Eye Exam, Part 2 – The Visit

Eye Exam – Part 2

“Good morning, GC.”

I hear getting-up noises from his room. I go in without knocking. He is sitting on the edge of his home-hospital bed hanging on to one side rail.

“Good morning, Erin.” Always pleasant, always interested.

We fumble his pants on. He wears only scrubs pants these days. No need for pockets, or zippers. His clothing requirements have evolved. What once mattered: pressed shirt, pockets, clean drahw’ers. Now, NO TIGHT CLOTHES. Period. Loose and soft are all that matter. The man has the Body Mass Index of a chicken, but he wears only clothing cut for an mountain gorilla. Soft t-shirts, a fleece sweater, and scrubs that tie up. (Or don’t.) I have had to hem up several pairs of scrubs to child length so he doesn’t trip into his future. And by “hem” I mean “cut off with scissors.”

He slides his swollen feet into his hospice slippers. They are Skechers. They are substantial. Thick of sole, and stout of heart. No flippy-floppy, saggy-waggy, drinking coffee in your smoking jacket slippers. No, these slippers are full-coverage, grip bottoms, padded interiors, spill-disguising slippers. Entire nations could be jettisoned out of poverty if we catapulted them in some Skechers. (I mean, as long as they were countries where people still had feet. I’m not an animal.)

I wheel him to the bathroom where he relieves himself. He washes his hands and his face. He is fastidious and hygiene-sensitive even in the eye of this shit-storm. (It’s not literally a shit-storm. At least not yet.) I wheel him out into the living room.

GC: “Hello, cat,” he says as Mango serpentines in front of us, a leader with no clear concept of the mission.

GC, to me: “Well, did you get some sleep?” Always pleasant, always interested.

Me: “Some. I just need about three months’ worth tonight. Maybe I should take a cruise on the Corona Virus Life Cutter. I hear it’s quite relaxing.”

One by one I hand him his morning meds. Some are pills, some are liquid, some are inhalers. One requires a spit bucket. Today I forgot.

GC: “Where’s the spit bucket?”

Me: “Use the cat.”  

I rinse out the bucket and sit on the edge of the couch facing him.

GC: “Why do you sit on the arm of the couch?”

Me: “It artificially elevates my importance. What do you want for breakfast?”

GC: “What did I have yesterday?”

Me: “Waffles.”

GC: “How about pancakes?”

Me: “Perfect. Those are very different.”

He eats. Cream and brown sugar makes the medicine go down.

GC: “What are we doing today?”

Me: “Today we go get your eyes examined.”

GC: “How will I get there?”

Me: “I will take you in my car.”

He eats some more, and grows small and quiet. Transitions are terrifying for the ill. Moving a small, fragile patient from one vehicle to another is like having sex with a marionette. All these arms and legs flailing about that might or might not contribute, and might or might not get stuck in a poky place. The goal is to get the job done and mostly not get hurt. Like in college.

As before, I bundle him up, get him in the car, roll him in to the eye place. I transfer him from his wheelchair to the eye exam chair, and the doc angles the overhead goggles in front of him.

Eye Doctor: “Okay, Mr. Waugh, what do you see?”

GC: “Nothing.”

Eye Doc: “Can you lean forward?”

GC: “Not for long.”

Doc puts a pillow behind his back.

Doc: “Okay, is it better like this, or like this?”

Etc. “One or two?” “Three or four?” Five or six, pick up the check.

The doctor writes my father a prescription for bi-focals, and I study it. I ask the doc about one of the sets of numbers. The doc pulls out a plastic cornea and squeezes it. He explains that because of his astigmatism, the numbers on the prescription have changed. Goo goo, gah gah.

Me: “Oh. Because his cornea is now it’s no longer a circle. Both length and width have changed. His cornea becomes more ovoid, more elliptical.”

The doc turns to GC: “She’s a smart one.”

For some reason, this bothers me. But GC has my back.

GC: “Of course she is.”

We go back out into the main area to pick out some frames and get fitted with Katherine. Katherine fits quite nicely.

Katherine, holding up the one frame we like: “Now these USUALLY cost $359, but today I’m going to give you 50% off.”

I don’t know why. I never know why. Why is there a mystery about the price of things? Why isn’t everything just marked the price it’s supposed to be, like a goddamn French fry?

Me: “Great, thanks. Gernard?”

GC: “It’s fine. I’m not trying to win any beauty contests.”

Me: “But you would, ya know.”

GC: “You got my credit card?”

Me: “Never leave home without it.”

We pay, we leave. Katherine tells us it usually takes two weeks, but promises to rush the job.

I’m an asshole, so I point at GC and say: “Some jobs are rushier than others.”

On the drive home, Gernard asks: “Would your mother like a taco?”

Me: “I’ll bet she would, but I’m going to buy her a doughnut instead.”

Home. I slide him into his Big Chair. The outing has exhausted him. 90 minutes start to finish, 8 chair transfers, and mostly his job was just to look at things. His eyes close.

Me: “How about you take a nap now.”

GC: “Great idea.”

Me: “Well, I AM a smart one, ya know.”

~

Epilogue: The rush job worked. We received the glasses one week later. We take them home. He tries them on.

Me: “Can you see?”

GC: “No, not really.”

Me: “Would you like a malted?”

GC: “That’s not a very good question.”

Long pause.

GC: “Of course I’d like a malted.”

~~~

Eye Exam, Part 2

From the collection “This Gernard” by Erin Waugh, 18 February 2020

Eye Exam, Part 1 – The Name

GC leaned his head back in his easy chair (“the big chair”). He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

Me: “What?”

GC: “I can’t see.”

Me: “Your hand is in the way. And maybe your eyelids.”

He sat up, methodically unfolded his glasses, slid them onto his face, brushing his fingers along the side piece over each ear. Perfectly right.

GC: “When I put my glasses on correctly and look at the TV, I can’t see it.”

Me: “It’s just Jim Cramer yelling at you about which stocks you didn’t buy.”

GC: “So in order to see, I have to slide my glasses way down my nose and then it hurts and I can’t breathe.”

Me: “Breathing is one of the top 3 or 4 things you need to do today.”

So I call Pearle Vision. I tell them I have a fragile patient in a wheelchair who cannot sit in the waiting room for any length of time, lest there be a scene. And a headline. I talk to a Katherine on the phone.

Katherine at Pearle: “Well, listen, honey. You bring your daddy in when the doctor is on lunch break. We’re less busy then.”

Me: “What time does the doctor go to lunch?”

Katherine at Pearle: “From 2:30 to 4:00.”

Me: “What is he, a banker??” (Okay, not out loud.)  

I wrap up my father in his coat, hat, and gloves, and lift him up into my car. He only weighs 17 pounds, so this is doable for me, although it’s scary for him.

GC: “Momentum,” he reminds me, “is a bitch.”

Me: “I know, GC. I will not let you fall. I have a nearly 100% record of not dropping important people.”

GC mutters: “Nearly.”

Me: “Important.”

We pull up to the strip mall, I jump out the driver’s side, and lift the transport chair out of the hatch of my SUV. It weighs more than my father. I unfold it beside the passenger door. I unbuckle his seat belt and yell at him.

Me: “Don’t you dare fall, old man. Your wife will fire me.”

I wheel him up the sidewalk, his bent, capped head slicing a chill swath under the awnings of Ulta Beauty and Famous Footwear. I open the heavy, non-automated door at Pearle, hold it open against the freeze with my not-famous foot, whisper “Bump” to my patient, and gadump him inside the eye place.

Katherine at Pearle finally notices us, which is understandable since we’re so quiet.

Katherine: “You must be Mister Way!” She fawns. She is lovely.

Me: “Waugh. It’s pronounced ‘Waugh.’ Rhymes with ‘law,’ spelled like ‘laugh.’”

Katherine: “Mister Waugh! I am so delighted you could make it in today.” She is laying it on thick, and I am grateful. Her perfume is a welcome distraction. She turns her kindness towards me. “And you are?”

Me: “Erin. Erin Waugh. His daughter, care-giver, and comic relief.”

Katherine turns the full force of her makeup and red sweater on my dad: “And your first name is Bernard?”

Me: “Gernard. His first name is Gernard.”

Katherine squints just a little, not wanting to break character. But almost nobody can keep a straight face.

Me: “Yeah, I don’t know either.”

My father’s last name is WAUGH. Not special, but not terrible. A solid Irish/Welsh name, one syllable. Rhymes with ‘law,’ spelled like ‘laugh.’ Despite its near absence of consonant punch, it does not clutter up a conversation with any sense of needing to be examined. More complicated to spell than to say. It is only difficult to pronounce when drunk. (So I’ve heard.) “Waugh” packs no poetic thump, but neither does it belabor its room-temperature sense of importance. “Gernard” on the other hand… Yeah, I don’t know either.

His middle name is CARSON. A solid northern European name, it was the surname of my grandmother. His mother’s last name was Carson. Common but proud consonants, the sibilant fricatives bitten off by the teeth of Irish farmers and spit into the soil to grow even prouder potatoes.

But GERNARD… It’s pronounced “Gurr-nerd.” “Gurr” like a growling bear (which he never is), and “nerd” like a geek (which he always is). The name is not difficult to say, it’s just difficult to read off paper. It also lands on the ear like an attack. Or a joke. What I see on people’s faces when he introduces himself is “What? Your mother named you GERNARD?”

She did. My father was born in 1936, when a “ladies swimming costume” cost $6.95. That same year, as my grandmother was walking to and from church, heavy with child, she stopped and stared at a movie poster tacked up in the window of the Moving Picture Shows. It was a stylized photograph of a simmering blonde, blue-eyed actor-man sweating in some kind of uniform. Printed on the poster was the exotic (He was probably German!) name of the actor: GERNARD. My grandmother swears the actor-man’s name was Gernard and that she “just liked it.” (Uh huh.)

Actually, my grandmother swears nothing of the kind. The story of “Where did you get the name ‘Gernard’?” is a complete mystery, yet somewhere in the back of my memories, of grown-ups playing cards downstairs late at night (7:00pm) at my grandparents’ farmhouse, this story bubbled. Somewhere between somebody slapping the cards down and somebody else clapping his dentures: “Gott-DAMN-it, Margaret. Why would you trump my ace??”I heard this story from the attic bedrooms where all the kids “slept” and punched each other.

No matter HOW he got the name, I, as any daughter, could take as my birthright the opportunity to simply refer to him as “dad.” But I don’t. I call him Gernard, or, as I tell many of his nurses, especially the “English is a second or fourth suggestion of a language,’ just call him GC. It’s easier to spell.

I also call my mother “Judith” because that’s her name. Sometimes “Jude,” never Judy. I only call her “mom” when I am disappointed in her behavior and have to send her to her room to put on a nice face. “Mom, we are out of ice cream. This is bullshit.”

Is it disrespectful to call your parents by their first names? Jeeze, I hope not. I’ve been doing it for decades. And they haven’t fired me yet.

Back to the eye place.

Katherine of Pearle: “So, Mister Waugh.”

GC: “You can call me Gernard.”

Katherine: “Not with a straight face.” (She doesn’t say that.)

Katherine: “What seems to be the trouble?”

As before, my father describes his challenge: “When I put my glasses on correctly, I can’t see. So in order to see, I have to slide my glasses way down my nose and then it hurts and I can’t breathe.”

Katherine: “You’re going to need an eye exam.”

Me: “Can we do that today?”

Katherine chirps: “Nope! You’ll have to come back.”

Me: “Cool. We got nothing better to do.”

GC: “I’m retired.”

Me: “Me neither.”

~~~

“Eye Exam, Part 1 – The Name” by Erin Waugh, from the collection “This Gernard.” 4 February 2020  

Sweet, Sweet Breakfast

Sweet, Sweet Breakfast by Erin Waugh

Me: “What do you want for breakfast?”

My father: “What do you have?”

We’ve got breakfast figured out. Swallowing has become a serious challenge for my father. And it turns out that swallowing is one of the more pleasant ways to get food inside you. (There are others, but they are fetish-y and gross unless you’re into that.) Science has proven that if you don’t eat some calories, you will die from malnutrition, if you don’t first kill yourself because your daughter won’t stop talking.  

Me: “We have pancakes, French toast, eggs…”

GC: “How about soup?”                                                                                                 

Me: “Of course we have soup, but I was kind of saving that for supper. So, do you want pancakes, eggs, or French toast?”

GC: “Cream of Wheat.” 

My father only eats two meals a day: Second Breakfast and O.P. Supper. First Breakfast is a symphony of meds delivered orally (there is a god) in pill form, handi-haler, and liquid. This pharmacopeia is followed by rinsing out the mouth and spitting into a bucket. Him, too.

 Me: “Do you want that with heavy cream and brown sugar, or butter and maple syrup?”

The initial hospice nurse who came to our house to teach us how to live under the yawning awning of hospice regaled us with her well-rehearsed advices. “Sleep well, drink water, stay off the hookers.” When she got to the diet part, she added, “And you should restrict yourself to…” Then she looked at him. Really LOOKED at him. I don’t know what he weighed in the Before Time, but now he was about 42 pounds. He was tiny as a Lollypop Kid. He was barely a lollypop. “You can eat anything you want.”

Me: “What do you want for breakfast?”

Gernard: “Got any cream?”

Me: “Shall I drench something with it?”

Bingo. Substitute maple syrup where applicable. The hookers love it.

~~~

From “This Gernard” by Erin Waugh, 31 January 2020

Cashing the Checks

“Cashing the Checks”

by Erin Waugh, 01/28/2020

Took my father to the bank to cash his check. Actually, we were cashing TWO checks, one for my mom and one for my dad. If you’re reading this, you are a creature of the internet, and you will recall that ATM’s were introduced before Elvis’s passed-out belly had to be peeled off his typewriter, but none of that risky ATM digital tomfoolery for my folks. Checks must be CASHED. At BANKS. In PERSON. The checks had been delivered in the mail, another ancient ritual wherein a government agency hoists up a pony, puts a check in its teeth, and then slaps it on the flank. (“Slapping the flank” has promoted many an intern.)

Now keep in mind that right now my father cannot walk without great assistance. So cashing checks in person requires a college degree in Old People Transport. With a properly-aimed squirt of WD-40 and a backhoe, I got him in my car. I did not let him drive. I’m sensitive like that.

I drove us to the bank. My father DID allow us to drive-through instead of having to waddle and lurch into the lobby, although drive-through is only available during banker’s hours (approximately 11:00am – 12:30pm), so we collected our Go Bags and left the house after Second Breakfast. Both checks were signed by both my parents, and I had possession of both of my parents’ drivers licenses, one of which they might actually use some day. I pulled into the open bank lane, unbuckled my seatbelt, performed several yoga poses so I could reach the container, and popped the checks and the licenses into the vacuum tube. The tube shot up through a Willy Wonka life’s lesson and into the hands of a bank teller.

I rolled my window down in the cold to be polite. “Hello!” I smiled through the distance and the Plexi-glass. The teller smiled back, examined the documents, verified that she understood what I wanted, and said, “I’ll have this ready for you in just a minute.” I smiled back, rolled up my window since my politeness was done, and watched a crow pick Wendy’s fries out of a dumpster.

“Hello?” I heard the bank talking again. I rolled down my window, and turned on the charm. “Yes?” The teller looked down and the checks she was fingering and inquired: “Do you have either of them with you?” She couldn’t see my father in the passenger seat as he was tiny and cold and blocked from the teller’s view by my ego. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Gernard, she needs to know you’re here.”

My dad leaned forward and raised his right hand. It was limited in its reach by the handcuff that restricted both wrists. He sort of clanked and waved with both hands because he is polite all the time. He couldn’t really articulate his presence, as the duct tape over his mouth precluded decent conversation. The seat belt kept him from leaping out of the car altogether, as it was additionally secured by padlocks and fire ants.

“Okay, thanks, Gernard. Nice to see you again,” the teller smiled. Two minutes later I counted the money out loud to him, cursing because the bills were too clean and I had run out of spit.

True fact: every paragraph is accurate except one.

~~~

From “This Gernard” by Erin Waugh 28 January 2020

To Xfinity and Beyond

 

To Xfinity and Beyond — by Erin “E-flat” Waugh 

“Welcome back!”

Robert hailed me as I jauntily lilted into the Xfinity store. It was the second time in two days. (Not the lilting. I do that a lot. It throws them off the scent.) A good beginning, I thought. Robert remembers me. This will be a superior customer service experience.

My cell phone carrier was AT&T. I wanted to switch. I had been hoping to take advantage of Xfinity’s promotion offer which they so generously mailed to me. (Printed. On paper. Why bother with email just because you’re an internet company?) The promotion claimed that I could have unlimited talk, text, and data for just $45 a month. Plus if I acted now, I would receive a $200 prepaid VISA card. (I know this because they had glued a fake “credit card” to the inside of their tri-fold. NOT REDEEMABLE FOR CASH.) But because I’m an idiot, I got in my car and grinned like a well-fed pig in a greased killing chute. (JUST LIKE RICHARD GERE’S HAMSTER.) Sorry. Cheap joke. Cue gravity.

Yesterday I lilted into the Xfinity store with my full-color brochure and my too-bright smile, and handed the iPhone in question to Robert. He rubbed his fingers over my Otter Box. (Another cheap joke. I’m almost sorry this time.) He stared at it without changing a thing, as if he were new to this sort of Rubik’s Cube.

I asked him all the pertinent questions. “Are there any switching fees? How about unseen costs?  Will you do the ass fucking yourself or is that outsourced?” Robert shook his head and smiled crookedly. (No pun intended.)

Robert: “I’m sorry, I can’t switch you today. You have to contact AT&T and have the phone unlocked first.”

Me: “But it’s MY phone!”

Robert laughed. “You’re deluding yourself.”

(Okay, he didn’t really say that. Robert was not that clever. What he DID do was hand me my phone back and tell me to come back tomorrow if I got it unlocked. If. His lack of confidence forced me to write more cheap jokes.)

I promptly drove home and begged AT&T to release me from their proprietary handcuffs. It was a ten-step process of verification and approval, only three of which involved animal sacrifice. (I know it was ten because I ate a Werther’s at every step and now I have the beetus.) AT&T promised they would declare a verdict within two business days. I’m sure it was the best they could do since they were (as one friend put it) so busy hemorrhaging customers. I throat-cut a pygmy goat and a slaughtered a cheese wheel to ensure a bountiful harvest. (There were no virgins available.)

That was yesterday. Today was the tomorrow that Robert promised me yesterday. I’m still sore.

Robert: “Welcome back!” This is where we started. “You ready to switch?”

Me: “I am so ready! Will you buy me dinner first?”

I handed my phone to Robert. He gave it back to me and told me to enter my passcode. I poked it into the phone. He requested my full social security number. I said it out loud. He asked me if this was my real hair color, so I kneed him in the groin. Just kidding! I gave him my child. (WHO IS COMPLETELY A NATURAL BLONDE.)

Fully verified now, Robert scrolled through my settings, and something in the room changed. He blinked hard. His eyes darted left and right. I could see him calculating whether he could beat me to the door.

Robert: “Wait. This an iPhone 8?”

Me: “Um, yes?”

Robert closed his eyes and deflated on his stool. He may have wet himself.

Robert: “Our system is not compatible with anything newer than an iPhone 6.”

Me: “And you knew this yesterday.”

Robert: “Well, only since January.”

This time I blinked hard. And maybe wet myself. Out of my eyes.

I tapped what was now junk mail. “Does it say that anywhere in this brochure?”

Robert: “No. But it doesn’t not say it.”

We stared at each other. I leaned in close and whispered: “How is this fucking possible?”

I really said that. Even though I was using my inside assassin voice, my mother could hear me. “Erin, NO!”

Robert: “This is totally my fault. I should have asked yesterday.”

Inside my head: “YA THINK??” Outside my head: “YA THINK??” I wrote another cheap joke about pushing up his stool.

Wait, it gets better…

I asked Robert to tell me where in the settings it says that it’s an iPhone 8.

Robert: “Oh it doesn’t say that anywhere in the settings.”

(Stay with me… We’re almost done…)

Me: “Then how did you know it was an iPhone 8?”

He flipped the phone over with confidence and tapped the center Apple logo. It was almost a lilt.

Robert: “I can just tell. This phone has a glass backing. The 6’s and 7’s don’t have this backing.”

(Wait for it…)

Me: “Did this same iPhone have that same glass backing YESTERDAY when you fondled it and told me to come back?”

Next time, I will find a virgin. It has to be easier.

4 May 2018, Erin  “E-flat” Waugh

True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat

 

 

A Starfish in Benton Harbor

I met a starfish yesterday. I mean, she was a girl, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The starfish was behind a hipster bathroom door when I met her. The door was cold and heavy and industrial, and the starfish was a complete mystery. She was also crying. No, she was sobbing. She was a stranger. I guess we both were.

The starfish and I were in the bathroom of a trendy place. I just came in to pee. It’s what I do. I drink a lot of… of everything, and therefore I urinate. Everywhere. Well, not everywhere. I am rather fond of American plumbing where fluids are focused, and bathrooms are where I go, so to speak.

Anyway, I was eating Old People supper in a place I didn’t really belong. Too young, too hip. But, damn, the hummus was killer.  These kids can cook. This particular trendy place called this appetizer “Loaded Hummus” and it came with a bunch of those…what do call them…. VEGETABLES. Tri-colored carrots, bi-curious peppers, LGBT celery. Wasted on me. All I want with hummus is bread. And maybe a straw. O.P. Supper is at 5:00 o’clock. Old People eat early. And sometimes they pee.

Fine. They pee a lot.

The waitress’s name was Kelly. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, and everyone around me was Irish. Even if they weren’t. I had walked  up some brick stairs in the middle of the afternoon to a sort of restaurant, because that’s what Old People  do.

I say “sort of” because the restaurant had a menu, but a very confusing service. I am old. I am used to a Denny’s rhythm. I go in, I sit down, somebody brings me water, somebody takes my order. But that’s not what happens in trendy places. You go in, you sit down, and people ignore you. That’s the new math.

After 10 or a thousand minutes, I finally walked up to the bar, where Kelly told me I could have anything I wanted, as long as it was micro-brewed beer. What I wanted was ice water and vodka. In separate glasses. Kelly dispensed my water from a McDonald’s cooler. (I wish I were making this up.) Vodka was not on the menu. Kelly said, “Do you want food?” I said yes, not knowing that eating would actually get me in trouble.

Kelly the waitress brought me ice water. Kelly the waitress was wearing a green shirt. Kelly the waitress knew I had a wallet. It’s really the only reason I was allowed to be in there. And then I went to the ladies’ room. See above.

A voice from behind the trendy iron door: “I loaned him 50 bucks.”

Me: “Okay.”

The voice: “I’m sorry. Do you need the handicap stall? I’m just in here crying.”

Me: “I’m not THAT old.”

I said some gentle but irrelevant things to the stranger in the confessional. I left the ladies’ room having pissed away an opportunity for kindness, so to speak. I walked back to my table to eat my mac and cheese and drink a glass of boxed wine. I waited for the starfish to come out, knowing that we weren’t done.

The starfish exited the industrial cage. She was young. She was wearing an expensive coat and cheap shoes. Someone had cared for her at one time. The starfish sat at a cold, dark table and poked at her phone. She cried some more, and then she left the trendy brick place.

I ate all the hummus. I did not eat all the mac. I sort of suck at restaurants.

I paid my bill and left. I got in my car and started to drive home. (I have a car. It’s paid for. And insured.) And there she was, the starfish, on a street in front of a dead building, playing with her phone. Trendy places are not always in great parts of towns. This particular brick warehouse with the great hummus and the bad wine was in the center of a shitty dying city. I pulled my car (I have a car) into an abandoned parking lot. I got out of my car. (I have a car.) I walked around to the front of the dead building where the Starfish was thumbing her bloodless phone.

I walked up to her and said “Hey,” because I’m creative like that. The Starfish was frightened. She is, after all, street people. Street people distrust folks like me with haircuts and credit cards. Her eyes got big and she began her escape.

Me: “Don’t run!”

The Starfish turned toward me. She was beautiful, despite the cigarette. Blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect skin. Thin, under a knit cap. Too beautiful for this much sadness.

Me: “I just want you to have a good night.”

I handed her two 20s and a 10. Just like the stupid guy who ruined her day. Her year. Her life.

She cried some more. Her tears were pretty, pretty in the way of young people.

Me: “I heard you in the bathroom.”

Starfish: “Kelly was mean to me.”

Me: “Okay.”

Starfish: “All I wanted was a bowl of soup. Maybe half a bowl of soup. But she wouldn’t do it.”

Me: “Kelly was busy. It wasn’t personal.”

She looked down at the folding money I’d handed her. Her tears fell on the sidewalk. She couldn’t even hit the cash, even though we were trying to write a movie.

Starfish: “What’s your name?”

It didn’t matter what my name was, but it was Saint Patrick’s Day, and this was poetry.

Me: “Erin.”

She nodded. And cried some more.

Me: “What’s yours?”

Starfish: “Meagan. My name is Meagan.”

Me: “Of course it is.”

She leaned in for the hug. It lasted too long.

Me: “I just want you to have a good night.”

And I got in my car and drove home. To my house. Where I have a house.

One day an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with starfish, millions of starfish dying on the sand, washed up by the high tide.

As he walked, the old man came upon a young boy who was bending down and throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

The old man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I’m saving these starfish, sir. They are drowning in the sun.”

The old man scowled, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you possibly make?”

The boy picked up another starfish, tossed it into the water, and smiled at the man. “I made a difference to that one.”

Erin Waugh, 19 March 2017, “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat.”

 

Wildlife (Wild! Life!) Aquarium

Maybe 15 years ago my son Vince and I were taking a nature walk in the spring time, and I decided that “we” would make ourselves a local-wildlife aquarium. “We” were going to create a teachable moment! Vince said something like, “Okay.”

I scooped up about two gallons of Southeast Michigan pond water and poured it into an aquarium. I set the tank on a ledge in our garage. The pond water contained some green things, some brown things, and some things that looked like rice. (We didn’t have internet then, so I have no idea.) Here is what I’m sure of: there were minnows, tadpoles, and crayfish. (Or “crawfish” if you’re from elsewhere.)

I watched the aquarium every day. The minnows swam, the tadpoles wriggled, and the crayfish… I don’t know what the crayfish were doing. In retrospect, I guess they were lying in wait.

I was enchanted. I pointed out fins and gills and claws to my educationally-hungry child, and he said, “Okay.”

It was springtime, so eventually the tadpoles did what tadpoles do: they sprouted. Here’s what you might not know: tadpoles always pop their back legs out first. And they are so cute! I showed my son. I said, “Isn’t nature beautiful? This here is the meaning of life. Wait ‘til you see what happens next!” He said, “Okay.”

The crayfish began to vibrate and ascend. They ninja-swam their way up from the bottom of the tank, and snapped the back legs off the tadpoles. I blinked. The tadpoles did not. (No eyelids.)

And the tadpoles, being the warriors that they were, kept trying. (To morph, not to blink.) They would think real hard with their eyes open (you remember why), then they would sprout new back legs. Pop! And the crayfish would, you guessed it, not blink either. Oh, snap.

This happened over and over again. The crayfish kept snapping the legs off the tadpoles, then diving to the bottom to  eat their nibbles and gloat. (“Nibbles and Gloat” sounds like a band name from the 80s.) The tadpoles never turned into frogs or toads or princes. (I don’t know. No internet, remember?) It was my obligation as an educator to show my baby boy the killing fields, and he said, “HAHAHA!” See? We all learned something.

Anyway, the point of the story is that tadpole nubbins should be eaten fresh. Try them with a side of irony.

 

Erin Waugh – “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat”
4 April 2017

“Where Does It Hurt?”

 

Me: “Hey, Tweak.”

Tweak: “Hey.”

Her bones barely rattle. Tweak is a matted meatloaf on the couch.

Me: “You’re not feeling too good.”

Tweak: “I’m not feeling too well either.”

No, not a meatloaf — a baby bird. A drooling, anorexic sparrow.

Me: “Really? You’re going to go all ‘Grammar Nazi’ on me in your dying days??”

Tweak: “Am I dying?”

Long silence. In the last two weeks Tweak has lost one-third of her body weight. She has stopped grooming. She no longer eats.

Me: “I don’t know.” I pick at my mac and cheese.

Blood tests show that Tweak is not suffering from organ failure. Yet.

Me: “I bought you some Fancy Feast.”

Tweak: “Fancy Feast can suck my dick.”

A vet has confirmed that something is very wrong with Tweak, but they don’t know what.

Me: “Talking nasty is not going to put the weight on.”

Tweak nods at my hips. “You sure?”

I lean into the barb, take it like a gift. The point twists in my heart and flips my smile over. Caregiver’s schizophrenia.

Me: “You want some cream?”

Tweak: “No. Not right now.”

Me: “Oh, Tweak…”

I stab at my pasta, then throw it in the garbage.

Me: “Where does it hurt?”

Tweak: “Just point.”

A gentle, underpaid veterinarian with a smile as big as her student loans will sedate Tweak in the morning, and then poke around until she finds something she can fix. Or not.

Me: “I wish you could talk.”

Tweak: “Me, too.”

 

To be continued…

 

5 October 2016, Tolerating Tweak

 

My deflated sphinx.
My deflated sphinx.

The Hand That Bites You

SPOILER: no chimpanzees were harmed in the making of this true story. Not by me, anyway.

When I was a kid, I was really smart. DON’T WORRY! It’s all gone now. In my later years I have replaced intellect with cleverness and great hair, which is not nearly as useful, but it does make me popular.

But when I was young, I was kind of swirly bright. I was not a genius; I could not build a clock out of a potato, but I was always skewed right on the bell curve. In fact, until I reached the age of hormonal unreason (“Nice asymptote!”), I hung with the gifted kids. I was also a mess. (“Heh. She said ‘hung.’”) I was skewed right, but I was also skewed wrong.

Every morning was a frazzled scramble. I dug my favorite shirt out from under a box of cake mix which I stashed under my bed. (Everybody ate dry cake mix out of the box with a spoon, right? Yellow cake mix? My sister preferred chocolate.) Wet hair, favorite shirt, get on the bus.

Or not. Many days I took a detour. (Many.) To the woods to explore, or to the bowling alley to smoke. And once I could drive? My attendance was a disaster. I was a skilled truant. My senior year alone I ditched something like 30 days of school. (I had discovered boys by this time. And cigarettes.) My mother had to request special permission from the principal to allow me to graduate. (9th in my class. I’m telling ya, I used to have brains under this great hair.)

The only time I didn’t get an ‘A’ was when I refused to turn in my work, which was all the time. I didn’t bring my tennis shoes to gym. Or I “forgot” to cut out glossy photos of Pop Tarts for my grapefruit decoupage. When I DID finally show up for class, and teachers gleefully chastised me for not doing the stupid work, I lowered my lashes and I took the verbal beating with angelic solemnity. “You’re right, Miss Crone. I am a horrible person.” I was very good at being yelled at.

And I was cute. This never hurts, and it makes instructors feel a little sorry for you because maybe if you would just TRY a little HARDER you could BE somebody. I got an ‘A’ in ignoring them.

Highlights of my rebellion:

1. My peers voted me “Most Likely to Succeed.” On the day they voted, I was skipping school.

2. I won a vocal competition for a song I never rehearsed. The prize was voice lessons, which I never collected.

3. 10th grade English: remember Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”? It’s a perky little tale about a village that thins the herd once a year by choosing which citizen will get stoned to death by way of a lottery. The lucky cretin who draws the ballot with the black dot gets relieved of their ability to stay alive because their friends throw rocks at them until they stop screaming. Well, I thought it would be hilarious to show Miss Crone (our English teacher) how sophisticated our collective sense of humor was by placing a black dot on her desk that said “From your 4th period English class.” It was funny! She was chosen! All my classmates supported me in this “joke.” Except for one (or thirty) who apparently ratted me out because the next day Miss Crone plucked me from the hallway, poked her talon in my face, and screeched: “ I HAD YOU PEGGED FOR A MUCH NICER GIRL!” I lowered my eyes and said, “Yeah. I’m really not.”

4. 9th grade art class: the teacher brought in several taxidermied mammals for us to sketch. I drew a rabbit. It was very lifelike. The art piece won a gold medal at competition. I had sketched the bunny snuggled in a coffin with a nail driven into his head. I named the work “A Short Easter.” I was 14.

Skewed wrong, but smart enough to hang with some actual geniuses. Read on.

A few of the bright kids attended science symposiums. I had no idea what a “symposium” was, but man, could I ever play along to collect the story! Our Biology Teacher seemed to have an endless energy for the advancement of our shrewd vigor, so she manufactured reasons for us to gather and talk about next-level geek stuff. Mrs. Biology Teacher quizzed us in prep for our “Academic Challenge” appearance on television. (I was terrible on the show, but my dress was fabulous.) If we didn’t know the answers to her trivia questions, we were supposed to go to the library and look them up. (I never did find out who invented the zipper.) And she escorted us to symposiums where we listened to presentations by other smart kids and pretended to understand.

Okay, I pretended. I won’t speak for the geniuses. At least one of them went on to be an actual rocket scientist. I was in rarefied company.

Here’s what I DID learn about symposiums: science can hurt you.

After two days of listening to nerd lectures, Mrs. Biology asked us if we wanted to stop at an exotic pet store. Hell yeah, we wanted to stop at an exotic pet store! We were 16 years old. We might have had the brains of a German think tank, but we possessed the emotional fortitude of a basket of pandas. Mrs. Biology and us geeks walked into the pet store like immigrants at a Costco — wide-eyed and unbelieving. Row after row of lizards, snakes, and tarantulas. Cages of flannel pigs, braided marmots, and cotton-blend lemurs, all within our reach. Actually, I have no idea what kind of animals they were, because the entire visit has been blocked out by what happened next.

The pet shop owner, a greasy man in a golf shirt, leaned in close and exhaled a Marlboro at us: “You kids want to meet Dennis?”

I didn’t know what Dennis was, but hell yeah, I wanted to meet Dennis.

Mr. Pet Shop spit-pasted a strand of comb-over down one ear and disappeared into a back room. When he came back, he was holding hands with a chimpanzee.

Every one of my 16 years whimpered.

Dennis was not all that great by chimp standards. His fur was a patchy quilt of mange. Clumps of hair were missing as if he had either won or lost several fights, possibly this morning. He was wearing a diaper over his hips which waddled painfully in the way of all upright circus animals. His teeth were dark, probably from tobacco.

But he was HERE. Right here in front of us. Right here in front of ME.

As Mr. Pet Shop walked Dennis closer to us, I could smell both feces and dried fruit. I’m not sure who it was from.

Mr. Pet Shop: “Would you like to shake Dennis’s hand?” The cigarette twitched between his lips.

Hell yeah, I wanted to shake Dennis’s hand.

Mr. Pet Shop: “Just hold out your hand like you normally would, and Dennis will shake it.” Ashes dropped onto his shirt.

I may have elbowed the geniuses out of my way, because suddenly I was at the front. I raised my hand like I normally would. Dennis raised his. Our fingers brushed, primate to primate. Dennis smiled at me. Then he bit me. Hard.

The back of my hand was on fire. This dirty little monkey had bitten my hand! He didn’t break the skin, but he could have. Easily. The strength-to-size ratio of a chimp is… some really big number. And this filthy little shit-flinger had just used all of it against me. Against ME! Did he not realize that I was smart? And cute??

Despite the humility of his droopy diaper and Mr. Pet Shop’s nightly gropes, Dennis was taking the upper hand, so to speak. Dennis was demonstrating his superiority in the only way he could – by greeting my bones with his teeth. Dennis was telling me that I could take my “Most Likely to Succeed” trophy and shove it up my carpal tunnel. So I hit him with a box of cake mix.

Erin Waugh 25 March 2016, True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat

[NOTE: Every word of this story is absolutely true except the last sentence. I don’t actually remember what happened after Dennis bit me. I probably cried and crumpled to the floor whereupon the geniuses scooped me back into the car and invented the Internet on the ride home.]

"Academic Challenge" (Nerd TV, 1977)
“Academic Challenge” (Nerd TV, 1977)

 

“Behind Open Doors”

 

behind open doors

 

Tweak: “Is that snow on the deck?”

Me: “No, it’s just a sparkly mine field of my frozen tears.”

Tweak: “I want to walk on it.”

Me: “No, you don’t. You just want me to slide the door open six inches so you can stand in the crack and revel in how much heat you’re wasting.”

Tweak: “And then I remember about my princess feet.”

 

We both stare at the icy deck.

 

Tweak: “Carry me?”

Me: “Bite me.”

Tweak: “I’ll sing Adele.”

Me: “You wouldn’t dare.”

Tweak: “I’ll sing Adele singing ‘Frozen.’”

Me: “Don’t test me.”

Tweak: “Hello.”

Me: “My New Year’s Resolution was to exorcise more.”

Tweak: “Let it go.”

Me: “Like projectile pea soup.”

 

17 January 2016, “Tolerating Tweak”