Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

A Suite, a Swim, a Fish

54553-Galveston-Island-Historic-Pleasure-Pier

Nobody told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico.

It was October 2005. What little I knew about Galveston, Texas, I owed entirely to Glen Campbell. His song of that title, written by Jimmy Webb, was released in February 1969. I was sixteen. I had a girlfriend. The song played on the AM radio in my red VW bug when we bombed around town or drove down to the drive-in theater in Saginaw.  Good song, crappy radio. I never bothered to listen carefully to the lyrics. I hummed along indiscriminately and waited for the sad and yearning turn in GC’s voice when he sang, “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying…,” missing the references to the sea that came earlier in the song: “I still hear your seawinds blowing,” for example, and “I still hear your seawaves crashing,” for example, and “I still see her standing by the water.”

So when the cab pulled up to the hotel that day, and I found myself at the edge of a wide beach, looking out to sea, I thought, No one told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico. I was not prepared.

My colleague and I were in town for an English teacher conference. We checked into the hotel where registration and the meetings and luncheons would be held, right across the street from the Gulf.  Good location. Crappy rooms. We were on the ground floor. There were bars on the windows and the doors. My room smelled of old mold and a chemical floral deodorizer-disinfectant. Under foot, I was sure the scuzzy carpet would feel damp if I took off my shoes. I didn’t.

face

Five hotels up the road was a Hilton. My colleague and I had just published a textbook together and were working on a second book, hoping for years of royalty checks. The week before, we had gone to a conference in Santa Monica, next to another fabled body of water, where we had experienced Hilton comfort.

I called her and told her don’t unpack. Meet me up front.

When we met back in the lobby I said, “Let’s go.”

“It’s not that bad,” she said.

“Yes, it is that bad,” I said. And it seemed clear, the longer we were there, the badder it would get.

We walked up the road. Yes, there were rooms available at the Hilton, also on the ground floor. Yes, they were more money. I thought about those bars, about the bad smell. We made the move.

That was the first of three good decisions I made that weekend.

I was raised with an it’s-not-that-bad ethos. I learned not to make a fuss, not to draw attention, not to be demanding. Maybe it was Midwest. Or maybe Methodist. Or just my parents’ dubious gift to me.  On your birthday, presented with actual gift that you didn’t really like that much, you smiled, nodded your head, and said you liked it. It wasn’t that bad.

In time I learned there was another point of view.

Exposure-therapy

A year or so after we were married, I remember my wife’s reaction to a gift my mother gave her. It was our first Christmas. She opened the package and frowned. She looked at my mother and said, “Do you still have the sales slip?”

On my mother’s face, a quizzical look. I felt an uncomfortable blip in my blood pressure.

“Can I take this back?” my wife said.

Aghast, I asked her later, “How could you do that?”

She shrugged and gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I keep something I don’t like?” she said. “Isn’t that a waste? Wouldn’t that make your mother unhappy?”

“Yes, but…”

But she had made a fuss. But she had made the gift-giver feel bad.

Down in Galveston, at the Bars-on-the-Windows Regency, I said we had decided to make a change and could we cancel? And they said yes. I didn’t want to make them feel bad. Neither did I want to take my shoes off in that terrible room.

The next day in Galveston, in full sun on a glorious afternoon, I was body-surfing waves in the Gulf of Mexico, looking up at my hotel room. That’s right, up. The ground floor rooms we checked into the day before had noisy AC wall units that ran continuously, barely keeping the rooms cool. The sound was deafening. And somehow, I had the idea that Legionnaires Disease and air conditioning units were correlated. I didn’t open my carry-on. Could I do it, twice in one day?

At the front desk I asked if there might not be another room. I didn’t want to appear difficult and demanding, but why should I be unhappy?

“Last week,” I explained, “I stayed in the Santa Monica Hilton, one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in.” This one, I added in the most apologetic way I could, was kind of a disappointment.

Evan smiled at me over his glasses. He said he understood.  “Let’s take a look, Mr. Bailey,” he said.

He moved me to the twelfth floor, a suite with a Gulf view.  The AC was silent and sufficient.  I don’t know what the bed sheets’ thread count was. Approaching four digits, I think. Heavenly pillows. What comfort. There was no additional charge.

“You did what?” my colleague said later.

“You just have to ask,” I said.

That was the second good decision I made that weekend.

My default position in most situations is still “it’s not that bad.” A few weeks ago my wife and I were out to dinner with a couple friends. A crowded place. Reservations made a few weeks in advance. We went through the menu, noticing, as we did so, a man sitting at a table outside on the veranda. He was with three women. His shirt was unbuttoned to his waist. Ample belly. Lots of chest hair. Lots of gold.

When our server returned with drinks I asked about the mackerel. On the menu the fish was described as brined, not cooked, with a cucumber relish.

fish.jpg

“It’s in season right now,” the server said. “Light, like ceviche.”

I asked: “Served cold?”

“Warm,” he said. He took orders around the table, heritage tomato salad, carpaccio, eggplant Parmigiana, scallops. When he came back to me, I was still dithering. He said he really liked the mackerel. He was recommending it to everyone.

When our food came, we gestured in the direction of veranda guy with the exposed hairy belly. The server nodded and smiled, said he had noticed him too.

“Would you?” one of our friends said, holding out his phone to the server.  “Take a group photo?”

The server took a few shots of us. In one of them he positioned himself so that the exhibitionist outdoors was in full view. It was a good joke.

The mackerel was nothing like ceviche.  It was an inch and a half thick slab, with a layer of skin on the bottom side of the chunk. Tough as a piece of overdone steak. I poked it, I sawed at it. With a little effort, I found I could tear at it and shred it. But the problem remained.

“So?” my wife said.

“Can you make leather from fish?”

“If you don’t like it, you should send it back. The chef would want to know.”

“It’s not that bad.” I swear I said it. I didn’t send it back.

After a night in the Hilton and a morning of conference meetings down at that other place, my colleague and I had a forgettable conference lunch. Outside it was sunny and warm.  Up in Michigan, I told everyone I saw, the colors were changing. People were going to the cider mill, which seemed charming. It was charming. But I was in Galveston. Outside was the sun, the Gulf.

And I had come unprepared. No swimsuit.

The third decision.

Mid afternoon, after the conference coffee break, I decided to skip the next session. I walked back to the Hilton, went upstairs, and changed into a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Outside I walked across the street to the beach. Lake Michigan size waves were rolling in. I pulled off my shirt and stripped to my skivvies, feeling slightly exhibitionist. I just couldn’t worry about other people.  I waded in for a swim.

That night, when I called my wife and she asked how things were going, I told her, in that weird lingo we use without thinking, that it wasn’t too bad. “Not too bad” is a small step up from “not that bad” and significantly better than just plain bad.

Not too bad? In point of fact, it was actually damn good.

IT'S NOT THAT BAD

Margaritas, Cold Sweat, and Dante

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Dante wrote his long poem for Beatrice Portinari (that’s Bay-ah-TREE-chay)

“Rojo,” my wife says to me one morning.

We’re in the car on the way to the gym. We work out in the basement of the township senior center. Treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bicycles, a couple rowing machines—there’s always a few of these not in use. There are also number of pneumatic weight machines, for maintaining a senior citizen’s various muscle groups. You sit at these machines. They’re good for gentle sedentary social exercise.

“What about it?” I say.

“Why can’t anyone say it?” She says it again, “Rojo.”

“Rojo,” I say.

“Nope.  That’s not it.”

Rojo is a Mexican restaurant in the area. When our niece comes home from Italy, we have a family gathering at Rojo. Twenty or so of us get together to eat and drink. We try to organize these get-togethers on the Tuesday dollar-a-taco night. Rojo serves acceptable tacos and cheesey beany burritos and sizzling fajitas. Also popular is the house margarita, a greenish slurry of cheap tequila and an industrial-grade margarita mix that gives the drink a long distinctly chemical finish. The cocktail is served in an over-sized chalice; sort of like a small glass bucket. I don’t think it comes with an umbrella. (It should come with an aspirin.) Continue reading

Where We Are Was Once a Sea

When you get to Pahrump it feels like the end of the world. It’s California desert country, on the northwest edge of Death Valley National Park. Driving into town we pass Bride Street, Gravel Pit Road, and WTF Sand and Stone. Next to the Mobil where we gas up is a storefront church. It might have been a travel agency at one time, Anywhere But Here Travel. Now, in big letters above the door, between two crosses, the church identifies itself: IT IS FINISHED. What, as in end times? Continue reading

Faces in the Stone

I’ve been having doubts about my hat. It’s a hiker’s hat, with a full brim all the way around, and a drawstring that hangs in front of my ears and can be cinched under my chin. I bought it sort of on the fly. It was a careless oh-what-the-hell purchase. I knew I would need a hat. In three weeks time we would be walking eight National parks.

Unlike my wife, who looks great in hats (and she will tell you so, and it is true), a hat on my head can look ridiculous. When I buy a hat, attention must be paid. Continue reading

Me and Velociraptor and Forrest Gump

There it is, a dinosaur footprint. How about that?

We’ve just finished the lower Antelope Slot Canyon tour, outside Page, Arizona. Along the way our guide, Ryan, has been giving us a short course in geological history, which my wife translates from English into Italian for our friends Luigi and Adele. Her translations are brilliant, embellished by her impressive knowledge of American Indian culture. Continue reading

Dear Family and Friends,

Some years ago I had a very depressing conversation with my brother, Tom. We were talking about how quickly time seems to pass, and as an example, how the summer months, which seemed to last forever when you were a kid, fly by when you become an adult. Tom, you probably know, is a math man. He said, Well, it’s like this: think 3/x, letting x = your age in months. As x increases in value, the ratio of summer time to life time gets smaller and smaller. Infinitesimally smaller. Continue reading

Halloween in Italy

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Where the month of dead means pumpkins, cemeteries, and baked goods

My wife is talking about Druids.

We’re in a kitchen store in Rimini, a place where we buy stuff for our apartment–pans, drinking glasses, cutting board, a new espresso pot. The lady there also keeps us supplied in stainless steel coasters, an accessory my wife delights in buying. (I don’t like them. With the least bit of condensation, they stick to the bottom of a glass, then detach and cymbal crash on the tabletop when you take a drink.) Our cupboard back in the US is full of them. Today the store is having a sale on nonstick pans, 10 euro. We’re tempted. Continue reading

The Sway of Earth

preci

A recap of this weekend in Italy: earthquakes and seafood

We have clams for lunch.

For dinner, earthquakes.

First, a food report from a restaurant on the Adriatic. The photos below were taken at a fish place called La Marianna that my wife LOVES. It’s in Rimini, next to the Roman-era bridge of Tiberius, completed around 21 AD. We drive over it every time we go to this part of Rimini. How’s that for engineering? Continue reading

The Soft Imperative

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I ask my wife, “What language do they speak in Macedonia?”

It’s a Friday morning. This is our pre-breakfast quiet time. Usually we don’t say much early in the morning. What is there to always say? She’s reading a book about the Spanish Civil War and drinking her first cup of coffee. I’ve just clicked off the New Yorker, which I’m partially reading online these days. Anthony Lane has yawned at “Black Mass,” the new Johnny Depp movie, comparing it and Depp, unfavorably, to “Taxi” and James Cagney. I’m about to spread fig jam on a slice of toast.

This is an excerpt from “The Soft Imperative,” a piece recently published in Thread.  Thank you, Ellen Blum Barish, for your careful reading and judicious suggestions for revision.

Here’s the link to Thread and my essay.

Badass

still-life-with-two-peaches

Why we grow beards and what they mean, if anything

“Feel my face,” I say to my wife.

It’s a Saturday morning in August. We’re on our way to the farmer’s market—not our usual farmer’s market, where we know whose tomatoes we want, whose zucchini are the size we like. It’s a new market. She wants to see if George, our peach man, is there, or that failing, maybe we can find a substitute George.

“Why would he be there?” I ask.

“He might be,” she says. “There’s a chance.”

“Feel it,” I say. “I shaved.”

“I see that.”

I seriously doubt she does. But I’ll take it. She reaches over, rubs my jaw with the back of her hand. “Soft as a baby’s ass,” she says.

I know she worries about George. A couple winters ago, he lost all his peach trees.

“It’s his livelihood,” she says. “What’s the poor guy going to do?”

The weather warmed up in February, then froze hard again in March. We thought the cold killed them, but evidently it was steady, slashing wind that did them in. For years, from mid-July to mid-September, he brought free-stone peaches to market. Approaching his stand, you heard his booming voice and his easy laugh. Leaning over his tables, a billcap yanked down over his wild hair, he smiled above an unruly red beard, refilling half-peck boxes with peaches from bushel baskets piled in the back of his rusted Chevy van.

“These are Red Havens,” he’d say. “Wait a few days before you eat them.”

Another day, “These are my Lucky 13’s. They’re almost ready.”

The fruit came in steady and sweet over the last weeks of summer, PF 17’s, PF 23’s, PF 27’s. One year he announced a new variety that he called his mutants. (When asked, he provided no explanation.) They were a revelation. Try one, he’d say. And we would. We trusted him. He had the rumpled look of an almost homeless guy. Word around the market was he arrived on site in the early hours, slept in his truck, and woke up still drunk. All that. And amazing peaches.

Those summers, almost every day at lunch and dinner we peeled and sliced a half a dozen Georges into bowls of red wine for dessert. Peeled, his peaches were shiny, brilliant gold. They took on mythic status at our table. You could imagine Renaissance paintings, Madonna and Child enjoying a peach, with one of George’s peeled golden orbs in the Christ child’s hand, a beatific look on His face. Continue reading