were only two left since Sheila accidentally set on one fire. They had to double as hot pads for removing boiling pots from the flames of our gas stove—an excellent way to set their little fringes ablaze, burn yourself, nearly set the house on fire, and destroy a perfectly good kitchen towel.

A coffee spill or two, cooking oil that missed the pan and has to be mopped from the stovetop, milk that landed outside the bowl, then a quick rinse in the sink, and soon the dish towels were crusty, molded, greasy rags, unrecognizable as anything intended for use near food. The classic trip through the washer and dryer wasn’t an option. We didn’t have a washer, nor had we received the revelation that we were living practically beside a laundromat. And yet something had to be done.

Finally a thought pecking at the back of my brain hatched itself into daylight and I knew what to do. The obvious is everywhere you look. Laugh all you want. Nothing I could do was going to make it worse.

In Los Rios, where I woke up on sunny mornings a few weeks ago, my mamá Hilda didn’t have a washer. She had soap, water and a cement wash sink against which she scrubbed our clothes to a fierce cleanliness never produced by an agitating tub of suds. I clicked off the list in my head: I didn’t have laundry soap, but I had various other kinds of soaps. I had water. No cement wash sinks anywhere, but there’s a cement slab at the base of our wobbly steps. Why wouldn’t that work? I filled a bucket with water, and grabbed a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. I never did this in Los Rios. My mamá did it for me. But I watched, and how hard can it be?

“What are you doing, loca?” Beth asked when she saw me heading toward the door with my bucket of water and supplies.

“An experiment.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“A laundry experiment.”

“I hope it works!”

“Me too. These towels are terrible.”

“Can I watch?” Sheila asked.

“Sure. Don’t laugh. I’ve never tried this before.”

“Did you learn it in Costa Rica?”

“Sort of.”

I had to fetch the broom and sweep the dirt from the cement slab before anything had hope of getting clean on it. I dumped a scoop of water on it to wet it, then spread the immoral dish towels out and poured water over them, too. I squirted them with a generous amount of dish soap. Then, I commenced scrubbing them back and forth against the rough cement, which—of course—produced more mud, even though a minute ago, it had appeared clean. I rubbed and scrubbed, slopped and scraped, dumped more water, squirted more soap.

“Cool!” Sheila admired.

Not terribly. Two of my knuckles were bleeding. My mamá’s knuckles never bled, whether because they were so toughened by the constant necessity of repeating this task, or because she had learned to do it without scraping them on the cement, I can’t say. I had to keep washing the blood away so that I wouldn’t make the towels worse, instead of better.

Getting the soap out was the hardest part. I had to send Sheila up to the kitchen for another bucket of water and I was making an enormous mess. I somehow managed to soak my shirt, and a puddle of mud had formed around my bare feet. I wrung and rinsed, twirled and twisted, beating the suffering towels up and down against the cement with one hand while attempting to pour water over them with the other. Mamá made it look a lot easier than this. If I had to wash bath towels and work jeans this way like she did, I think I would cry.

The dish towels looked a heck of a lot better, believe it or not. They weren’t exactly white, but they were a lot less brown. Sheila had to get me another bucket of water to wash my feet, and then I walked up the steps and draped the dripping towels over the banister in the sun.

“There,” I said, when I walked back inside.

Beth looked up at me over top of the book she was reading.

I shrugged my shoulders and went to look in the medicine cabinet to see if, by chance, we had any band-aids.

Swashbuckling Through the Daisies

I’ve decided that I’m done with “The Open Book Test.”  For anyone who was enjoying it:  (graceful bow).  If you don’t know what I’m talking about–don’t worry about it.  I was going to continue it for the whole of 2015, but I changed my mind.  That’s the great thing about having a blog.  It’s yours.  You can change your mind if you want to.

In place of that project exploring the past, I’m going to try come up with occasional posts about what’s going on in my mind in the present, and hope that they are reasonably interesting.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular kind of annoying person and how I fear I might be turning into one.  The ones I’ve met are usually ex-missionaries of some sort–people who once did something awesome and unusual, but then proceeded to live totally normal boring lives but continue to define themselves by the one interesting unusual thing they did 20 years ago.  I hate that.  It drives me crazy.  The other day I realized that I think I might be turning into one.  I felt like kicking a hole in the wall.

So.

So?

Well it seems like there are only two possible ways to avoid this or change it.

1.  Do something interesting and unusual now (take it out of the past and put it in the present)

2.  Redefine yourself (as in: use the mirror and not old photo albums)

I wish I could think of another option, but I can’t.

I’d like to do the first one.  I am dying to do the first one.  Honestly.  And I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell is stopping me.  It’s not like I have kids in school or anything.  I am married, though, to a wonderful man who is about as different from me as a person can be.  He’s unusual and exciting by nature.  If you know him, you know what I mean.  He’s also older than I am–not a lot, but enough–he’s had a significant number of health problems in the last several years, and he’s an Aries.  All of these things add up to: he’s not in the mood to do exciting, unusual things that don’t involve full health insurance and regular paychecks.  All things considered, I don’t blame him.  And then there’s this:  he IS doing something exciting and unusual.  He’s an Italian living in America.  This, for him, is as awesome as it would be for me if he took me to live in Italy.  So, there you go.  You get it.  We were all amped to join the Peace Corp a few months ago, and for about three precious hours I felt like I came to life again.  Then I discovered that he can never join the Peace Corp because he’s not an American citizen.  So I let that go, too.

The second one is not as fun.  It’s sad–or it makes me sad.  How do you do that?  I mean, how do I do that?  I don’t want to be a middle-aged community health worker living in a redneck town in a cold desert when the world is full of places with oceans and languages and sunshine and open windows.  In my mind, I am ready to take my surfboard and paddle out, but instead I take my scissors and walk around the house snipping off the heads of the roses that have bloomed.  Again and again.  Instead of packing suitcases I switch purses a lot.

It’s not easy.  That’s all I’m saying.  It would be a lot easier to do something hard, than to keep doing easy things over and over.  I’m standing here with my machete, ready to swashbuckle through the jungle, and then I realize I’m in a field of daisies.  It’s disappointing.  Tennessee Williams said something about that.

I can’t tell you how I’ve resolved this, because I haven’t.  I’m just posing the question.  That’s the difference between me posting from the past or posting from the present.  I can’t tell you how it turned out.

 

Gardening with a machete:  Outside my house in Costa Rica, 2010

Gardening with a machete: Outside my house in Costa Rica, 2010

Eating Sandía in Bernabela with Ana la Gorda

Cuidado con Ana La Gorda,
everyone says,
dicen que es tortillera, and
they point with their chins to
the neighbors who are
said to have
said that about her.

She roars up to the
house on her red dirt
bike in a cloud of sunshine and
dust, beeps twice and says
Vamos donde me tío a
comer sandía.

I get on.
No tengo miedo de las
tortillas ni de las tortilleras
ni de las fat girls who
drink beer in the cantinas
like men.

Ana La Gorda parks the moto in
deep mango shade
beside Tío Lencho’s watermelon fields in
Bernabela.
Fat green fruits lie in the sun like
luxurious crocodiles
basking between the rows.
On a makeshift wooden bench, Tío
Lencho lops monstrous melons into chunks
with flicks of his slick machete.
Coma, he says.
Coma, Ana explains.

We sit there slurping
like las locas, sweet sandía juice
dripping from our
elbows and chins, making
mini moon craters in the
dust between our feet.

What Happened to June?

My plan for June blog posts was interrupted in the last weeks by two wonderful things: first the arrest of Bill Ulmer, and second, a two-week trip to Italy that my husband and I have been needing to take for the last ten years. I say “needing” because he is from Italy and it has been fifteen years since he has been back to visit friends and family.

As for Bill, my understanding is that he is being held in federal prison in Atlanta at this time, waiting for a hearing in North Carolina. This information trickled in to me through the fog of jet lag while I was in Italy, so I do not know if it is completely current or what, exactly, we are waiting for. I would love to hear from any of you who have a story to tell about your friendship with Barbara or with Bill.

As you can see, I have decided to use his real name at this point. He has not been convicted of anything I have suggested in “Remember Barbara,” but I think it is clear that I have not made this story up out of my head.

Only a few short weeks ago, I supposed that the only thing I would ever be able to do in honor of my friend Barbara’s disappearance is stand here waving this flag of her story, hoping that it might find its way to the people who need to hear it in order to remain safe. So for me to learn of Bill’s arrest about 10 days before I left for a vacation was like a beautiful gift from the universe. I know that as long as he is in federal custody, everyone is safe. I do not mean that I think he goes around with plans to physically harm people–I mean “safe” in a broad personal sense.

We had the best time in Italy! Jet lag is horrible and coming back through US Security/Customs is a dreadful experience even for US citizens with clean a clean conscience (!), but the trip was wonderful! We spent several days in Milan visiting brothers and their families, then we went to San Remo where we spent a few days with my step daughter. After that, we came back to Milan but flew to Sardinia where my brother-in-law has an apartment in a coastal town called Alghero. Definite highlight of the (too few!) days in Alghero is that we got to surf. The waves were terrible and the boards we rented were even worse (mine was a tri-fin missing the middle one!!) but the sun was hot and the water was close to warm SO CLEAR that you could see the rocks and sand in water too deep to stand in. Wow. I took hundreds of photos, walked for miles every day, ate like a horse, gained five pounds in two weeks, bought a whole pile of cheap, cute dresses at the markets and was pleasantly surprised at the prices of things. I was sure that with the Euro stronger than the dollar, everything would be terribly expensive. Not even. Go out to dinner at the beach: get an appetizer, two main courses, a carafe of wine, two coffees, a grappa, a zambuka, a tiramisu… you can’t spend more than 40/50 Euros. Amazing.

Now it’s time for me to get ready for work.  Let me see…what still fits after 2 weeks in Italy? Happy Monday, everybody. Unless something incredible happens, next week we’ll be back to The Open Book Test and other revelations…

Random street in Milan.  No, it is not a movie set.  Yes, random streets actually look like this.

Random street in Milan. No, it is not a movie set. Yes, random streets actually look like this.

 

Il Duomo di Milano.   Freaking scary.  I get it about the art, but this place has a vibe that is  TERRIFYING.

Il Duomo di Milano.
Freaking scary. I get it about the art, but this place has a vibe that is TERRIFYING.

 

Public street in the old section of San Remo.  Kind of blurs the lines between what is "inside" and what is "outside."

Public street in the old section of San Remo. Kind of blurs the lines between what is “inside” and what is “outside.”

West coast of Sardinia.  Punto Torres, maybe?  Remains of old look-out towers on every point.

West coast of Sardinia. Punto Torres, maybe? Remains of old look-out towers on every point.

 

The Crimson Flag of Silence

I have news to share!  I had a different post planned for today, but it can wait.  

Six months ago I posted the story of how my friend Barbara Struncova disappeared.  The story contains some small errors, some speculation and an immense amount of research.  Whereas, technically, it must be considered fiction, it is a result of my profound and continuing effort to understand the truth.  The segments of the story, put together, have received thousands of reads—far beyond anything I ever imagined.  I can only understand this as the world answering back to me and to Barbara, “You have touched us.”

Many of you wrote back to me.  I heard from Barbara’s friends, past friends and acquaintances of “Jim,” and many who have no connection to the story at all but are moved by this tragedy.

It is therefore with great joy that I share with you this piece of public information:  “Jim”was arrested on May 28, 2015 in the airport in Denver, Colorado.  He is being held, as I write these words, on charges of passport theft and identity fraud.  There are no other charges at this time and it is not in the best interest of justice for me to speculate or further comment on anything that is not related to the existing charges.  But it is safe to hope and pray, and it is safe say that I am jubilant as his lies begin to unravel!  I feel that it is important for me to continue to call this individual “Jim” in this forum, as what I am suggesting he as done goes far beyond fraud.  If you would like to know his real name, your friend Google will be happy to provide that.

There a poem that I want to share on this happy occasion.  I wrote it months ago when this day was only a dream.  It is for all of who have reached out to me for the sake of Barbara.  Words are power.

 

Crimson Flag of Silence

We will raise for you
a monument of words.
We will build a tower
to the sky here
in this city of Babel
where all the voices
gather into one language
speaking your name,
Barbara.

We will not be
quelled.
We will pile word
upon word up
to the doorstep of God,
constructing for you a fortress
a mountain
an indestructible testament that we have
not imagined your life
or your death.

From its highest pinnacle we will
fly the crimson flag of
your silence.

Open Book Test: May (18 years ago), 1997

When: May (18 years ago), 1997
Where: Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
What: I’ve been married to my first husband for 5 months.  Every day I go to work in Tamarindo where I oversee a little tourist information center.
Age: 26

Hey! It’s Friday and me and G haven’t had one argument all week! That’s marvelous. Peace on earth.

This is one big old Indian Summer. It’s hot and dry and windy again. Hello. Well, I imagine that when the rainy season comes de verdad, it will come with a huge dumping aguacero. Hope this holds up at least long enough to wash out clothes one more time!

I crack myself up. I I’m going to give my friend Candy some clothes tomorrow and I am so excited, I can hardly wait. You’d think someone was giving them to me. I keep wanting to tell her, but I’d better not. Then she might get excited and have to be disappointed when she sees them. Plus there’s nothing like a happy surprise. It’s so nice to have a nice friend. Candy talks a lot and doesn’t ask much, but I like her. I’m a little cautious about deciding I love people I’ve just met, but she’s growing on me.

There is something in me that cannot or will not believe that G is mine. I wake in the night, I go to the bathroom and come back to the bed and there he is: sprawled in the gale of the fan with the sheet tangled around him. Something somewhere in me cannot or will not believe that he is really mine, that no one will take him from me, that he himself will not leave.

Sometimes I feel really furious about something. I feel really furious with my parents for being the good upright Christian people that they are. It screws up my whole life. How am I ever going to write anything publishable? I guess being married helps a little, but sometimes I think what a great book sections of my diary would make and I’ll never do it because I write about love and sex and true guttural things and I swear and marry a man with children. How can this be? I hate it. Why can’t I be a rebel? Why do I not have it in me? Why am I so nice? It depresses me because I love my parents and I want them to live long lives but I can’t write a thing until they and their siblings are dead. Oh, pain. It makes me feel like giving up. I mean, I guess I can still write it, but all it does is lie around in fat notebooks. How annoying. If you’re making up tales that’s one thing, but if you’re writing about your life, that’s something else.

The Social Worker In The Blue Dress

(A flash of short fact/fiction)

The social worker in the blue dress is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. She came to see you because her boss asked her to, to make sure that you haven’t killed yourself yet, that your baby is getting fat, and that your two-year-old is wearing clothes.

The social worker in the blue dress thinks the evil-spirited pack of chihuahuas is yours. She thinks you have done a particularly terrible job of training them but she doesn’t blame you, having two babies to take care of and a complicated husband. She scurries from the gate into your one-room apartment behind the main house, receiving only one slight sharp-toothed nip to the heel.

You convince her that you’re doing alright. You apologize for the mess in the kitchen. She didn’t exactly call to tell you she was coming, or ask if it was a good time. It’s not a good time. But you don’t exactly have a phone, because your husband takes it to work with him. She’s nice enough and she ignores the mess, points out to you that your baby is really good at following things with his eyes.

As she’s leaving, she asks you to call off the dogs and you tell her that they aren’t your dogs. They are the landlady’s dogs. And the landlady isn’t home.

The social worker in the blue dress walks to the door and the menacing pack of furious chihuahuas is nowhere to be seen, so she steps out into the sunshine of the yard. She is halfway to the gate when they see the intruder, and come snarling at her, needle teeth bared. They take turns lunging at her while she shouts and tries to frighten them.

They aren’t frightened. Each lunge comes closer to her ankles and their camaraderie emboldens them. You scream at them uselessly from the safety of your doorway.

The social worker in the blue dress doesn’t have much time to think, but there is one thing that she is sure of–that she is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. With complete disregard for her dignity, she breaks into a dead run, headed toward the rickrty wooden fence. She won’t have time for the gate. She isn’t even running toward the gate. She hits the top of the wooden fence with both hands and vaults. There is the flash of pink polka dotted panties in the sun.

You stare at the social worker in the blue dress who is suddenly standing on the other side of the fence, panting, safe, looking surprised and a little sheepish. The stunned chihuahuas fall silent for a moment.

“Alright,” she says breathlessly, patting her hair and straightening her blue dress.

The chihuahuas find their voices and leap at the fence.

You don’t quite know what to say to the social worker in the blue dress who just jumped over your fence. She doesn’t seem to know quite what to say to you.

“Sorry about the dogs,” you offer.

“No problem,” she answers, and then giggles a little, accidentally. “Sorry to run away.”

“Oh,” you say, because you can’t think of anything.

“I didn’t want to get bitten,” she says.

“Yeah,” you reply.

She gets into her car and drives away. The dogs look at you disappointedly and begin sniffing her footprints in the yard.

You turn around and go back into the dark, dirty apartment where your two year old is pouring milk on the floor beside a cup. But instead of yelling at her, you sit down on a chair and laugh for the first time since you can remember.