I picked up some bad fiction the other day. By that, I don’t mean I purchased it. I mean I actually picked it up, read a few paragraphs, and put it back down. The author began their chapter with a bit about some character’s eyes. Green-gray pools of mystery. Black doorways that held a hint of deception. Seductive golden jewels belying a quiet sadness. That was enough for me.
We can do better than this, people. I know it’s fiction, but nobody spends that much time staring at their own reflection in the town sheriff’s steely gray gaze or sitting in the coffee shop cogitating the corneas of the hipster college kid drinking a chai latte. I know, I know–window to the soul and all. Nevertheless, it’s cliché and overdone.
The nose has smelt just as much as the eye has seen. The femur probably has some good stories (soccer balls and coffee table corners and such). Imagine the ingrown tales a toe would tell. Why eyes?
If it were any other body part, we’d realize how goofy the obsession with eyes can be.
Lona sneaked a glance a Ronald. His smile broadened, but there was something in his ears that gave her pause. Maybe it was the holes, the way the dark recesses of his ear canals pulled her into their waxy depths. She wondered what it would feel like to get lost in those ears, to lie beside him in the moonlight, wanting so desperately to find a Q-tip. His ears told the story of his life: unattached earlobes, fleshy and pink–a cherubic child. A piercing on the left–he’d been a rebel, once. Cauliflowered cartilage on the right side revealed he’d most likely stuck his head in a laundry chute or a coal scuttle. The salt and pepper bristles peeking out–no loving woman to care for him, to buy him a personal grooming appliance or shame him into finding a pair of scissors. Those ears haunted her dreams.
I had to have my photo taken this morning for a publication. Some people might be excited by that. I was not.
I used to enjoy being photographed. I still like having pictures taken with my family, of course. They’re usually sweaty hiking photos or all of us mugging for the camera.
But something the rest of the world is going to have to look at, even for one issue? Blech. When it comes to publications, I’d much rather see my byline than my face. As I’ve aged, the proportions of my face have changed. I used to be able to smile normally. Close inspectors might have discerned the overbite and accompanying weak chin that I cannot ever unsee, but I could grin and be okay with those things.
Something’s changed with my face in the last few years. Smiling no longer comes naturally. Oh sure, I still smile constantly. I’m a smiler. But the “photo smile?” It’s hard to produce. It feels concocted. Perhaps it’s because the fat pads that used to adorn my cheekbones have begun to slide down my face like the Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazi. I can’t be sure. But I have to work at smiling now.
This morning as I was doing my hair, I practiced my photo smile in the mirror. What I saw straddled the line between creepy clown and woman-who’s-just-inhaled-caterpillar. I tried closed lips. I tried smiling with the top teeth showing. I tried smiling with all of the teeth showing.
That was when I noticed the chip.
When I was 22, I fainted in the shower and hit the tile floor, hard. In addition to the concussion, I woke up with a corner of my front tooth missing. Luckily, I found a dentist who did a great job of repairing it and I went on my merry way through life, until last month, when I bit into a chewy kale-chia bar (yes, it tasted like kelp and regret), the composite broke off. I’d gotten 16 years out of it, which is a nice long run for a tooth patch, I’m told, and I got it fixed within 24-hours.
This morning, as I grinned at myself in the mirror and tried to talk my weak chin into making a man out of itself, I saw this newest chip.
To my credit, I maintained my composure. I figured, what the hell, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by foregoing the smile. The chin, the bite, the chip, the idiot smile–problems all solved. I’ll be a serious writer, looking appropriately miserable, as we all tend to be.
To pull off a really good serious face, you need a solid pout. To accent that solid pout, you need lipstick. I think. I don’t know–I don’t wear lipstick. For some reason, it mixes with my saliva and forms a pink band of goo on the inside my lower lip. If you’ve ever talked to me at length, you might have noticed me not-at-all-subtly dragging my thumbnails across my bottom lip. It’s not a nervous habit; I’m windshield-wiping away the lip goo, but I’m trying to be casual about it. And now I’ve just written about it so the jig is up. Anyway, I don’t own lipstick, so I knew I had to stop at CVS on the way to the photographer to buy some.
I read an article that said your perfect lipstick shade is the same color as your nipples. It made sense to me–what matches the nips matches the lips. The problem is finding that shade in the store. I don’t know what your town is like, but in Wheeling, we generally frown upon those who take a boob out in the makeup aisle. In the past, I’ve tried casually peeking down to determine what color scheme I should focus on, but within the darkness of my shirt cavity, I can’t get a solid gander at what I’m working with, areola-ically speaking.
Today, I knew I needed to be clever. After all, we live in the technology era. Every one of us has a camera. Why not make use of it and capture said nipple for in-store comparisons? Yet here arose still another problem: lighting. What type of lighting was best for photographing a nipple to bring out its true color? I walked around my house for a while, looking in different rooms at different lighting conditions: window, overhead, plant growth bulbs. Each cast a different kind of light. At the window, my skin was pink. By the shefflera, it looked orange. Next to the kitchen sink, it was purple. I wished the photographer was there to advise me.
I found hundreds of nipple shades on the shelves at the store. Maybelline nipples. Revlon nipples. Glossy nipples, glitter nipples, purples, reds, and blues (if that last one applies, you might see someone about your circulation). Since nobody else stood nearby in the makeup section, I got my phone out and pulled up the photo.
I have to admit to being taken somewhat aback when the image popped up. I’ve got a big phone. It’s a 7-inch screen. If anyone else had been nearby, they’d have spotted it. Seven inches is a big patch of skin. And despite the efforts of the great Renaissance artists, the thing by itself, divorced from the body, just isn’t all that cute.
Cameras dotted the ceiling. I didn’t know how much a security viewer could see, but I was running low on time, so with picture in hand, blazing on its brightest setting for proper study, I went from kiosk to shelf, searching for my perfect shade. I held each tube that caught my eye against the photo, squinting and rotating the phone. I found a promising color for $11, but balked at the price. The $9 shelf offered up some good shades, but nine still seemed a lot to spend on a one-time use. So I took my phone over to the $2 lipstick section and held it up against the Wet n Wild tubes, a brand that has offered low-quality products since before I was old enough to wear them.
And there I found it. My perfect shade. The shade that would adorn the lips that needed to close to cover the chip and hide the shark-mouth. Thank you Wet n Wild, I said, for your inexpensive-yet-accurate representation of the American nipple.
The checkout line stood several customers deep. I took my place between a trio of backpackers–not homeless but clearly rugged travelers making their way on foot–and an older man buying a bottle of Jim Beam. A woman at the checkout counter was confused; the cashier tried to help her swipe her card as we waited. I shifted my weight and grew impatient and nervous. All this lipstick baloney wouldn’t mean a thing if I missed my appointment.
“I hope they call another cashier,” one of the backpacker guys said.
I turned around and replied, “I know, I’m going to be late.”
Another one asked me, “Hey, do you know what time it is?”
I pulled out my phone to check.
The thing about smartphones is that they always return you to your most recent screen. If you last visited Facebook, the phone brings you right back to Facebook. If you were reading CNN, there it is, waiting, right where you left off.
And if you happened to be looking at a close-up of your own left boob with the screen set to maximum brightness, that photo is ready and waiting when you hit the power button.
There it was, smiling out at the world. And at the dudes in line around me.
I smashed the home button with my thumb and the image vanished into the ether. Nobody said anything.
There are moments when we’re faced with the choice to explain our behavior, to try to excuse the thing we’ve just sent out into the world or to shut up and own it. I wanted to look these people in the eye and tell them that I was having my picture taken and I had a weak chin and my smile made me look like I’d eaten an inchworm and my tooth chipped because the only food I’d had in the car was a chewy kale bar and I really needed a natural shade of lipstick and I didn’t want to expose myself in CVS.
Instead, I stared at my feet, bought my lipstick, and got the hell out of there.
In the car, the clock indicated that I was about to be late, so I ripped the wrapper off the lipstick tube and applied it, pleased to finally have the process finished.
I stretched up to see my mouth in the rear-view mirror. Pink lips puckered back at me. Cotton candy pink. Poochie-pink. Power Puff-pink.
This was not the shade I had been looking for. I hadn’t matched my lips to my skin; I’d matched them to My Little Pony. Grabbing a stray napkin, I put the car in drive and scrubbed at my mouth until my lips hurt. I had to get every molecule of pink off, lest anyone see the photo and assume I was sporting Strawberry Shortcake headlights under my shirt.
I glanced in the rearview mirror as I pulled out of parking lot. The backpackers waved.
We tidied up our house yesterday. It was in desperate need. I used to have a friend who cleaned for me, but the house is so exhausting that she had to break the job into two separate days. It’s not that it’s a huge house or anything. It’s just that, in 1908, people liked each room to have about 12 corners, and each window has 8 separate surfaces to clean, and they had to have two staircases instead of just one. And then modern Roberts came along and filled said house with creatures that drop hair in a daily mammalian monsoon and added two kids with more toys than anyone needs. It’s a bit much for one person, and that’s why I’m now without a cleaning person. Plus, I decided that money would serve me better in a jar for Ben’s future legal fees.
During yesterday’s miserable exercise–one replete with whining and bickering and arguments about who was absolutely not going to pick up that shoe or hang up that coat–I noticed something.
We’re pilers. We pile things.
Now, maybe this is human nature. I haven’t been in many of your homes, but I can’t be alone in this. Isn’t it natural to seek out a flat space and cover it with your crap? As I write this, my butt is on the couch and my feet are on the coffee table. Also on the coffee table are two notebooks, a day planner, two bills, three remotes, a phone, a glass of water, a dog collar, a pen, a hair clip, another dog collar, a candle, and two lacrosse balls (which I use to work on the knots in my shoulders, and yes, it hurts like a mofo). And this is after we cleaned it all up. This is what’s left.
For me, for us, that’s not bad at all. I could walk around the house and photograph myriad flat surfaces that have far more stuff on them than this coffee table. The problem with having a flat surface in your house is that a flat surface was made for exactly one purpose: putting stuff on it. That’s it. That’s why we have furniture with flat tops. The table is for dishes and food. Counter tops are for appliances and cat feet at 2AM. The desk–always the worst of the offenders–is like a wide valley where creatures such as first drafts, water bills, paper clips, photographs, and lip balm come to graze and play and roam about on the expansive, composite-wood savannah. The desk is a place for piles if ever there were one. And when the desk’s real estate is maxed out, I move on to the top of the printer, and the top of the filing cabinet, and the top of the fireplace (which is always a fantastic place to put paper products).
These flat surfaces enslave us. At the end of my bed, I have a lovely wicker trunk that was a wedding gift. In it, I store out of season blankets and other sets of sheets. (As I write this I find myself asking why I really need more than one extra set of sheets. After all, I’ve got one set on the bed and a second set for when a kid comes in at 3am and barfs all over everything. Two should be enough. But, no, I’ve got to overdo it. I’ve got my flannel sheets with the doggy paw prints and my flannel sheets that are white so I can bleach them, and I’ve got my two sets of t-shirt sheets and my three sets of cotton sheets–one is pilly but I’m not ready to give up on it–and I’ve got my microfiber sheets that I always think I’m going to love until I put them on the bed and realize the fitted sheet has too much material, and it bunches up under my back and butt at night and reminds me of sleeping on the beach, which is truly a terrible place to sleep, if you’ve ever tried it, and there are sand fleas, too. But this isn’t a post about excess or sand fleas; it’s a post about flat surfaces. )
The wicker trunk has a magnetic hold on me. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s well-crafted, it’s summery, it smells nice on the inside, and it’s useful. And it’s so bad for me. If 365 days make up a year, only on 10 of those days does the top of that trunk see the daylight. Sometimes it’s laundry baskets, but mostly it’s just clean clothing I haven’t put away yet, random socks, and, if the picture to the left is any indication, a copy of The Catcher In the Rye.* When I clear it off, I’m always so certain that I’ll change my ways and keep it clear and zen. I’m suddenly quite sure that the bedroom should be a peaceful place, a feng shui masterpiece, if possible, and I vow to keep it thusly. And then, the next day, the wicker surface is lost again under a fresh load of Scooby Doo underwear and a turquoise pair of deer leggings.
You know what’s worse than flat surfaces? Catch-all pieces of furniture. Usually, these are chairs. I’ve observed that there is a certain radius around an entryway and if a piece of furniture is placed within that radius, it will become a catch-all. Now, my radius may be wider or more narrow than yours, but there is still a radius, and if there’s a chair within that area, we’re screwed. There’s a recliner about ten feet from our lower back door. You’d think that would be far enough away, but nope. The Roberts radius clearly exceeds ten feet because we hadn’t seen the cushion of that chair for three months. When we finally decided to deal with the evil pit, we found two seasons of coats in there, a pile of Ben’s homework, my belt, a dog leash, a set of sheets, and my long-lost bathmats. (In this case, the recliner is also within the radius of the laundry machines, but that’s a problem I’m not ready to admit I have, yet.) By the time I found the bottom of the recliner, I knew that it had to go. Anywhere. Upstairs to the living room, perhaps, beyond the radius of either the front or the upper back door. Because that’s the danger zone. And the front door already has its own chair, currently piled with the contents of a future attic run: a decorative ghost, a grinning, styrofoam pumpkin head, and a gardening trowel. Well, that last one goes to the tool shed when I decide to take out the deflated inner tubes.
You know what’s worse than a chair? A papasan chair. They are the devil incarnate. Whoever invented the papasan chair should be gibbeted. It’s literally a giant bowl that sits in your house like a Venus Fly Trap and waits for a flannel shirt or a hand towel to buzz into its gaping maw. The papasan chair doesn’t care what it eats; it will consume literally anything. It’s a black hole, a tiger shark. Pick your metaphor. Headphones, backpacks, drowsy felines…it doesn’t give a crap. It just wants your stuff. It’s the Pied Piper of Papasan. It plays a mystical flute that we can’t hear, but the stuff can hear it, and the stuff comes right out of the closets and dances merrily into the gullet of that tipsy rattan demon. That’s how the stuff gets there.
Plus, it’s bewitched us: we throw something in it every time we walk by. An offering on the Altar of the Unkempt. Thank god we’re finally waking up and realizing we’re cult members in this Papasan Slob Society. The chair must go to the attic. Formerly, it was a demon foyer-bowl. Before that, it was a demon basement-bowl. Now it’s a demon living room-bowl, and I have to exorcise it, no matter how much pea soup it spews on my shirt. I’m going to need an old priest and a young priest.
I’m not an organized person. Moreover, there are a million better things to do in this world than sort socks and papers and the works of reclusive American novelists. That’s the thing, here. I’m not writing myself into some great revelation about newfound tidiness. I know I won’t change, ever. We all have to sort socks, sometimes, but I’ll trade that in a heartbeat for 20 minutes of sunshine, or fresh air, or even a productive writing hour. Take a solid nap. Sing to the dog. To put it in the simplest, most adolescent terms, I just don’t want to sort my damn socks. So the piles accrue around me.
I know you tidy people are out there. You’re probably reading this on your wide open desk, next to your bare end table, shaking your head because you just can’t understand what’s so hard about taking 10 seconds to hang up your Gap jeans rather than tossing them on the ficus tree, and how can there be one ankle boot in the second-floor bathroom and one in the basement boot box because who does that? All I can say is that you must be a powerful Jedi to resist the siren song of the stuff-pile. I’d ask you to teach me your ways, but I’m pretty sure the Dark Side claimed me long ago.
*That’s the thing about trunks. They’re goddamn useful. Old Ben likes to use it as a diving board for the bed. Boy, I sure do need to work on my cleaning habits. I really do.
We went trick-or-treating yesterday. As usual, it was freezing, even colder than usual. My kids didn’t give a hoot about the temperature. They’re extra bitchy about coats; Andy is a human furnace and Ben refuses to have his costume marred by the likes of anything out of character. He went as Freddy Faz Bear from Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a horrible little video game that forces the player to creep around a Chuck E. Cheese kind of pizza place and make sure the animatronics don’t come to homicidal life. Of course, the animatronics do come to life and creep closer and closer in the dark. You either stop them with your flashlight and defeat them, or they reach you and jump-scare the shit out of you.
Jump scares are a big thing in my family. It’s become part of the Roberts culture. It started a few years ago with a kid lurking behind a door, giggling loudly as he waited for Shawn to come up the stairs and pretend to be scared. Then, it got a little more sophisticated. They learned to turn off the lights. Ben learned to bide his time and remain in his hiding place without giggling. Once, he waited outside the bathroom door for a full twenty minutes as I showered and applied hair goo and face goo and brushed my teeth. When I emerged, quite naked and relaxed, he came flying out of the shadows and shouted, “Aaaa!!!!!” He earned that scream. And I hated it.
Shawn actually started this jump-scare tradition. He began torturing the boys when they were too little, in my opinion, to endure such fright. He’s very good at what he does. He’s hidden under Andy’s bed and reached out to grab Andy’s ankles. He’s lurked in a dark room and made creaking noises; the boys know he’s in there waiting to scare them and push each other towards the doorway. When he finally does jump out, it’s loud, pants-shitting terror. Each morning when he comes up the stairs to greet the three of us at the breakfast table, he does it with a jump-scare. Usually, he targets the boys, but if I have my back to him while I make my smoothie, he’ll do it to me.
“What the f— is wrong with you!?” I always scream at him. And he laughs hysterically. Recently, he jumped out at Ben with such vigor that Ben burst into tears. It was simply too much for his little nervous system to handle. He should have felt guilty, but I think his primary emotion might have been more accurately described as “pride.”
I hate jump-scares. But I’m in the minority, here. At the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores, they sell jump-scare decorations. You step on a pad and a hairy spider lunges at you or an arm comes flying from behind a gravestone to grab your leg. Ben and Andy run through the store to find each and every display before they can focus on buying a costume. Personally, I’d be content to never be startled again as long as I live. I feel no desire to step on that pad and have a 2-foot arachnid lurch in my direction.
This is a golden time for Shawn. His boys are old enough to participate in his beloved tradition and young enough to think it’s hilarious and cool. Halloween is his favorite holiday. He hangs tacky lights all over the mantles and woodwork in the house. He keeps scary masks in his desk–not just for Halloween use but for general jump-scare merriment. Last evening, he decided he was going to dress up for trick-or-treat, too. But instead of wearing something ghoulish, he found Andy’s old lady mask from last year, an expensive piece of latex that transforms the wearer into a crone. That would have been disturbing enough, but then he decided to pair it with my unicorn onesie. And my hiking stick.
I’m not sure what the theme was, other than “disturbing.” He said the onesie kept him warm in the 30-something degree temperatures. And he remained in character for an hour, cackling at little children and repeatedly poking me in the ass with his cane. I cringed when we came upon houses with elderly residents handing out candy. Then again, Andy wore the mask last year on a parade through Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital, so I suppose the tradition of walking the line between humor and offense continues.
On a related note, this was the first year I brought hooch in my coat.
As a female humor writer, there’s really no greater role model than Erma Bombeck. She set the bar impossibly high, which is a good thing. Something about knowing I’ll never quite reach her level keeps me on my toes. I keep trying. And sometimes it pays off, like when the Erma Bombeck humor site publishes one of my pieces on their blog. It’s a pretty big deal.
I endured a rough patch in April and May. As the weather refused to warm, I engaged in regular self-abuse and derision at my perceived lack of success. I received many a rejection letter for my book. Autoimmune brain fog hampered every effort to write something new (as evidenced by the silence on this site). Spring was a real shit show in writer-land. I was ready to give up and go to law school.
But with the West Virginia Writers’ Conference and the boost of self-confidence I gained in winning that competition, I feel now that I’m still on the right path, and that forward momentum is key to staying out of that mental pit.
Weelunk, Wheeling’s alternative news and blogging platform, has given me a golden opportunity. Every alum of Chatham University’s nature writing program dreams of an opportunity to reach out with their words, to affect positive ecological change. I’ve been given this chance.
My regular Weelunk column, Valley Views & Varmints, will soon be debuting on Weelunk and appearing with regularity!
Yesterday, a picture of me looking sweaty and bedraggled appeared in an introductory post.