Category Archives: True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat

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

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)

 

The Woman and her Husband at the Carwash

I pull into the carwash. The woman waves me in. I roll down my window and hand her a five-dollar bill.

She pulls out a single from her flannel shirt and leans towards me: “I’ve always wanted to ask you. What’s that word on your front license plate?”

I look back and forth between the woman and her husband, who is scrubbing my grill with a brush. The woman is about 60, her husband is 65. A car wash costs $4. Between the two of them, they have maybe 7 teeth. If this were an algebra story problem, you would just be sad.

Me: “Oh. On my license plate? The front one? The word is ‘SCRIVENER.’”

These two people are very kind.

Me: “It means ‘writer.’”

The woman tucks my fiver into her jacket, which doesn’t completely zip at the bottom: “It means what??”

And they work hard.

Me: “It means ‘writer.’ You know, like…” I make the universal motion of scratching a quill onto parchment. I am smiling. I can’t take my eyes off her two bottom teeth.

Her husband picks up a long-handled wand: “What does it mean?”

The woman raises her voice above the water: “IT MEANS ‘WRITER.’”

He shrugs and power-sprays my front tires.

The woman flicks some switches on the wall: “Is it German?”

Me: “No, it’s a fancy old English word, like the word ‘scribe’? To write?” I make the pen motion again. “But it is originally from the Latin.”

The woman and her husband are both wearing ragged jeans that are thin at the knees, rescued coats, and knit hats. It is October in Michigan. The sun is shining, but it’s cold outside, maybe 40 degrees.

The woman: “Is that what you do? You’re a writer?”

Me: “I, uh… Yes. I’m a writer.”

Her husband carefully lifts up each windshield wiper and finger-sweeps the autumn leaves that are stuck underneath. His hands are not gloved, the knuckles red and raw. I don’t reach for my lotion.

The woman: “Well, I seen you here a lotta times and I wondered what that word meant.”

I tip them $10. It is both too much and not enough, but my car will be dirty again. Soon.

 

Erin Waugh, 18 October 2015, “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat.”

 

A Kid in a Candy Store

“LET’S GO TO THE CANDY STORE!”

I don’t know who said it first. Any one of us three kids, maybe. My family was on vacation up north, in a cottage. It could have been a subliminal suggestion implanted by a neighbor who was sick to death of us behaving like children (gasp!) while he sat on his front porch being old. And by “subliminal” I mean “yelling.”

There were actually four kids in all. I was 10, my sister Tracey (8), my brother Brennen (5), and my brother Curt (3). I was the oldest; I have always been the oldest (!) so I could never escape that quirky little birthright of being “in charge.” As you will see, the limits of my shepherding skills maxed out at “Maybe candy will stop him from dying like that.”

Only three of us will take the pilgrimage to the candy store. (Curt was too “baby.”) Three kids will leave on this journey; one will be carried home. This is a story about thirst. It is a story about Lik•m•aid. It is a story about the miracle that any child manages to survive to the age of reproduction. I bet Darwin liked candy.

We were regular folk. My family was as ordinary as a Pez dispenser. Mom, dad, four kids. My father was an engineer at Chevy; my mother was the engineer of our household. My father designed systems that made a car go; my mother packed automobiles with cargo. (I’m sorry. It’s my upbringing. Plus I’m full of Smarties.)

It was the late 1960s. We lived in Detroit just south of Eight Mile Road. We were area code 3-1-3 before it was rap-worthy. My father had been transferred from Flint, Michigan, (where we all were born) to Detroit, Michigan, (where one of us nearly dies). It was practically the law that families had to live in a red brick ranch on a paved street. Perspective is a convenient trick of childhood. The house was tiny, but it felt enormous, roomy enough to sponsor the chaos. We ate Wonder Bread and threw Jarts. We drank Kool-Aid and crashed bikes into trees. We walked to public school, lost our shit when the ice cream man jingled by, and tripped our brothers when nobody was looking. There was a park down the street. It was the law.

The houses were all alike, but the people were a kaleidoscope — diverse bins of color and flavor. My “boyfriend” was Latino. Curt went to a Jewish nursery school. Tracey and I swam in our black friends’ backyard pool. Our neighbors were smokers and athletes. Our neighbors were teetotalers and wine-makers. Our neighbors were Sabbath-keepers who made kosher sausage in their kitchens. They were Catholics in plaid and Protestants in orange. There was a “special” young man who frequently escaped his house, naked, screaming that his mother was trying to beat him with a belt. She wasn’t. Or maybe she was.

One time my brother Brennen asked if his new friend Valentine could come over and play.

“Of course,” answered my mother. (Everybody came to our house. We have always had what I call a “Kool-Aid House.” You pour it, they will come.) “But are you sure that’s his name? Valentine?” My mother was both reasonable and open to absurdity.

Brennen, with the appalled confidence of a four-year-old: “Yes. His name is Valentine.”

When “Valentine” finally came over to race Hot Wheels and eat graham crackers, my mother asked him his name.

“Cervantes,” said the kid.

“Okay,” my mom nodded. “You can call him ‘Valentine.’” The kid agreed, then ate a Popsicle.

—————————————–

And now we were on vacation. If you lived in Michigan in the 1960s and your dad worked for one of the automakers, it was also some kind of law that you went “up north” for vacation. People packed enormous suitcases into enormous cars and drove north to experience even more colors, more flavors, and more deprivation. “Let’s drive someplace where everything is just harder to accomplish.” That seemed to be the main purpose of going up north. The ride took 3 to 20 hours depending on how long your toddler could “hold it.” Kids fought over the “way back” in the station wagon so they could be further from mother-hands. In a regular sedan, we laid Curt up in the rear window. He hardly ever burned to death.

“Up north” for us meant “The Cottage.” The Cottage was a long, low ranch house in northern Michigan owned by my grandparents. The Cottage was unoccupied all year except during the summer. (SUMMER!! As a kid, summer in was all caps. Rare and magical as a LEPRECHAUN!!)

In the spring, The Cottage had to be o-p-e-n-e-d. The Opening of The Cottage was a mysterious and complex ceremony involving wrenches and wizardry. Every June my grandmother would welcome us to The Cottage with wild hair and a lavish hug even as she dismissed the box of (apparently) torture implements in the corner. “Well,” she would mutter, glancing at the hammer and the bible, “we had to open the house.” This was sometimes followed by a shot of scotch and a “Mother Mary full of grace,” or whatever German Lutherans whispered. My grandmother was a good German Lutheran who believed in the power of smiling and sorcery, which she practiced in equal measure alongside prayer and hard work. And cooking enormous pots of cabbage. And chicken. And lots and lots of love. I never actually witnessed “the opening of the house.” I assume it included sauerkraut.

The cottage had three bedrooms, a fireplace for heating, and a rabbit-eared TV that only played the news. Occasionally the weather.  (“Shhh…! The weather!”) The kitchen was so small that only one adult or two children could fit in there at any one time. My sister and I banged up our shins and elbows just to wash dishes. (Okay, that’s what we told our parents. Mostly Tracey just beat me up.) I’m kidding! (She made me say that.)

Across the street was Cedar Lake where we swam, waterskied, and held our breath under water. For encouragement, we pushed each other down by the throat. (Tracey won these contests, Brennen giggled, and Curt stood ankle-deep on the shore and cried.)  There was a dock for cannonballing and a fishing boat for swearing. With hot water at a premium, we frequently bathed right there in the lake with a bottle of Prell. This was before pollution, before flesh-eating bacteria.

“Rinse your brother off.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re in charge.”

Curt was often sudsy.

The Cottage was in Oscoda, Michigan, near the Au Sable River. “Oscoda” is a Native American word meaning “mosquito bite,” and “Au Sable” is French for “bleeding to death.” There were so many mosquitoes at The Cottage that by summer’s end you could barely hold your head up from the anemia. (“Walk it off!”) And yet eight of us (four adults and four children) somehow managed to sleep, eat, and play for weeks at a time without resorting to savagery. It was glorious. There was a rope for swinging and a hatchet for chopping, neither of which was ever turned into a weapon.

And there was a candy store.

———————————————-

Kids get bored, even during the summer. (SUMMER!). With so many formless hours to fill, even civilized children will turn to petty torment if not diverted.

(HAHAHA!! “Civilized children.” You thought finding a leprechaun was rare? Children will make him medium rare.)

Back to our story…

“Let’s go to the candy store!”

I still don’t know who said it first. It might even have come from one of the grown-ups.

“How ‘bout you sonsabitches go to the candy store?”

Nah, they didn’t talk like that. More like:

“Shhh…! the weather!”

Or maybe it was Curt. He was only 3, but he needed a break from our contests. Guantanamo has nothing on the creativity of a big sister.

Here’s what I remember: I was 10, Tracey was 8, and Brennen was 5. And Brennen was alittle 5. Goofy, trusting, happy as a golden retriever. And little. The candy store was actually a gas station down the street and around the corner from The Cottage. That way. Sort of. I knew this only as a vague distant fact.

Here’s what I remember: somehow the three of us kids found quarters our hands and time to kill. Somehow we were walking. To the candy store. Alone.

It was a blistering summer day. We walked down the gravel road past a long line of cottages. Every cottage was different, but the same. Every cottage hid under the camouflage of a stack of cordwood, an ancient tree, and a proud but tired sign. “The Jones Family.” “Ed and Tina Farnsworth.” “The Hathaways!” The dust from the road made us cough. We kept walking. I was in charge.

We turned to the right when the two roads met. I was 50% sure this was correct. We kept walking. The sun baked our heads, no hats, no sunscreen. This was the 60s, before cancer. The coins in our hands grew damp and heavy.

I asked my sister how much further she thought it was. Tracey rammed her elbow into my ribs and rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. You’re in charge!”

Brennen, behind us, picked up a stick, smiled. He took a swing at an overhead tree, smiled. He could barely reach. WHAM! Mosquitoes devoured us. Smile.

 

“Are we there yet?” Tracey wrapped her knuckles around the weight of her quarters and punched me in the arm. I sneezed out dirt.

Finally, up ahead, an oasis. THE CANDY STORE!

“Come on, you guys!”

We run, the coins like magic beans that we will trade for candy.  Three cars are parked in the lot and two are filling up at the gas pumps. We run towards the front door like refugees. We burst inside and lose our minds.

Dots! Milk Duds! Lik•m•aid!

We pluck, dicker, change our minds. We negotiate a trade agreement: three of your Swedish Fish for six of my Sugar Babies. DEAL! We pay the man, head out with our treasures. The sweets spill from our pockets, from our bags, from our mouths. I peel a pink Dot off a strip of white paper with my teeth. I hold the door for my brother and sister. We walk into the sunshine. I am delirious.

Brennen says he’s thirsty. He spots a green long-handled pump behind the candy store. Brennen tries to pump the handle, but it’s too big for him. He’s 5. He jumps, but he can’t reach.

I eat another Dot off the paper. Yellow! It’s probably different than pink!

I reach up to help my baby brother, because he’s thirsty, because I’m tall. And I’m in charge. I bite off another Dot. Blue! I pull on the green handle once, twice, three times. Brennen puts his mouth fully over the nozzle and chugs.

It is kerosene.

But I don’t know this. What I know is that time collapses. It is the size of faucet hole.  One cartoon gumball bounces slowly across the parking lot, like a moon walk. No gravity. Then something jaw-kicks the universe, and everything tips over. Especially Brennen. He falls forward and throws up.

No, he doesn’t just throw up. He kind of explodes from his mouth. The 10-year-old in me (because that’s all I have) concludes from Brennen’s full-body turbulence that the water tasted bad and he just needs something to mask the flavor.

I hold a pouch of sweet red powder out to him. “You want some Lik•m•aid?”

Brennen throws up again. Hard.

I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing. Brennen’s cheek is on the concrete. I want him to stop doing that. The pavement looks scratchy and hot. And it smells like napalm. Brennen (he’s 5, and getting smaller all the time), is a convulsing puppy.

There was no warning. There was no lock on the pump. There was no “poison” logo. There was no sign that said “Don’t drink this, you dumb shit. It will spoil your vacation.”

A man, a stranger, swoops in and picks Brennen up by his middle, carries him to a giant Buick. Dumps Brennen not gently into the back seat.

“Get in!” The Man yells at us. He points to the passenger side. I climb in the front, Tracey scrambles in beside me.

“Where do you live??” Clenched teeth.

“I don’t know.” Eyes.

And I really don’t know. I have no idea where we live. Detroit? Oscoda? The moon?

I point behind the gas station. “That way?” Not only am I not in charge, I am a terrified kitten. The only reason I don’t wet myself is that it would ruin my candy.

Brennen throws up Starburst and petroleum in The Man’s back seat. The big Buick peels out onto the gravel road. The Man squeals a left turn at the next street, guessing. He slows down, points.

“That one? This one??”

I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW!!

My eyes are everywhere. My tongue finds a small corner of Dot paper stuck to my teeth. I can’t spit it out because my mouth is dust.

A miracle — I spot my grandpa’s car.

“That one!”

The tires throw stones, the big Buick rips into the driveway. The Man runs inside The Cottage, yelling and not even knocking.  My mother comes out. Together they pick Brennen up again by his middle. Brennen rewards them by hurling Agent Orange on their shirts.

This story gets worse.

Remember Detroit? Where we also live?

My father had driven back to our real house that morning. He’d had to return for work. When my mother made the panic call to tell him about Brennen’s little mishap, my father answered, “We’ve been robbed.”

Cue time stop. Again.

While we had been up north swimming, getting eaten by mosquitoes, and drinking kerosene, two men had pulled a moving van in front of our real house and carried out the contents. (We only found this out later from neighbors, who hadn’t seen a reason to interfere. The Waughs might have been moving. Who knew? It was the 60s. People were unpredictable.)

Jump start the clock. Again.

My mother piled four children under the age of 10 into my grandfather’s car, and we raced from Oscoda to Detroit. Brennen sat on my mother’s lap in the front seat, eating Saltines and throwing up into a bag. His face was white. He weighed about 7 pounds. The trip took five hours, or maybe a month.

We came home to a scarred brick pretend house. The house looked like it had been beaten up by Joe Frasier, then drank kerosene. The thieves had taken everything of material value. We were unharmed, yes, but we were hurting. The family collectively threw up into a bag.

My brother recovered, mostly because he’s made of Darwinian platinum, not because we did anything right. Brennen grew up to father two children of his own, and as far as I know, neither of them drink kerosene.

I don’t know what happened to The Man except for the many prayers we sent his way.

I don’t know what happened to the thieves except that I hope they choked on our rabbit ears. (“Shh…! The karma!”)

My father requested a transfer shortly after this day of riot, and our family moved to Ohio. Despite what Michigan fans say, this is not the same as drinking kerosene.

I am still not in charge.

 

19 September 2015, Erin Waugh, “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat”

 

merry go round tbec

“Little Cat B (the Tale of the Engine Light)”

Thursday, 12 March, 11:48 a.m. – The engine light comes on in my Chevy Equinox.

Thursday, 12 March, 11:49 a.m. – I say a very bad swear.

Thursday, 12 March, 12:07 p.m. – I pull into the AutoZone where “Roy” plugs his “majigger” into my “kerswilly.”

Thursday, 12 March, 12:15 p.m. – Roy and I are married in a civil ceremony

Thursday, 12 March, 12:16 p.m. – I’m kidding! Roy gives me a code.

Thursday, 12 March, 12:17 p.m. – And also The Clap.

Thursday, 12 March, 12:18 p.m. – I’m kidding! Hardly anybody applauded.

 

Friday, 13 March – I take my car to Belle Tire where a tech plugs his own majigger into my kerswilly. He does not charge me for the privilege of verifying that I do, indeed, have “a code,” but further detail will cost me “a child.” He narrows the problem down to cats.

Friday, 13 March – I call my local Chevy dealer to find out whether my old catalytic converter is still under warranty.

Friday, 13 March – It is not.

Friday, 13 March – HAHA!

 

Saturday, 14 March – I write a note to Chevy Customer Care and plead mercy. (The catalytic converters [there are two – Cat 1 and Cat B, I think] are 2,000 miles out of warranty.) I beseech Chevy Customer Care for help. I hardly use any swears.

Saturday, 14 March – They write back to me.

Saturday, 14 March – Chevy Customer Care and I are married in a civil ceremony.

Saturday, 14 March – I’m kidding! They say “maybe.”

 

Monday, 16 March – I call my local Chevy Dealer and ask them about my cats. “Stan” tells me to bring my kerswilly down to the shop where he will plug in his… I stop him and tell him I am sore. We agree that this joke has been played out.

Tuesday, 17 March – The engine light shuts off. The gas mileage shoots up to where it was before the decay. God laughs.

Friday, 20 March – I take my car into the Chevy Dealer where Stan tells me that my cat is in bad shape. I slap him.

Friday, 20 March – Stan and I are married in a civil ceremony.

 

Coda: Nothing has actually been repaired yet, although my kerswilly has been majiggered three times in the last eight days. The Chevy Dealer has ordered me a new Cat B. This shiny and much younger (probably) replacement part will be delivered and installed sometime next week for $250 instead of the original estimate of a Brazilian dollars$, due all or in part to my whining on Chevy Customer Care’s public Facebook page, using polite (honey-coated) words and hardly any inflammatory (vinegar) blames.

Stay tuned for next week’s exciting conclusion where I thrust my vehicle repeatedly into a service tunnel, and then broadcast the turgid victory of my euphemism.

Now don’t ask me any more questions. I need a nap. Somebody hold me.

 

Erin Waugh, 20 March 2015

“True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat”

“The Boob Nurse”

Back when boobs mattered, I visited a doctor.

Let me explain: a thousand years ago I had a job – a job that provided health insurance. (What a charming trifle that was!). Anyway, I was visiting a doctor for some routine girl-thing (remember that quaint curtsy?), and the doctor found a small lump. On my thyroid.

The thyroid is a gland at the front of your throat. It sits just underneath the larynx, and its main job is to frighten you into thinking you’re going to die. If a doctor roots around in your junk long enough, he will find a lump. Give a physician enough time and a solid reach, and he will find a bulge on SOMETHING. And this guy had a good six inches on me. (Rimshot!) I’m kidding. Where was I…

Anyway, this First Lump doc sent me to a Second Lump doc, an endocrinologist. Endocrinologists are doctors who specialize in paying off their student loans, so they absolutely adore insured women with shit in their throats.

I walked into Second Lump’s office with what we called in those days “a referral” which we carried in “on paper” that we had “impaled upon the end of our spears.” I’m kidding! Women weren’t allowed to carry spears until Britney. (Oops! I did it again.)

I waited in the lobby for a season. Finally I was called into an intake room by a nurse. Or a nurse’s assistant. Or a troll of some sort with a stethoscope around her neck and a death wish over her head, apparently. See, here’s what happened: this Second Lump triage nurse weighed me, measured me, and took my blood pressure. She peered over her glasses at my chart, looked me up and down, and said “So you’re here to follow up after your mastectomy?”

I glanced at my smooth sweater and said, “No, I’m here because you’re a retard. “ Then I hit her with my penis.

No I didn’t. I stabbed her with my Britney spears.

Nah. What I actually did (because this really happened) is went dry-mouthed and pathetic for the space of about two beats. I pointed weakly at my throat. I began to stutter. Then I straightened up all 5-foot-9 inches, 125 pounds of me (I know because it was on the chart), and said, “I hope your children survive the chlamydia you gave them.”

Actually, I have no idea what happened next because I’ve blocked out everything after the S.W.A.T. team arrived.

The point is, I’m fabulous, and so are my boobs. Two perfect miniatures, unscarred and arrogant. They are twin heroic effigies of a life lived upright against the relentless pull of both gravity and scorn. Perky. (Yeah, I said it.)

Also, the lump was nothing. Kind of like that intake nurse. I bet her burning and itching are almost gone.

 

Erin Waugh, True Stories in the Key of E-Flat

5 March 2015

 

The Sheriff and the Window Sticker

Bowie-dog leaps up into the car. I close the hatch and climb behind the wheel.

“I’ll drive,” I tell her.

“I’ll pretend you’re doing a good job.” She crosses her legs.

We head to the bark park. The bark park is a place to run leash-free and sniff anything attractive. The dogs can do the same.

It is a sunny spring afternoon in April. It is, in fact, Good Friday. My wheels crunch the gravel as I pull into the parking lot, and at the far end I can see two sheriffs’ cars parked side by side, window to window, one facing in and one facing out. The cars appear to be whispering. Or mating, like earthworms. The cops could be swapping anything: launch codes, secrets, bodily fluids. It is both intimate and terrifying. A shaved organ-grinder could do this job of patrolling the park for windshields without stickers, but no, there are TWO Oakland County Sheriffs parked here in the cop-car equivalent of a sixty-nine, scanning the lot for the winner of today’s crucifixion. Those aren’t night sticks, they’re hammers.

I am not terribly alarmed by the ménage à cop because I have a park pass, but still I keep an eye out, in the same way a baby seal watches a killer whale. Just because a predator is well-fed does not mean he won’t bite. Just because he can. Or because his hammer slipped.

I have a park pass because I bought a park pass. There are three previous years’ worth of stickers pasted vertically up the left edge of my windshield parading my allegiance. I am a veteran. These are my flags.

I have a park pass, but… But it’s in the glove box. It is red, it is valid, but it is not stuck to anything except a few stray dog hairs.

See, my windshield is cracked. By applying simple logic, I assume I can just temporarily tape this red sticker to the inside of my windshield until I get the windshield replaced. Windshields in Southeast Michigan crack all the time. Driving through gravel-hauling country is not unlike driving through the Gaza Strip. Stoning is common. So is getting hit with rocks. And since the crack is way down below my field of vision, replacing the windshield is on my “Round To It” list. I’ll get around to it. And in the meantime, I’ll tape this (current, paid-for, red) sticker to the cracked windshield.

But logic, as it turns out, is silly of me.

I pull into a parking space well away from the cop cars, (no reason to poke the orca, I figure), and I tape the red sticker to the inside of my windshield at the top of the column of retired flags. (Of course I have cellophane tape. All law-breakers carry office supplies.)

I open my car door, and before I can even walk around to release Bowie-dog, one of the deputies, a female officer, hustles out of her car and hails me. She waves a flipper from 50 feet away and swims towards me.

“Do you have a pass?” She asks, approaching me in big brown horse strides. I was wrong. They’re not flippers, they’re hooves.

“I sure do.” I smile without rancor. I am righteous and in compliance. I’ve got my sticker. I can’t wait to show her. I lift my sunglasses up off my eyes so she can peer deeply into my innocence.

“I didn’t see any sticker,” she says, her mouth a slit of baleen. Obviously she was watching for my red park pass, or as I’m beginning to think of it, my bullfighter’s cape. She leans in and jangles something, possibly her bridle.

“It’s right here.” My eyes narrow, but I keep smiling. I am virtuous. I point to the sticker I just taped to the windshield. The red one. The one that’s valid for this whole year.

“Oh, no. That won’t do,” the officer shakes her head. Her blowhole shudders. “You have to take off the backing and affix it to the inside of your windshield.” She loves this word.

“But look here,” I say, rubbing my finger over the crack, still pretending she’s a rational person. “My windshield is broken and I need to replace it, so I don’t want to permanently affix the sticker.” When in Rome.

“You have to. You have to affix it to the windshield. Those are the rules.” Her tail flicks. A fly buzzes.

“Um, it’s cracked…” I try again and caress the wounded glass in case she missed it the first time. “And if I put the sticker on permanently, and then I get my windshield replaced…” I let the thought trail off, hoping that she at least graduated in the middle of her class.

“No.” She shakes her head and paws the ground with her hoof. Shoe. She’s probably wearing shoes.

She tilts toward me, breathing too hard. “You have to affix it to the inside of the windshield.” She tinks the jagged break with a raptor’s claw. I flinch. “Then when you replace the windshield, just scrape the sticker off with a razor blade and take the handful of slivers with you to the park office, and they’ll give you a new sticker.” She holds her hand in a little cup-shape, offering me an imaginary handful of insane sticker shards.

I look at her now, really look at her. Her hair is pulled back in a severe red ponytail. She’s about my age and about my height, but she’s “been rode hard.” I doubt she was ever “put away wet,” though, since this bitch has not been moist since the 1980s. I am trying hard not to think of her as the B-word, because in fact she’s rapidly moving down the alphabet to the C-word.

I tip my head and lower my voice.

“Does this make sense to you?” I say softly, and I rub my finger over the crack again, showing it tenderness after her late hit. “I paid for the sticker. If I just tape it now, then I don’t have to go through all that scraping. Later. During the abortion.” Okay, I don’t say that last part.

“Those are the rules. That’s what the park wants. For you to affix the sticker to your windshield. Those are the rules.” She again taps the fingers of one hand into the cupped palm of the other where the extruded fragments of a sticker miscarriage will weep. I want to offer her a sugar cube.

I’m thinking that she’s wrong, that’s not what the park wants. What the park wants is for me to buy a sticker. I did that. I’m thinking that she’s victim hunting. I’m thinking that she pees standing up.

I say one more time, very quietly, “And this makes sense to you?”

“Those are the rules.”

I want to tell her that segregation used to be a rule, that shoving Jews into ovens used to be a rule, that cunts like her couldn’t even have her job 30 years ago, because those were the rules. (Oh, she made it big-time to the C-word.)  I want to tell this dried-up piece of horse crotch to stop waggling her dick at me, but she is wearing a badge, a nightstick, and a gun, and I am out-numbered by her phallic symbols.

I look down very obviously at her name tag: Officer Sexton.

Of course it is.

I nod, put my sunglasses back down over my eyes, and swallow my venom. I turn back to my car, open the door, peel the backing off the red park pass, and af-fucking-fix it to the inside of my cracked windshield. Officer SexTongue snorts and cantors back to her car, her gait made more difficult by her erection. She greets the other deputy, a pink balding male, with a whinny. They hitch up their belts and share a “We nailed one!!” high-five. I slam the door too loudly which fuels their “Crucify-Him!” fever.

I am sucking air in my car, a raped baby seal. The predators don’t move. If I leave, I look guilty. If I stay, I look guilty.

I came here to walk my dog, dammit, and I’m gonna walk my dog.

I get out and open the hatch where Bowie-dog has been silent during my humiliation by Officer SexTaunt. I briefly wish Bowie were a rabid pit bull to whom I could whisper:  “That one. Leave no trace.” But no, Bowie is lovely and even-tempered. Useless.

We walk around the park. Well, she walks and I stomp around trying to burn off the adrenalin. It’s not working. Two or three laps do not even begin to dilute the toxic build-up from recent combat. This outing has been poisoned.

“We have to go,” I tell her, and I head for the gate.

“Already? Why??”

“Because killer whales blow!”

“Your metaphors are inconsistent!!”

“Don’t. Test. Me.”

I leash Bowie and put her back in the car. I have to drive by the killing field in order to escape the park. The cops are still leaning against their vehicles. I remotely wonder whether the Brillo Pads on their hairy ass cheeks ever scratch the paint. Officer SexTaint is awkwardly hand-jiving her fat partner, Deputy Pink-Blubber, an absurd sea horse throwing gang signs at a manatee. And as she lifts her left hand with a gesture straight out of “Vanilla Ice Runs the Derby,” I see the glint of a gold ring.

Just kill me. Officer Secretariat has a husband.

I bet he’s a rodeo clown. When he’s not blowing seals.

We leave. I drive. I am simmering with insults about Clydesdales and sperm whales. Half-way home Bowie says, “Don’t be hating.”

“It’s my birthright.”

Bowie-dog scratches her ear, smug with a secret.

“Did you ever put your new registration sticker on your license plate?”

I whip around at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Aren’t you driving with expired plates? Hasn’t your registration sticker been sitting in your glove box for six months now because ‘it’s cold outside’?”

I laugh. I laugh hard. I may have whinnied. I want to high-five Bowie-dog but she doesn’t have any thumbs.

“I owe you a high-four,” I tell her in the rear-view mirror.

“Giddy up.”

“Yippee-ki-yay…”

And we finish the swear together.

———

18 January 2015, “True Stories in the Key of E-flat”

 

Bowie-dog - To Protect and Serve
Bowie-dog – To Protect and Serve

“Disney World and the Magic Bag”

(This was a wildly magical moment, even by Disney standards.)

 

We were nearing the end of our voyage to the bottom of the wallet. It was the 14th hour of the 3rd day, or possibly the 200th. Our little family was Dopey and Sleepy and Alertness-Challenged despite the relentless bombardment of joy. (“Magic” is the Latin word for “crack,” and “Kingdom” means “You’re gonna need a bigger spending limit.”) Our feet were screaming from all the happiness, and we limped the final furlong of the hundred-aching woods, uphill, both ways.

Our little family had SQUEEEED! through seven dwarfs, two ducks, and a fairy (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) We had haunted a mansion and spaced a mountain. At least one of us had peed her pants in front of a princess (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and we had eaten our weight in funnel cakes. We were now hauling precious Mouse swag in gift bags the approximate size and shape of Dumbo, uphill, both ways. We. Were. Tired.

The final show of the day was about to begin, the title of which was spoken in an impossible combination of whispers and all caps: THE LIGHTING OF THE CASTLE! (Shhh…) I didn’t know whether this meant candles or arson, but at this point it didn’t matter. We were either going to finish this giddy marathon or die. THIS! IS! DISNEY!

We sit. Well, two of us sit. Kelsey and I miraculously find an unoccupied bench some distance from the final show. We can see the castle, but it’s on the horizon over a sea of bodies, like an electric Mayflower. We collapse and sip our coffee. (It is almost 10:00 p.m. This coffee tastes like the reason Moses left the Promised Land. It is MANNA, in all caps and a whisper.) We have been shooting up Disney heroin for three days. (Drink the Kool-Aid! It’s so happy!) Even the young people are hobbling after snorting this much excitement. We sit, and Vincent and Molly stumble off toward THE CASTLE (Shhh…) still holding hands and a ferocious belief in miracles. My adrenal glands can’t endure anymore anticipation, but the lovers want to be closer to the show so that they can hear the music. And the tourists’ heads exploding.

Kelsey and I are quiet, examining our phones as if they contained salvation, or, as an alternative, Motrin. We are almost peaceful despite being surrounded by 90,000 of our closest friends. We breathe in the lights and ignore the sound of whimpering (which is mostly coming from our feet.) The calm is shattered when Vince parts the crowd, his face fierce. An angry prophet.

“Open your bag,” he says. His voice is low, panicked.

“Da fu…?” I don’t enunciate the final consonant because of little Mouse ears.

“Da fu…?” Kelsey echoes, and opens her bag. Consonants fly everywhere.

“What are you looking for?” I scowl and tilt my head, a cartoon.

Vincent jams his hand impolitely into his cousin’s belongings. His face is a ruined mask.

“Molly lost her gift bag.”

Oh no.

If Disney does one thing very well, it’s making it easy to spend your money. There are shops at the beginning and end of every adventure. There are stores for dreams and stores for nightmares, and at every check-out they will take both your AmEx and your dignity with the same flawless smile. And Molly has spent a small college fortune on irreplaceable dangly things.

Oh no.

“We don’t have it.”

Vince runs back through the crowd to collect Molly, who I imagine is huddled at the base of THE CASTLE in a Biblical puddle of tears. Not knowing how to react (and not having nearly enough coffee to formulate an emotion), Kelsey and I stay on the bench and watch the LIGHTING OF THE CASTLE. No matter what disaster has just befallen us, this castle show has earned all of its whispers and capital letters. It is complex. It is astonishing. We sip our coffees and toast the Disney genius.

Vince and Molly break through the crowd toward us. Orphans at Ellis Island were not this miserable.

If Vincent’s face was ruined, Molly’s is a land mine. My guess is that she has cried throughout the LIGHTING OF THE CASTLE, possibly destroying several of the Magic Algorithms.

“We need to go to Guest Relations,” Vincent urges us, trying not to grieve.

“I want some guest relations.” I am an ass.

We get up and walk, or, more accurately, swim. We are schooling both with and against a million-mouse-eared crowd towards the exit of the park, Vince holding Molly’s hand, Kelsey and I holding our coffee cups. We carom back and forth, banging into shoulders and defeat. We are jostled by expectation. Liquids are jettisoned. We are zombie salmon. We may die.

“Let’s stop at the last store we were in,” Vince says, suggesting a miracle. “We’ll just check.”

Yeah, sure. And maybe there’s a burning bush in there, says my inner Detroiter.

We swim out of the throng and into Mickey’s Rugby Scrum, or whatever the shop is called, and three smiling Disney employees greet us.

“Welcome!”

“Welcome!”

“Welcome!”

Despite the fact that Vince and Molly look like they’ve just been waterboarded, the pressed-on happy paint of the Disney cast members never falter. (They are “cast members” not “employees.” And, after today’s performance, they are Oscar-worthy. Except… I’m not sure it’s an act.)

“What can I help you with?” the cast members chorus.

“This is probably a lost cause,” Vince begins, “but my girlfriend lost a gift bag.”

Molly breaks into fresh tears.

“And what was in it?” A cast member named Sarah glides to the front, unsinkable.

Molly bursts, rapid-fire: “A haunted mansion t-shirt, a bracelet with Tinker Bell danglies, a stuffed Sven, and an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Mulan slingshot!”

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” I am an ass.

“I will check in the back,” Sarah smiles and floats away.

This is a waste of time, says my inner White Trash.

“Couldn’t we just get some guest relations?” says my outer White Trash.

We pace in front of the glass displays awaiting the return of our sentence – death or life without a reason to live. We don’t buy anything, because now that seems dangerous. Anyone setting a bag down in a store might just as well have thrown it off a cliff. In Sparta. It is g-o-n-e.

I swallow the last cold dregs of my coffee and toss the cup in a nearby trash bin. (Littering here would be a war crime.) I turn around just in time to see Sarah Smiles opening a door in the back and carrying… a gift bag.

No.

Sarah holds the plastic blue gift bag aloft in two hands — Mufasa presenting Simba. “Is this it?” She almost sings it.

Molly’s eyes grow as big as tea cups.

No way.

Sarah lowers the bag. Molly’s tiny frame is shaking. She opens the bag slowly like it might contain either oxygen or terror.

“It’s here…. IT’S ALL HERE!” Molly inhales the fairytale.

Molly’s face falls apart, but in the good way, in the way of elation and miracles. It is wet and pained and happy, like a birth. Molly hugs Sarah Smiles. Sarah Smiles hugs Vince. A lot of people are crying, and most of them are us. A male Disney cast member wearing a right smart vest steps out from around the cash register.

“Hey, are we giving out free hugs?” His face wears the ‘aw-shucks, t’weren’t nothing’ glee of someone who found a baby in the well. “I saw you set the bag down.”

The young man opens his arms, and Molly crumples into them. Tears don’t even stain a Disney costume.

His name tag says “Scott” but it might as well say “Hero.” My inner skeptic goes quiet, and for just a moment, there is such a thing as magic.

“Someone found the gift bag,” I whisper to Vince.

“Yep,” he says, holding on to Molly to keep from floating to the ceiling.

“And they hung on to it.”

“Yep. Cast members.”

“And nobody stole it.”

“Nope.”

“And Tinker Bell is real.”

“Clap your hands if you believe.”

“I can’t. They’re full of tissues.”

We finish crying and hugging and wiping our faces. Magic is very salty.

We walk out to the car. I have been converted. I am humming, “Let it go, let it go…”

 

23 December 2014, Erin Waugh

“Disney World and the Magic Bag,” from “True Stories in the Key of E-flat.”

The magic gift bag.
The magic gift bag.