The Searing Comfort of Layla

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

I spent the summer of 1973 sitting on a blanket atop the scorched brown grass behind our Flint townhouse, yards of black cord connected my bagel-size headphones to our stereo inside. I watched my eight-month old baby girl sit and crawl and eat the brown grass while Eric Clapton’s Layla, the screaming, wild, knife in the heart, electric version, roared in my head.

Sometimes, after the seven-minute song ended, I would take off my headphones and go in the house to reset the record needle to the beginning instead of waiting for the rest of the songs to play. I loved Layla that much.

And I doubted my life just as much.

I’d wanted to be a mother, so much so that it had been all I thought about for years, convincing myself that one bad decision or another in my earlier, single days, would make getting pregnant impossible. But when motherhood came, I was at a loss. It was so constant. And it felt so diminishing. While my husband was at work, dressed in a suit and managing people and things, I was in charge of the backyard, too thick around the waist to button my shorts, not his fault, this is just how it was then.

But Layla.

The deafening sounds of Clapton’s guitar, the slide and screech, the gut of his voice, lifted me out of the backyard into the wild place of desire and longing and loss and passion that I’d forgotten I’d ever felt. And that made me feel like freedom was still out there, still possible, that my feeling stuck and anchored and imprisoned was momentary, not permanent.

So I would listen to Layla with the volume turned to the highest our old stereo allowed and I’d hold by baby girl’s tiny hands while she walked across the blanket, the afternoon sun blocked by our townhouse so the backyard was cool and shady.

Layla, you’ve got me on my knees
Layla, I’m begging, darling please
Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.

-Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, 1970-

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WordPress Discover Prompt #3: Song

Witness to Happiness

The man was jolly, like he’d changed out of his red suit a few days ago and now was just hanging out in Ocean Beach. Happy. Jovial. Smiling. Chatting. An ad for good humor. Or maybe delight. He seemed delighted. How many people do you run into at a doughnut shop who appear to be delighted?

So, of course, a happy man would encounter two toddler boys and find more reasons to be happy. After seeing their grandfather wearing a University of Wisconsin shirt, he would joke with them about how to raise their arms and say TOUCHDOWN when the Wisconsin Badgers scored in the Holiday Bowl the next day. Maybe he would do this three or four times or maybe a dozen. Say TOUCHDOWN, laugh and put his hands over his head.

None of us knew what to make of him.

We were all sitting outside at an Ocean Beach doughnut shop, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, doing what you do at a doughnut shop. A big dog, part pit bull and part maybe not, came wandering by. One of the things I like about Ocean Beach, and California in general, is that people don’t get tense about their dogs roaming about. I wish I was like that, a person who didn’t get tense about my dog roaming about and sniffing around people eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. To tolerate that, I think, requires a basic belief in the harmlessness of most dogs.

So I eyed the happy man. Part of me thought what a nice, jovial man and another part wondered when he would ask us for money. Shut up, I said to the part that wondered if the man was homeless and about to hit us up for cash. Just accept that someone could be happy and conversational and into small children.

He started toward the door of the doughnut shop but halted. Then he started a new gambit with my toddler grandsons. He fished in a bag of shells he took out of his pocket and gave each boy a shell that he’d just found on the beach. He explained about the shells and they listened to every word, holding their shells in their little hands like he’d given them chocolate or gold. My daughter, the boys’ mother, watched all this with a smile and friendly banter.

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There were a few more shells and then the happy man went in the doughnut shop. A few minutes later he emerged with his coffee and a bag of something, waved goodbye to us and got in his car parked right at the curb near our table. It was a small station wagon with two happy-looking dogs in the back seats.

At the beach later, my grandsons looked for shells. One or the other would find a tiny shell and bring it to me to look at.  Little boys. Little shells. Their love of the shells varied. Sometimes, they showed me and then ran to the water to pitch their little prize into the surf. Other times, they wanted the shells put in my pocket.

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Thinking about the happy man at the doughnut shop later, it occurred to me that there had been a choice to be made although it hadn’t been mine to make. The boys could have been told not to talk to the happy man, the happy man could have gotten signals that his attention and friendliness were unwelcome. A chance to harden the little boys’ tiny soft hearts was missed, put off for a different day. For the time being, their mom let them believe in the harmlessness of most people, showed them how to trust the friendliness of strangers. She chose this instead of starting down the path of fearing strangers on this one sunny day outside the doughnut shop. Maybe she thought there was plenty of time for that later. I don’t know what she thought even though she is my daughter. She is her own kind of mother.

This all reminded me of the saying “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” And the twig is bent in thousands of small ways, tiny choices that no one ever sees. But I saw this one. I was a witness.

 

 

 

The Precious Routine of Life

We ate at seven because the store closed at six and it took my father time to empty the cash drawers, roll up the awning, double check all the doors including the big steel door in the back where we got the big shipment every Tuesday, boxes and boxes to unload, rip open with box cutters and empty into neat stacks in the backroom. By 6:20 or so, he’d switch off the lights from the main box in the back and he’d walk down the aisles, all the merchandise covered with coarse sail cloth so as to avoid dust accumulating overnight. Thirty minutes later he would walk in the side door from the garage. It would be time for supper.

When something went wrong, well, really only one thing ever went wrong. When my mother got sick and had to go to the hospital, the hands on the clock stood still. It seemed wrong so I kept it a secret or would have had anyone asked how I was doing but my worry for my mother, whether she would get well soon and come home, was overpowered by my yearning for supper. The five place settings. Glasses at our places, coffee cups at theirs. Paper napkins folded in triangles and dessert set out in small saucers, a half inch of butterscotch pudding, a single canned peach.

Each time in my life has its own precious routine. When I was a single mother, my daughter and I ate supper at the kitchen table except on those nights when disorder and not caring left dishes in the sink from the day before. I fed her mac and cheese out of a box on a plate on her lap. She watched television while I lied on the couch, smoking cigarettes, my glass of cheapest white wine balanced on the bumpy carpeting. I was too tired for more, too fraught with leaving and being left. I knew the precious routine would give me comfort but comfort was not what I wanted. I wanted the yearning more.

Then, things brightened and we sat at a new table in a new nook in a new house, then we crowded in a high chair, then a booster seat, then we moved to the dining room and we set the table every night and each place had a napkin folded in a rectangle. We drank coffee at dinner, too. It was dinner now and not supper, supper having gone to the farmers to keep precious. Each of the three more children had their place added to the original girl’s, their dad and me at opposite ends of the table, being as if in a picture of dinnertime on a magazine cover or an ad for positive family development. When something went wrong, someone sick or gone, angry or silent, it was dinner I yearned for more than their recovery.

Now it is just the two of us. Sometimes we set the table in our nook, sometimes we eat off plates on our laps while watching television. When my children come home, we eat at the dining room table. It feels big and unnatural, unnecessary but I know they are wanting their seats, wanting to see us in our places. We may have shed the routine but it is still precious to them. And so we act out what was once how we anchored our lives. We are adrift now but we don’t want them to know that we are happy floating. So we sit at the big table and all is as they remember. It is the precious routine of life.

 

Straight with Many Limes

Flor de Cana is Nicaraguan rum.

I’m not a connoisseur of rum. I only drink this rum. Because it is Nicaraguan.

I remember being in Managua, sitting in the courtyard of Casa Bolonia, a squat, sprawling hotel where plywood had been used to make two rooms out of one. In the room where I was staying, half the air conditioner was in my room and the other half, with the controls, was in the room next door.

It was 1988.

I had traveled to Managua with my 15-year old daughter to fetch a little boy who would become my son and her brother. We traveled with a small group who had come to Nicaragua for other reasons but we were together like relatives there because it was foreign and risky. At night, the city was dark and walking was dangerous, not because of people but because of massive holes in the pavement. You never knew where they were, the holes.

It was very hot, thick hot, dripping all the time, and it rained hard every afternoon. By the time night came, we only wanted to drink so we would sit in the courtyard with our friends and the new boy on our laps, and we would talk and laugh about the day and gaze at the new bottle of Flor de Cana on the wrought iron table.

We had tried to find Coke all day but there seemed to be none in the city. In days prior, we’d bought Coke from vendors who gave it to us in plastic bags tied at the top with a twist tie. This is how the Coke came, I don’t remember why.

The trick was to bite a small hole in the corner of the bag and drink the Coke that way. It was chancy, the Coke being likely to run down one’s arm, but the heat made trying worth the effort. So we yearned for a bag of Coke to have with our rum since drinking rum straight seemed extreme or at least something one wouldn’t do in front of one’s daughter, especially with a new son. It appeared all was lost for our rum drinking.

While we puzzled over this, the Nicaraguan boyfriend of a woman in our group, a man who had been a soldier in the Sandinista Army, fought in the jungles up in the mountains, and often carried his knife in his teeth to keep his hands free, stood up and announced we would have limes for our rum! And he pointed to the lime tree in the middle of the courtyard, smiling with glee at the dozens of limes hanging ripe. He picked dozens of limes, slashing each one open on the ceramic tile of the table top.

So we squeezed lime after lime in our plastic cups and poured in the Flor de Cana and the drink was tart, so tart it made our eyes water, but better than anything I had ever drunk. So I think of that every time I unscrew the lid of my bottle of Flor de Cana – that night thirty years ago with the heat and the rum and the limes. All the limes.

The Frosty Limits of Love

So what would you do for love? Walk across the country? Swim the English Channel? Sit on a metal bench at Lambeau Field with 80,000 football zealots in -30 wind chill? For four hours while the sun went down and the wind kicked up and then, afterward, walk the 10 blocks back to your car and sit huddled and mute under blankets for the two hour drive home listening to Sports Talk Radio and looking forward to a stop at a gas station with bright lights and heat blasted from a huge blower mounted on the wall?

Not a question you usually need to answer? Good for you. You see, I’m married to this person. He regards Lambeau Field as a holy place. He doesn’t joke about this.

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I’ve gone to a zero degree game at Lambeau Field. To keep warm, I carried in what we call the German Army sleeping bag which we bought years ago at an army surplus store in Wyoming. Anyway, the sleeping bag looks sort of normal except that it has two sleeves and a hood. Basically, once in the sleeping bag, you’re not going anywhere without hopping although you can still hold a beer or your head if sobbing about your fate.

The delight of seeing the Packers get into the play-offs after a long season of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers watching from the sidelines nursing his broken collarbone was swiftly replaced by my growing dread that we would end up going to the game. Each day, the weather predictions about Sunday’s game became more dire and the lure of cheap Packer tickets more electric.

“If it’s something you really want to do, I’ll do it.” I stood in the kitchen, Topper’s stylish ghosts, George and Marion, sitting on the counter next to me.

“Seriously?” Marion said, her arms folded, swinging her leg back and forth. “You are going to sit outside in insanely freezing weather in a German Army sleeping bag? Why would you do that?”

“Her husband loves football, Marion. It’s obvious. She loves him so she’s offering to go.” George tapped a cigarette on his lighter. “It’s a nice thing. Any man would appreciate it.”

“It’s absurd. Utterly and totally absurd and outrageous. My dear, you have to have been brainwashed. What has become of you?” Her disdain dripped on the counter and formed an awful puddle. This really stung coming from a female ghost from the fifties.

I slapped them both away. There’s no place for harsh judgments in my kitchen.

But really, what was I thinking? Going to Lambeau Field on Sunday to watch the Packers and 49’ers in the 2nd Ice Bowl was like the first episode of a new reality show – Extreme Good Sports – where I guarantee the stars would all be women doing crazy stuff to make somebody else happy. And usually when they weren’t even asked or begged. Just thinking that’s what a good sport would do.

Then this afternoon, the local school system announced they were closing on Monday because of the severe cold that was starting Sunday (Game Day as we call it here), life threatening they called it, and then this text arrived:

“I can get 2 tickets at the 50 yd. line”

“How much?”

“Face value. $125”

“Is this something you really want to do?”

“No.”

No? Well, I would’ve done it.  Already had the German Army sleeping bag out of the attic, fumigated it, made sure no mice homesteaded, wouldn’t want them running amok at Lambeau and now, you say, it’s all for naught? We’ll just sit in the living room with pizza and beer and you’ll smoke a cigar? Which is fine with me, cigar smoke, love it, reminds me of Dad.

Besides, you know me. I’m a really good sport.

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Republished for Howard on the last night of the 2019-2020 football season for fans of the Green Bay Packers. Next year!