Patti

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A talented stand-up comedian, my daughter is bubbly, bright, and beautiful. She is also gay. Caroline came out as a high school sophomore ten years ago. Since then, I’ve encountered homophobic remarks from acquaintances and even a few friends. My standard response is, “I wonder if you’ve forgotten my daughter is gay?” I may not change minds, but perhaps in the future, they’ll think before showing their ignorance. I speak up.

Except once.

Her name was Patti, and ours was an unlikely friendship. She was an evangelical right-winger whose values were antithetical to mine. In retrospect, I realize it was proximity and circumstances that brought us together. A fellow Texan, Patti was my summertime neighbor at a Colorado trout club where our families had been members for decades. When my dad died in 2007, the cabin passed to me.

I trailered my horse to southern Colorado five Septembers in a row before deciding to sell. As the older folks died, sold, or bequeathed their cabins, the club’s ambiance had changed. The gentle, gracious people I’d known as my parents’ peers gave way to “redneck with money” types for whom I have little patience. Patti had asked for right of first refusal if I ever decided to sell. She wanted an additional cabin for one of her children. When I told her I wanted out, we quickly agreed on a price and were equally delighted with our deal.

Though late September, it was near freezing as I packed up myself and my quarter horse for our return to Austin. Patti’s husband was driving in for one last weekend before winter arrived in earnest. At 11,000 feet, the Club’s summers were short. I’d invited Patti over for dinner that last night. Knowing she didn’t drink, I set the table for a quick meal sans cocktail hour. I wanted an early evening, a good night’s sleep, and a pre-dawn departure the next morning.

Plain and plump, Patti was a blonde in her mid-fifties. While not particularly stimulating company, she was educated and well-mannered, and she’d always been pleasant and hospitable to me. Arriving at 6:30 on the dot, she carried a zippered leather binder. I was glad she’d brought her planner so we could set the date for our pending transaction. After a supper of the odds and ends left in my refrigerator, Patti retrieved the binder from a chair near the kitchen door. She unzipped it, and I realized that the buttery-soft, dark blue leather cradled not a calendar, but a bible.

In a strangely ominous tone, she said, “We need to talk.” Patti had a high, squeaky little voice and an exaggerated Texas accent. Suddenly, she sounded like my father had when I was sixteen and he’d caught me drinking his vodka and smoking his Marlboros.

“What’s up?” I asked, praying our deal wasn’t about to go south.

“Well, in the YouTube we saw of Caroline’s performance, she talked about her relationships with other women. You told us she’s homosexual and that you’re totally okay with that, even proud!”

Several days prior, Patti and several other members had asked to see one of Caroline’s performances online. As I queued it up, I’d remarked that Caroline is gay, and that her comedy set related several anecdotes about various romantic entanglements she’d had. Consciously preemptive, I’d spent enough time with this crowd to know they weren’t exactly cheering on the Pride parade. My sights were set on selling and getting out of there, not a rumble that might screw things up. I wanted a cashier’s check and a friendly goodbye.

“True,” I replied. Flipping open the bible, Patti’s index finger dived to the passage she wanted to share. I could see that she’d prepared for this meeting; the page was marked with a tiny red satin ribbon. She looked at me hard, then read aloud. I don’t remember it exactly, but I know it was in the book of Romans and was birds and bees-type stuff. Smoothing her long, dishwater-blonde hair, Patti closed the bible and sat back in her chair.

“I’m worried about you.”

“Why?” Suspecting I wasn’t going to like the answer, I still asked the question.

“Do you not get that you’ll burn in hell right along with your daughter if you continue to approve of her lifestyle? God abhors her behavior! It’s up to you to show her the way!  Caroline can save herself! She must surrender her will to Him, beg His forgiveness, and go forth as a Christian woman who will honor and submit to a husband.” Patti paused briefly to catch her breath, and then, in a near shriek, delivered her coup de grace:

“Michelle, you must save Caroline — and yourself!”

I felt faint. My palms were moist and my heart pounded. I pushed back my chair and half-stood, then felt dizzy and sat back down. I yearned to say only two words: “Get out.”

But, dammit, I wanted to sell that cabin. A vaguely remembered bible verse skated across my mind. I don’t know exactly how it goes, but the gist is that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Still, I said nothing, finally mumbling something about giving it some thought. She continued to press me, but I sat rigidly in my chair, silent. After what felt like an eternity but was only a couple of minutes, I told her I had a long drive in the morning and I needed to get to bed.

Patti had one foot out the door when she turned and wrapped me in an enthusiastic hug. Stiffly, I patted her on the back. She pulled away and said, “I’ll be in touch as soon as Greg gets here and we’ll set a closing date sometime in the next couple of weeks.” Stepping into the icy, moonless night, she switched on a flashlight and disappeared down the dirt path to her cabin.

Two weeks later, I got an email from Patti. She’d changed her mind and no longer wanted the cabin. No apology, no concern, just that, and a suggestion we meet for lunch sometime soon.

The bible verse about money and evil leapt to mind and I felt sick to my stomach. I don’t know what God says about reneging on a promise the way Patti did, but here’s what I do know: I know I still feel the full-on shame and guilt of compromising my integrity and betraying my daughter in pursuit of a payday that eluded me in the end.

 

FLASH FICTION: After the Party

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“Disgusting. Drunken. Pig.”  Julia’s indictment, deliberate and incendiary, spilled a perfect accelerant to ignite the inevitable explosion.  She twisted in the buttery leather of the BMW’s seat to look directly at Marco just as he touched lighter to cigarette.  “Don’t fucking smoke in my car!” she screamed.  Lunging for the cigarette, Julia’s hand missed, slamming into the steering wheel instead.

“Crazy goddamn bitch!” shouted Marco, overcorrecting the swerving car on the sleet-slick highway and then hitting the brakes.  A dull thud ended abruptly in a shudder as the Beemer shimmied to a stop on the shoulder.

Both breathing hard, neither spoke.  Julia pressed the ignition button on the dash, killing the engine’s proud purr.  Silence – then a scratching sound from below, like fingernails on a screen door – and the car rocked almost imperceptibly.

“Oh my God! What the hell have you hit?”

Lurching to action, she reached behind the driver’s seat for the flashlight her dad insisted she stow there.  Motionless, Marco stared at her dumbly, gripping the lighted cigarette between thumb and forefinger.

“Get out,” Julia demanded, her voice low and hoarse. “I’m not doing this alone.”

Simultaneously, they opened their doors and stepped into the frigid, black stillness.  Though there was no moonlight, they were far enough from the city that there would have been stars overhead if the cloud cover were not so thick. With hands trembling so violently that the flashlight’s beam skittered across the glassy pavement, Julia glanced at Marco as he took a final drag on his cigarette and then flicked it onto the road.

 “Give me your jacket,” she demanded.  Marco shrugged out of his cashmere sports coat and handed it to her.  As Julia spread the jacket on the frozen asphalt in front of the car, a revolting stench assailed her nostrils and a moan unlike any she’d ever heard – alien and indiscernible – drifted up from the front bumper.  Shivering with cold and apprehension, she dropped to her right hip and elbow.  Then, curled like a snail atop Marco’s jacket, she lowered her head and aimed the high-powered light under the car.

Enormous citrine eyes straight out of Dante’s Ninth Circle bore directly into hers.  With a ragged wail, Julia struggled awkwardly to sit up, hot tears stinging her eyes.  She knew exactly what they’d hit.

“What?” bellowed Marco, sounding suddenly sober, hovering above her, “What the fuck’s down there?”

Julia came from ranching people, so she knew a javelina when she saw one.  Like feral hogs, they did endless damage to land and were often trapped and sold for meat.  Something about their eyes had always made her feel like she was peering straight into hell.  She remembered being told that their center of gravity was just right to flip a car.

“Awww-roooo,” came the plaintive sob, weaker now, from the car’s undercarriage.

“There’s an S.O.S. button over the rearview, Marco,” Julia said, quietly. “Hit that — and hand me the .38 that’s in the glove box.”

Deer Camp

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He wasn’t a bad-looking man.  In his mid-fifties, The Landowner was the stereotypical aging Texas frat boy.  He had a full head of graying hair, a healthy-looking tan, and the two-day stubble favored by the rugged outdoorsmen he ran with.  The rear of his khaki shorts hung loosely over his nonexistent backside while a slight beer gut threatened to obscure the silver buckle on his expensive-looking leather belt.  A purple golf shirt, hiking boots, white country club logo visor and Ray-Ban aviators completed the ensemble.

“Okay, boys, here’s the plan,” he said, leaning jauntily against an all-terrain vehicle.  “I mark the limbs that need cuttin’ with this orange ribbon, and you guys follow along and whack ‘em off.”  He grinned, thin lips stretching across straight teeth.  Somehow, the smile failed to reach the rest of his face.

It was late September, just a month before opening day of deer season.  This ritual — getting the camp and the blinds ready, clearing the roads, setting electric feeders to scatter the corn just right — was as sacred as the hunt itself.

The Landowner, along with The Boys (who were armed with long-handled loppers) had observed this tradition since they were fourteen and The Patriarch had deemed them ready.  Throughout the autumns of their youth, they had learned to build a blind, to field dress a buck — to swear and drink “like a man.”

The Patriarch had drifted through the fog of dementia for the previous seven years, dying a month after his eighty-eighth birthday.  For four decades now, the group had remained intact.  Regrettably, it seemed the host had gone from privileged man-child to petty tyrant.

Climbing on the ATV, The Landowner accelerated and putt-putted away, roiling dusty swirls up into the still, hot air.  He stopped frequently to lean right or left, tying pre-cut lengths of bright orange nylon ribbon to the thorn-covered mesquite branches that hovered like bony witch’s claws above the crude dirt road. The three rolled their eyes and began ambling along behind, clipping the marked limbs as they encountered them.  Nobody bothered pointing out that it took longer to tie the ribbon than it would to cut the branch.  Each carried a sweating Miller Lite; they bent and set the cans on the ground while they pruned.

The ATV was out of sight when the white Chevy truck of a neighboring rancher surprised them.

“What’s up with the surveyor’s ribbon?” he asked, once greetings had been exchanged.  After they’d filled him in, he shook his head, gazing off into the distance.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy,” he said.  “I stopped by for a visit last week – spotted his pickup at the camp.  Was driving up to camp – saw him grab a spray bottle an’ soak his shirt so it’d look like he’d been sweatin’.  Damndest thing I ever saw.”

The Boys nodded silently as the putt-putt of the ATV drew nearer; then the vehicle appeared.  The Landowner braked and climbed off.

“Hey, man!”  Smiling broadly, he strode toward the group, a welcoming hand outstretched. “How you been?”

The Boys turned quickly to conceal smirks that threatened to expose their disdain.  Cracking open fresh cans of beer, they continued along the dusty road, silently clipping the marked branches.  Deer season would open on the first day of November.  There was plenty left to do, and they wanted to be ready come opening day.

The War on Wendy

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My divorce wasn’t final until mid-1995, but my ex-husband left in ’94. In my daughter’s mind, we “divorced” when she was three. She and I have both recalled the timeline inaccurately on occasion. The dismemberment of Wendy Davis’ biography is just more of the same in her detractors’ desperation to discredit her with shameful and demeaning name-calling. To my knowledge, she never discussed the details of the financing of her education. That slice of red meat is nothing but a red herring. If Davis were a man, not a single eyebrow would rise over the news that the children were primarily cared for by their mother, who also worked to subsidize his education. In fact, if a man had stayed at home as the primary caretaker of the children, it’s unlikely he’d be a candidate. Issues aside, I don’t care for this crowd’s core beliefs about women.

The Strip

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The nearly-deserted street mirrors the faces of the losers. At dawn, the Las Vegas Strip is strewn with cups, vomit, broken bottles and cigarette butts — as forlorn and pitiful as the haggard, exhausted look of the gambler who didn’t know when to quit.

Time runs backwards in Vegas. Every night, as the sun sets behind distant mountains and a hundred million lights ignite the desert sky with a kaleidoscope of color, it’s a new day, filled with the promise of the big win. Like magic, Las Vegas Boulevard has been scrubbed and scoured – a clean slate, the previous evening’s sins forgotten, the page turned, a new beginning.

Weekend gambling warriors, bachelor and bachelorette partiers, and tourists of all stripes make Vegas the frenzied and unruly destination that it is. Young women in impossibly high stilettos and dresses barely covering their derrieres wobble their way through the casinos and onto The Strip. Intoxicated fraternity boys rove like herds of wild boar, their manners just slightly better than the rednecks dressed in their finest Duck Dynasty garb. The glamour of the Rat Pack era is gone forever. A stumbling, drunken bride, screeching expletives at the top of her lungs, is a far more common sight than is an elegantly dressed woman or a man in a tux.

In morning’s harsh glare, twenty-something girls still in party dresses make their way down the sidewalks, barefoot now, four-inch heels in hand, with smudged mascara and messy hair. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” may be clichéd and trite, but there is no doubt that this city encourages and celebrates behavior that would be unthinkable anywhere else.

Free alcohol flows freely, and the drinks are strong for anyone who plays the games. Folks who, under normal circumstances, would never touch tobacco become enthusiastic smokers in Las Vegas. The acrid stench lasts for days, permeating clothing, handbags – even luggage – an unintended souvenir to be carried back home. There really is a drive-through wedding chapel to unite the most impulsive of lovers!

There are neither clocks nor windows in the casinos. The lighting is the same at 10:00 a.m. as it is at midnight – it always feels like midnight. Players who commence at midnight may be at the same table at 10:00 the next morning. This is the desired outcome produced by the science and art of casino design. A casino even experimented with piping the aroma of freshly baked bread through the entrance doors, hoping to attract gamblers with a whiff of comfort food.

The constant clamor of the slot machines becomes white noise. A jackpot results in earsplitting bells and piercing whistles, intended to attract non-players. The slots, which seem to cover acres in the center of every casino, are the domain of the older crowd. So intense is their “work,” their faces appear set, almost grim. Buses arrive continuously, belching forth hordes of senior citizens who feast on cheap buffets and play penny slots for hours on end. Las Vegas is a service economy, and this is a stingy bunch. Hotel and casino employees tolerate them, eyes rolling discreetly with disdain.

The homeless seem a little different in Las Vegas. Since homelessness is what it is, the throngs of revelers must be what cause their condition to seem even more brutal than it does in other large cities. The sight of people with nothing amid crowds of drunks with wads of money they’re throwing away – almost literally – seems even harsher, somehow.

Nearly everything in Vegas is make-believe. There’s a fake Paris, a phony Rome and a pretend New York. Most of The Strip is a carnival of the absurd. But the lights – ah – the phantasmagoria of nighttime Las Vegas lights. It’s a vision that even the sternest Bible belt Baptist must secretly appreciate. From above, Vegas is an explosion of garish and dazzling colors, like a Fourth of July fireworks show that lasts until sunrise.

At daylight, the brilliant display evaporates, and Las Vegas Boulevard lays exposed. Like an aging stripper under fluorescent lighting, the grime and refuse in the street are like the heavy makeup that settles into the lines and creases on her face. It’s morning. For at least eight or nine hours, there’s the feeling of something real in Las Vegas. It’s the desert, with its pure, pristine light and crisp, clean air.

Inside the casinos, with neither a clock nor a window in sight, it’s still sometime around midnight.