Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Good morning,

An article in the Star announces that the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe will close this fall, presumably a victim of changing consumer habits, the Internet, or its own cumbersome structure, depending on the commentator.  I let the paper fall to the table and think about the only time I have been to the Mall, as far as I can recall.  And I smile.

It's 1998 or 1999. My son and his friends are seven or eight.  Dennis decides we need a bizarre pilgrimage.  Over breakfast we debate the options and for some reason, he chooses the Great Mall of the Great Plains.  I cast my eyes his way, pushing all the doubt I can muster into my gaze but he  is impervious.  Patrick, Chris and Maher dance around the dining room, barely able to suppress their glee.  Meanwhile, I clear the table and shake my head.  It's certain to be disastrous, I tell myself.  But I'm a good sport.

We load the boys in the van and Dennis transfers from his electric wheelchair to the driver's seat.  The backseat volume rises as the chatter escalates.  The attraction of the Mall has driven the three of them into a delirium.  I've stopped shaking my head and now I just feel amused.  We head south.

Three turns around the lot land us in a row of handicapped parking spaces.  Dennis approves a space close to the door and we dropped the lift.  The boys climb out, Patrick standing near the van's doors to help Dennis while Chris and Maher scramble to the sidewalk.  I'm at the rear of the little group as we enter the door with a dozen or so other shoppers.

The corridors loom head of us and it's immediately clear that my stamina will fail me before too long but I'm game to try.  Dennis, being motorized, can keep pace with the children but I lag behind the group.  We pass store after store, overwhelmed by the colors and sounds.  We find a coffee kiosk and get drinks for everyone; juice for the boys, a depth charge for Dennis, an Americano for me.  Standard orders.  We continue our quest for entertainment.  We have no genuine need to shop; we're just there for the novelty.

The boys find diversion -- computers, a toy store, books.  Always books.  We make a few purchases on their behalf and keep going, barely a quarter way into the maze.  I'm feeling the pain, now, weariness combined with the slight agitation arising from my intense, unchecked claustrophobia.  I cannot see daylight. I might as well be underground.  My heart beats so loudly that I begin to apologize to strangers in muttered tones.

At the top of a long pitched walkway, I give out.  Dennis says, Here, babe, sit in my lap, and the boys crow.  The thought of Auntie Corinne -- Mom -- tooling through the Mall ensconced in the Gimp-mobile seems to delight them and I realize, suddenly, that I really have no choice. I can insist we leave or take the offer.  I sit, and we start down the ramp, which seems to be taking us from one end of an impossibly long hallway to the other.  The boys scamper ahead.

Then Dennis says into the back of my head, To hell with this tortoise speed, let's go to Warp Drive, and reaches around me to the controls.  Suddenly, we're dodging and darting around walkers on the ramp and the boys have started running.  They squeal, Dennis pushes the joystick, and I hang onto the arms of the chair and try to remember the words to the Hail Mary.  I get as far as full of grace but can't remember anything else so I repeat the first line over and over as we pass startled shoppers with frightened looks, pulling their bags and their children out of our path.  Hail Mary full of grace, Hail Mary full of grace, HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE.

I see the boys jumping up and down and waving their arms, just around the bend of the walkway, where the railing ends.  I don't think Dennis sees them and I try to speak, but I'm pinned against his chest and there's no air in my lungs.  I'm still praying. My hair whips back, my purse strap breaks, and I clutch my jacket around me thinking, I'm going to die! and then we hit the bump and I go flying.

I land on the cold tile of the floor and the corridor falls silent.  The boys hold themselves completely still as Dennis cruises to a stop and shuts the chair off.  They gaze down at me.  Patrick looks scared; the other boys have blank faces.  I can't see Dennis's expression but I know it will be a mixture of aggravation and wonder, Did we really get this damn chair up to its maximum speed?

I pull my body to a sitting position and I feel Chris and Maher relax, but Patrick still wears a stunned expression.  I'm okay, I tell him, and he helps me stand.  We hover, at the end of the ramp way.  The males stare at me: Dennis, in his electric wheelchair, waiting for forgiveness (which is easier to obtain than permission); Patrick, waiting for confirmation that I'm not injured; and Chris and Maher just waiting for restoration of the equilibrium.

Well  Geez, Dennis, I finally say.  You sure know how to show a girl a good time.

And we laugh.

Just as I do now, thinking about that day, at the Great Mall of the Great Plains, so very long ago.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

P.S.  I am but one of the five people who took the trip to the Mall that day.  Each of the four others might recall this incident differently than I do.  Human memories can be tricky and playful things.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Musings, 14 February 2015

Good morning,

On a typical Saturday, my Musings consist of an account of a memory, sometimes recent, sometime distant; or of an event in my life or the life of a client or friend.  I have written these Musings since the summer of 2008, when my second husband Dennis had moved out for the final time and my son had gone to Mexico with an international student exchange program.  I found myself living alone for six weeks, and wondered if the hiatus from parental/spousal responsibility might have created a window through which I could step back into the life of a writer.  

I took a chance and I would not have continued had people not read and commented on my weekly offerings.

The Musings began as Saturday morning posts to the Small Firm Internet Group, a list-serve of the Missouri Bar Association.  Until recently, I still posted the Musings to SFIG and I will post this entry there as well.   I had many kind readers and commentators among my colleagues on SFIG. More recently, I have just posted a link to the Musings in an e-mail to SFIG, at the same time sending the link to a group of friends and sending it out to Twitter and Facebook.

I also blog on another 'spot.  In January of 2014, two months after my mother-in-law Joanna MacLaughlin passed away, I began a quest in her honor to live complaint-free.  I had also just quit using prescription narcotics after 45 years, a coincidence of timing that might have shown a lack of foresight on my part.  It has been a challenging undertaking, and that first year bled into a second twelve-month period.  I have learned some incredible truths since January 2014, not the least of which I came to know because I spent hours in the presence of my father-in-law, Jabez J. MacLaughlin, during his last months.  To have been a daughter to Jay and Joanna stands among the greatest gifts that God has given me, along with being mother to my son, stepmother to four wonderful human beings, matriculating as a member of an unshakably loyal family-by-choice, and having experienced the love of a few who would not want to be singled out for accolade here but who enriched my life immeasurably.

Yesterday I received a Valentine from Josh Birch, a 22-year-old man who has autism.  Josh, with my friend and his teacher Jenny Rosen, walks our dog every day.  The three of us went for ice cream yesterday at the local Baskin-Robbin.  The clerk knew Josh; he is a regular at various establishments in Brookside, from the drug store to Price Chopper where he likes to have a chicken dinner from the deli for lunch every weekday of his life.  Josh stands six-seven, thin and rangy, with bright blue eyes and a lovely shock of blond hair.  His smile radiates as he enters a room.  After he gave me the Valentine he had made for me, he encircled my considerably shorter and smaller body with his two long arms and said, "I love you Corinne".

Indeed:  I felt loved.

And so it is love about which I find myself musing today -- not because it is Valentine's Day, though perhaps something of this Hallmark Holiday sets me ruminating.  Rather, I find myself musing about love because the village that has welcomed me as a lifetime citizen bestows such joy on me that I cannot avoid feeling loved.  Residents of this village span the globe, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, Arkansas to England, California to Illinois, Minnesota to Louisiana. I've never filed a change of address although at times, I have skipped family gatherings from petulance or anger, in sadness or despair.  No act of mine has ever proven unforgivable.  The members of my family-by-choice, some of whom are biologically related to me, seem to endure any remission, omission, or injury that I inflict.

Indeed:  I am loved.

On Valentine's Day in 1998, a doctor stood over me in a hospital bed and bluntly told me that he estimated my life expectancy to be six months.  He could not say why I would inevitably die within that time.  His best guess? That my respiratory system had finally worn out and could no longer sustain the burden of breathing.

Less than a year later, that doctor and another of like-mind loomed over me as I lay in a hospital bed, arguing with Joseph Brewer, an Infectious Disease doctor who thought he knew what ailed me.  The two physicians intent on allowing me to languish stood on my right; Dr. Brewer on my left.  Ashen, bloated from steroids, weak, I lay under a thin blanket listening, finally blurting in a trembling voice: "Stop!  Stop it!  You -- you two -- you think I am going to die?  You are fired!  You, Dr. Brewer, you think you can  save me?  I choose life!  You're hired!"

Sventeen years have gone by since the initial prognosis on that lonely February 14th.  The doctor who made that prognosis has died.  Joe Brewer proved to be correct. I ailed not from collapsing lungs but from hypercoagulability related to my viral condition. He put me on blood thinners, and I recovered.  In more recent years, new symptoms related to the virus have plagued me, but I learned a valuable lesson and sought meaningful help.  Now I have come under the care of an I.D. doctor at Stanford Medical Center, who conducted the clinical trials which resulted in the use of Valcyte, a drug created to treat HIV, for people with my precise virus.  After seventy days on Valcyte, on the 17th anniversary of my having been given six months to live, I find that I might just survive.  Possibly: Even thrive.

And:  I. Am. Loved.

Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone.  My wish for each of you is that you, too, realize that you are loved.  By someone; somewhere; and probably by many people in  many places.  That realization should sustain you through any dark, embittered hours that might haunt you.  The knowledge that you are loved should also enable you yourself to love -- without reservation, without fear, and without expectation of any return other than the sheer pleasure of the experience.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

My son gave me two God's Eyes, a sweet card, and a little pot for Valentine's Day in 1998.  Some one, probably Katrina Taggart or Mona Chebaro, brought him to the hospital to give it to me.  The little red card says, "I hope you like what I was able to give you".  I did, indeed; the gift inspired me and still sits on the window sill in my breakfast nook.

Here is my Valentine from Josh Birch.
I love you too, Josh.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Saturday Musings, 07 February 2015

Good morning,

Last evening a fluttering bird beat its wings against my rib cage.  With my palms pressed to my chest, I moved my neck in a feeble attempt to imitate the motion that should help calm the rapid beating of my afflicted heart.  Of course I have "SVT", annoying though not fatal; and of course, I have a type of SVT that cannot be fixed, located in a place in my heart that cannot easily be reached, even if a doctor's ministration could remedy the problem.  For another problem I have nitro-glycerin, but this little bird-dance inside my heart cannot be remedied.  I wait it out and fall asleep to its erratic rhythm.

I dream of my mother, but the unfolding is less a dream than a cherished memory.  We walk down the street of my childhood, McLaran Avenue in Jennings, Missouri.  Mother wears her hair in curlers held by plastic picks, with a bandanna tied around her small head.  Her olive, blotched skin shows keenly in the evening light, but I cannot discern her liquid brown eyes behind her glasses.  I see her smile and know its light gleams upward.

As we walk, I set the pace.  My legs falter but her bearing has an enviable sureness.  She lets me lead, though; and so we stroll rather than stride.  We do not speak at first, but I feel my mother waiting.  I have come to visit her because something troubles me.  I live in the city, near my college, in a small apartment.  I drive a little MG and I have parked it outside of the house.  She met me in the yard, embraced me, and said, Let's walk.  And so we are walking.

Fall surrounds us.  The neighborhood's trees shake their finery in the breeze which has not yet settled to sleep.  The light still plays to the west, as we crest the hill near the public elementary school where my siblings and I played as children.  The wide expanse of the school's hilly yard has not yet turned brown but the leaves which have begun to fall from surrounding maples skitter across the blacktop where the teachers park.

Mother and I stop at the stairs on the south side of the building.  I lean against the yellow brick of the retaining wall and Mother settles on a step beside me.  A few moments pass.  I know she has chosen to give me whatever time I need, whatever space it takes.  At the house my father will be doing the dishes.  I can picture him standing at the sink, gazing out the window at the neighbor's house.  He knows his youngest daughter must be troubled, because Mother has told him, Let me talk  to her, and left him to worry.  He'll pause with a dish in his hand and the water running, lost in blame, lost in shame, lost in a fog of worry about whether what he's done to us might be causing me to be less than able in my dealings with the world.

But I won't know about his castigation of himself for many years, and on that night, the night which I envision so vividly it might be a movie, my troubles don't seem to have anything to do with my father.

As the darkness gathers around my mother and me, I feel tears trickle down my cheeks.  Their saltiness reaches my lips and falls to the brick.  Mother stands, then, and puts her arms around me.  She remains silent.  I start to speak but cannot.  Eventually, a long shudder roils through me, and my mother knows that I have come through the worst of my grief.

I tell her of my terrible loneliness; of my differences; of my feelings of isolation.  We sit on a bench on Sunbury Avenue, facing the houses which flank the street across from the school.  We can see families through the picture windows.  In one house, I babysat during high school in exchange for piano lessons.  The children whom I watched must be in high school, I think, as my mother pats my hand.  She still has not spoken other than a few murmured words between my sobbed confessions.  But there is nothing for her to say, and she knows it.

Because I am different:  I walk funny; I have a weird health condition that no one will understand for several decades; my hair is heavy, long and curly in an era when whip-straight was the fashion.  I'm clumsy, and clingy, and smart.  Smart women won't be truly appreciated until the 1990s, some fifteen years later.  As for clumsy and clingy, they'll never be in fashion and I can only hope to outgrow them.  Mother knows this.  She listens.  I talk.

Eventually, I run out of words.  We stand and begin the walk home, north for a half-block then east, back down Kinamore, across McLaran, down our steps. My father sits in a metal lawn chair on the front porch, smoking.  He has turned on the porch light, which I spied halfway down the hill.  My heart feels lighter.  My father says, there's cake, and my mother raises her eyebrows in my direction.  We go into the house and my mother says, Do you want to stay here tonight? and I think, yes, yes, tonight and forever.  

I smile at them both, as my mother brews a cup of tea, and my father slices the cake.  Guess what the secret ingredient is, my father says, as he always says when he has baked a cake.  And then I laugh, and suddenly, I am awake.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Musings, 31 January 2015

Good morning,

My friend Vivian and I dined at Jazz last evening,  The hostess saw two women alone and offered us what she clearly felt would be an inferior table but we grabbed it.  We sat right behind the band, listening to a splendid mixture of Motown and blues.    I went a little crazy with my order.  I got the seafood platter, a tender breaded flash-fried fillet of catfish, sweet batter-fried shrimp, and succulent bits of fried oyster.  I sprang for the up-charge to get sweet potato fries.

Then Vivian shanghaied me well past my bedtime, to the Green Lady Lounge, and the incredible keyboard work of Mark Lowrey.  I had no idea that ethereal music could flow from a person's hands without effort or thought.  The piano accompanist from the opening act stood to one side of the dusky cellar room. I could see envy and awe stamped on his face.  Mr. Lowrey wooed the scarred baby grand and the stand-up bass player, a kid not yet out of college, carried every note to the clouds.  

And then, of course: I fell into a time warp, and found myself in Eureka Springs, in the fall of 1991, when my weekend squire played bass guitar in a jazz fusion band.  He hired himself out as back-up for visiting performers at night and built houses with a crew of five using only hand-tools during the day.  His town sat on the east side of the mountains, forty-five minutes from my home in Winslow south of Fayetteville.  We saw each other on weekends but on a cloudless Thursday night in October of that year, I drove the distance to hear him play with an old blues singer from Kansas City.

I can't recall his name.  I can picture him:  a big, loose-boned man, sitting on a low stool in the evening air, on the stage of the small amphitheater.  The musicians tuned their instruments and the sound man checked the mic. The old man regarded me, the lone early attendee, with glistening brown eyes.  He shifted and his suit jacket moved across his shoulders.  I watched him rebutton his vest without paying any heed to the movement of his fingers.  I could see his starched white shirt collar rising above the knot of his skinny tie. He lifted his shoulders and sent a shudder through his body, those bony hands running down his arms.  I made no move to speak to him, to tell him I had seen him play at the Grand Emporium or somewhere east of Troost.  Or both.  I just sat, waiting, while a few people drifted down from the shop-lined street and eased into chairs around me.

The singer left for a while, before too many folks arrived.  When the sound-test finished and the back-up band took their places, somebody spoke the guest performer's name and he strolled back out, now with a hat on his head and a glass of something in his hand.  He sat back down, and set the glass on the stage and opened his mouth.

Mourning flowed from him, rolling clouds of it; and joy too, in easy pillows.  He vocalized unbidden and unchecked, briefly pausing to sip and tip his hat at the front row between numbers.  He pulled a mouth organ out from a pocket at some point and sent its music wailing above the tiny Ozark town, into the heavens, shared with the stars.  He slid it back into its spot without thought and opened his mouth again.  He did not so much sing as he preached; did not so much croon as cry.  He led the band and they followed with the valiance of youth, of lovers, of loyalists.  And after ninety minutes the stage fell silent and the man stood, adjusted his hat, and softly walked off-stage while the small crowd stood at their seats and gave him a lusty ovation.

After the little concert, Marc introduced me to the man.  I mumbled something about Kansas City and he surrounded one of my hands with both of his.  He nodded, eyes gleaming. I wondered about the glass he carried on stage. I could see the lines on his face, the pitted skin, the grey around his eyes and the grizzle of his beard.  He pulled away and moved towards his belongings, extracting a cigarette, reaching for a bottle.  I watched him walk away and closed my eyes.  His voice came back to me:  I held onto that, as Marc and I strolled down the sidewalk to another jazz bar, another act, though nothing which could compare to the lingering echoes of the blues man from Kansas City.

Here in that city, twenty-three years later, my bones creak and my knuckles protest.  The plates at Jazz  provide a modest serving, which helped but even so, I awakened at 3:00 a.m. with jangly legs, a heavy stomach, and swollen hands.  Gluten, grease, and salt:  triple whammy.  A wiser woman would feel regret.  What I thought:  But oh, so worth it.  Every savored memory of New Orleans floods back to me now, along with memories of that extraordinary, star-lit night in Eureka Springs.  What a life -- what a life I have led.  Laissez les bon temps roulez.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Musings, 24 January 2015

Good morning,

A small article on the second page of my morning newspaper announces what the Internet has already told me:  Alabama ban on same-sex marriage fails.  And for some reason, this article sends me back 35 years, more, maybe; to a time when I longed to be desired by a straight-laced young graduate student.

I lived at the time in an apartment building south of St. Louis University.  Grand and old, the U-shaped brick structure flanked a grass expanse rimmed with a sidewalk.  Neighbors regularly crossed from one entrance to another, visiting, socializing, sharing wine and dinner.  My closest friends lived in the middle section, two men who formed a couple back in an era when same-gender couples still seemed novel.  The one with whom I became the closest was named Lloyd; and from this distance, I do not recall the other's name -- not because I did not like him, but because I am old and my brain works rather less well than it used to work.

Those were the early days of the appearance of AIDS in the Midwest.  HIV had already gripped each coast and squeezed, slaughtering its victims without regret.  In St. Louis, homosexuality still carried an embarrassing taint.  Heterosexual men and women alike still twittered about it, still told jokes, still ribbed each other by calling ugly names supposedly casting aspersions on each other's sexuality.  As for myself, in those days I was called names that the  users thought ugly, but I wore like a badge of honor because to me, they meant that my friends had depth, character, and variety.  To some, they meant that I had friends in low places, but I did not care about their opinion.  They meant that some of my friends were gay; and that I enjoyed their company.  Let's leave it at that.

I liked the apartment which I had in those days.  The building had not yet been renovated.  I had a studio, behind the doors of which I made a one-bedroom with judicious use of a wooden screen.  In the cubby which had once held a Murphy bed that could be lowered into the living room, I put a desk and lamp.  I scribbled poetry on the wall; in fact, I once wrote a poem called On the Wall.  I drank too much Scotch and wrote lamenting essays in long hand on loose-leaf paper.  I tucked my writings in folders and binders.  I slipped the folders and binders into a metal lock-box.  I don't know why; I cannot imagine anyone stealing such maudlin passages, nor would the box have withstood a fire.  A decade later, maybe two, the box became immersed in a basement flood and the yellowing paper on which I chronicled my alcoholic grad school years thankfully succumbed.

In that period, I fell in love with a grad student whose name I shall withhold.  From farm country, Conservative, Catholic, the man had deep brown eyes and thin curls.  His studious manner charmed me.  He gifted me with small smiles, chin downwardly tilted, upcast eyes.  My heart invariably melted.  But he looked right through me.  Perhaps, perhaps:  I was not pretty enough.  I've never felt pretty enough.

I held parties in that little apartment.  We put canapes on metal TV trays borrowed from my mother, and cold bottles of Piesporter in an ice-filled dish pan in the sink.  We drank from jelly jars.  We laughed:  Principally, we described our lives and loves  in broad, rowdy tones and goaded each other into personal admissions, confessions of situations in which we daringly placed ourselves and from which we barely escaped.  Had there been no escape, the stories would not have amused.  Only slight bouts of discomfort or embarrassment could make the tales amusing.  We told them on each other and on ourselves.  Gay couples, straight single girls, clumps of misfit men who ogled everyone regardless of gender.  And at the edge of it all:  My grad student stood, invariably looking uncomfortable, probably wishing he could vanish.

One night, we all decamped to the Central West End.  We had come to the end of our wine but not of our money.  Rather than make a beer run, we decided to invade the bars on Euclid.  It was July: Hot, sticky; we wore shorts, low-cut sun-dresses, and sandals.  My grad student wore jeans and a button-down shirt with its cuffs folded to just below his elbows.  We took four cars; my grad student drove me in his car, and I sat close, letting the wind through the open window blow my long hair into his face.

On the sidewalk, under a make-shift tent, we grouped around several tables.  Lloyd and his partner shared a table with my grad student and me.  When we had drinks, Lloyd dragged his friend out to the street to dance to the band at the restaurant next to where we drank.  I eyed my grad student, assessing whether he might be persuaded to step onto the pavement and put his arm around me.  I adjusted the skimpy bodice of my thin dress and took a drink.  He spoke, then, saying, Your friends are a little weird, Corinne.

I tried to play it off with a high giggle.  But  he pressed.  They don't exactly follow tradition.  I threw back the last of my first Scotch and looked around for the waiter.  He continued, suggesting immorality, decadence, undesirability.  I felt something rising in me.  Not nobility but kinship.  The offbeat were my people.  The weird were me.  I slammed my fist on the table, knocking over his beer and scaring both of us.

Look, I snapped.  It comes down to this.  Either you are my friend, and accept my other friends; or you reject my friends in which case, you reject me.

I felt rather than saw that Lloyd had reappeared at my elbow.  The three of us stood still, frozen in that moment.  My grad student, my friend, and I:  waiting.  And the soft reply, I guess I reject you, then.  I rose.  Lloyd's hand went out to me, and pulled me away from the table.  I did not take my eyes off the man from whom I retreated.  Lloyd's partner appeared behind  me, and they turned me toward the street, toward their car, toward our home, and walked me to my apartment.

They enfolded me in a circle of their arms.  We love you,  they murmured.  I let them hold me.  Then I went into my little home, and lay on the mattress that was my bed.  I did not cry.  But neither did I sleep.

Across the country, men and women whose only difference from their neighbors is their attraction to their own gender finally begin to see their loves and their alliances acknowledged.  My grad student, who resurfaced in my life years later, seems to have changed -- to soften.  I don't see him much, but when I do, I see the virtue and not the ugly past; I hear the goodness, and not those almost whispered, ugly words.  I have not ask him if he's had a change of heart. I simply assume that like the courts across our land, he has come to see that love should be enough.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Musings, 17 January 2015

Good morning,

As I made my coffee this morning not in the coffee maker but in a French press, with water poured from a tea kettle, I thought about the first cup of coffee that I drank for purposes of staying awake.  A long time ago it was; in a turreted building in North St. Louis County, St. Vincent De Paul Psychiatric Hospital. And I am taken back to that time, as I nibble half of a half of a gluten-free bagel with sunflower seed butter here in Kansas City.  I close my eyes and I am seventeen again, and a ward clerk on 3-South.

The head nurse on my floor, Sister Kenneth Anne, stands in front of me in a starched white habit with its small modern collar.  Her smooth face and arched eyebrows regard me as I transcribe orders.  I don't know what she wants; I feel a shudder run through my body.  I cast my glance around to see if I have done something to displease her.  Then she says, in her dry unruffled voice, "Have you had your break?" and I feel my stomach unknot. 

I shake my head.  She gestures toward the half-open Dutch door and tells me that I had better go now, we're expecting several admissions in the afternoon.  I put my pen down on the table and stand, smoothing the stiff polyester of the uniform that I wear as a clerk on the acute ward.  It's ugly,  pale blue but made from indestructible fabric that  hides the female form.  I don't care.  I'm stick-thin and look awful in it.  I haven't yet begun to fill out, something I won't do for several years and then only when a Brown recluse spider bites me, sends me to bed with prednisone for company, and I start to fill out in places that will disturb me. 

But then, in 1972, I look boyish.  My long hair is braided and wrapped around my skull.  I have no hips, no bosom, no curves.  And the uniform, which does not bend, renders me even more flat and unappealing.  

I take myself down the hallway and let myself out the door with a fat key on a laden ring.  I walk the dingy corridor to the old elevator and descend to the floor where the break area is located in a large, high-ceilinged hall.  I slot some coins in a machine, get a diet soda and a packet of peanut butter crackers, and sit at a table far in the back of the huge room.  Clusters of nurses come into the area and sit together with their packed lunches.  They pay me no attention.  I pass the twenty minutes in solitude and then drop the plastic wrapper of my crackers into a trash bin and go to the third floor, letting myself in, walking past the dining room where a few lethargic patients still linger over lunch.

When I get back to the nurse's station, Sister Kenneth Anne stands with Dr. Craig, the head psychiatrist.  Big-boned, ginger-haired, Irish, Dr. Craig flirts unabashedly with everyone: Me, the nuns, the patients.  As I enter the station, he drops his loose frame into the closest swivel chair and pulls a pile of papers towards him.  He scribbles orders, glances at records, shrugs and mutters while Sister Kenneth Anne stands unmoving and I busy myself straightening the supply cabinet, since the doctor is at my station in my chair, writing at my desk with my pen.  A fact that all three of us know but no-one mentions.

When Dr. Craig has finished writing admission orders for one of the new patients he turns his eyes towards me.  I squirm under his gaze.  I feel Sister Kenneth Anne's poie stiffen, as she continues to stand placidly just a few feet from the doctor.  The three of us maintain our positions.    Finally Dr. Craig carelessly tosses my pen on the table and pulls his frame upright, brushes past me in the narrow space, and tosses a glance over his shoulder at the silent nun.  "Good luck with this one," he tells her; and neither of us is quite sure who he means.  Then he exits and we watch  him walk unseeing down the long hallway to the ward's exit.

Sister Kenneth Anne says nothing but she shakes her head, a small motion but plain enough for me to see.  She lifts the orders from the table and hands them to me, bends down and swipes the chair with a tissue before she gestures for me to sit.  I am afraid to smile.

Just then, before I can take my place and start working on the new admission, a cry rises and we rush into form.  Sister Kenneth Anne heads to the door and says, with urgent authority, "Call the code," and I do so, Code red 3 South, over the phone to the operator who echoes it through the entire building.  The crew comes running.

I see the team rush into the dining room and do my part:  I lock down the station, secure the little medicine room, and monitor the phone.  Through the glass I watch the commotion until it subsides.  When everything has calmed, Sister Kenneth Anne comes back to the nursing station, her face passive, the only sign of the struggle in which she's engaged being a slight tremble in her upper lip.  She goes to the back counter, takes two Styrofoam cups down from the shelf above, and dispenses thick black sludge from the twenty-cup pot into each one.  She moves towards me, hands me one of the cups, and says, "Those people are crazy out there.  You better stay alert."

I drink, feeling the burn as the liquid passes down my throat and into my stomach.  We stand, Sister Kenneth Anne and I, behind the locked door, while the patients of 3 South settle back into their comfortable, crazy routine.

My coffee cools on the place mat beside the small table on which I write.  Its fragrance wafts towards me.  I think about how to describe the scent of coffee; I have no words for it.  I wonder whether Sister Kenneth Anne lives in some retirement community somewhere; but realize that she would be in her nineties by now, or maybe older; probably she has died.  I lift the blue ceramic cup from which I drink my coffee most mornings, the one Trudy gave me.  I raise it, heavenward, in a silent salute to the woman who got me started on this most pleasant addiction:  A woman who glared daggers at a lecherous doctor and held the hands of patients intent on doing themselves harm; with equal aplomb.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Musings, 10 January 2015

Good morning,

The wind rises, now low, now loud; and the dog turns her eyes towards me.  She can feel it.  She ran into the yard and then quickly back to the porch, barking and threatening the neighbors' Saturday sleep.  She has curled into a defiant, determined ball:  I will not go out again!  I smile at her.

I'm thinking of a long winter's evening in Winslow, Arkansas, a night spent huddled in a recliner near the wood stove, listening to the wind howling between the old mountains down the corridor of Highway 71.  I had piled my great-grandmother's quilt over my legs and added heavy split logs to the stove.  My clumsy hands had not  mastered the trick of stacking wood in the carrier so I brought them one at a time into the living room.  After eight or nine trips, I reached to turn the back-up baseboard heaters to high.  Outside, the unrelenting wind pounded on the shingles and slammed the mudroom screen door.

I wore three layers of clothing and an extra sweater tucked around the small bulge growing high in my belly.  Four months pregnant, cold, worried; I wondered if a February had ever passed so frigidly in the Boston Mountains.  The phone had rung at ten.  Friends from Fayetteville checking:  Yes, I'm fine.  The wife's voice called to the husband, Shouldn't you go get her? but I declined.  I had bought a house in the country before I knew that I would winter with child growing in me, but here I had staked my claim and here I intended to remain.

I could not sleep.

With a cup of tea on a table at hand, I stared into the flames through the glass door.  I saw no images there; I only saw warmth and possible destruction.  The fire controlled me.  Without it, I could die.  But it could kill me and I knew that.  Its flames could leap out into the room or send deadly smoke to curl around my face and smother me.  I watched it burn until I felt water trickle down my cheeks -- not tears so much as the sting of staring.  I shook my head and struggled from beneath the quilt, to go into the kitchen and make another cup of tea.

I heard a banging then, from the weird, half-finished deck at the back of the house.  I strained to peer through the darkness to see what critter might have taken shelter at the apex formed by the addition, also incomplete, which had drawn me to see potential in the dwelling when my friend Carl had offered to sell it to me.  I sensed a presence but could see nothing in the starless night.

I closed my eyes and pulled an image of the back lot into my mind.  Long, low and sloping, the yard ended at the far side of the flat-bottomed creek.  Dry now, in the height of spring it had sent a flood that reached the house.  But as summer claimed the waters, I could walk barefoot on the flagstone, southwards into the woods, north towards the neighbor's cleared acreage.  Something had come up to the house from the stand of trees flanking the creek, I felt sure.  A deer, perhaps; or something less benign.  I pulled the curtain further back and leaned against the glass sliding door, blinking, trying to sharpen my gaze.

And then a shape loomed, straight against the glass, dark, thick.  I staggered back into the room and dropped the cup which shattered and sent a shower of hot water towards my feet.  We stood still, the creature and I, caught in that moment, me in the chilly kitchen and it in the frigid air of its domain.  I could not see its eyes. I could not discern the contours of its body.  It could have been anything.

As I stood frozen, it lowered its body back to the planking and hovered on the deck.  I could not breathe.  I felt its indecision.  Then it rose, turned, and lumbered over the side.  I lost sight of it as it ambled away into the unbroken darkness.

I did not sleep at all that night.  In the morning, I pulled back the French doors and gazed across my yard, down to the dry creek and the bare trees.  I saw a flicker of white that I thought might be the tail of a deer.  On the deck, my wooden reading chair lay  splintered, crushed beneath the weight of whatever had sought shelter in the shadow of my home.

In an hour or so, a friend will arrive to work with me on some chores that need stronger hands than mine.  The little dog will be banished to the backyard and I will brew another pot of strong coffee.  In Hawaii, my autumn roommate Jessica starts her first Saturday as an Island girl.  Eight hours northeast of me in Evanston, Illinois, the child who grew within me during my strange Arkansas winter will make his own pot of coffee before setting out for his day's adventures.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.