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Considering Non-Nonfiction

So far I have been writing nonfiction only—not journalism, nothing in the pursuit of truth-- just a healthy fascination for real absurdities around me and how they relate. In college I called my personal essays “documentaries” and I called my poems “tiny essays.” I built up enough of these to earn a degree in Creative Writing, all the while wondering why everyone else wasn’t taking advantage of this obviously easy A.

The last time I wrote real “stories” was probably 5th grade. Since then, the labor of “imagineering” a whole world of fiction seems too great a task. I can remember some assignment in Mrs. Massey’s class where I turned in a page about the energy of the big city, Atlanta. There were some lines in there about red and gold garlands of traffic on I-75. (See, my material hasn’t evolved). My teacher was disappointed that I didn’t stick to the fables I had previously submitted, featuring elves, talking objects, and slightly modified Greek goddesses.

Of course, I am a natural liar— never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, etc. I frequently condescend to think that I know what people are thinking. It is this speculative liberty, maybe, that connects my essays and potential short stories.

For example: I came home this afternoon to find a plastic sack of tomatoes onmy doorstep. Three of them with that, small, firm assymetrical look of homegrown stock. That’s all the evidence- the nonfiction part of it.

But I know its Maryann again, trying to be neighborly. And I think I know why. Here’s the gray area in which I invent a backstory.

She has managed to raise these tomatoes in the backyard alongside our shared fence. I can see where she laid a set of iron burglar bars on its side to defend the furry little shoots from her 2 dogs.

In a couple sheepish moments of sobriety I’ve caught her coming or going in the driveway. She has given me a progress report on her crop and promised to share them at harvest time. It’s like she’s playacting the part of a friendly neighbor. Nevermind that the week before she was standing in the same driveway, drunk or high or otherwise out of her mind, screaming and cursing at one hour intervals throughout the night.

I am interested in her lame attempts at normalcy. Does she do it for my benefit? She’ll get up early to mow the lawn, but stop halfway. The line of clippings leaves a brown ridge down the center of the yard. It’s a week before she picks up the task again.

I think shame prevents her from continuing, from delivering the tomatoes in person, from trying to be normal. Just Wednesday she’d had enough beers to let herself onto my front porch. She arranged her drawings on the hood of my car and urged me to come out to the driveway, our usual meeting spot, to look at her artwork.

I didn’t go to school or nothing, she kept saying. This just came out of my head. She kept asking the same questions over and over again, pausing to admit that she’s drunk, lonely, and doubtful.

Meanwhile, I’m anxious to get back inside and on that train of thought I was writing about, a fictional, speculative woman just like her. Knowing I’ll catalog the dialog from this conversation to write it down later. Are other people doing this to me? A simmering disgust adds to my fixation on her. Or is this an exercise in compassion? Trying to understand and forgive another person? Is she any bigger than my perception of her?

At least I’m not exploiting my friends and family in my writing (this time). Maybe I’ll even have the courage to let this go out in public.


Neighborhood Character

Thomas L. Monroe, Jr is the name on the mailbox, but the kids call him Monroe. His beergut and broad whiskered chin give him the silhouette of a large man, but from behind, it looks like a he could use a decent meal. His baggy dungarees and red suspenders have that grime-softened, slept-in look that takes weeks to achieve. Monroe can’t be much older than 55, but his husky drawl and backwoods sayings remind you of an old-timer. His mustache shuffles on his thin upper lip as he warns you about the blacks, the sheriff’s deputy, and the homosexuals around town.

On hot days, he’ll fool around on the porch wearing suspenders and no shirt, but it’s rare to spot him without a hat. At all times, he keeps a trucker cap mashed on his surprisingly bald, cone-shaped head. He stalks the block, belly first, with a dachsund on a rope and still plenty of strength in his shoulders.

Monroe motors around town in his rusty orange Chevy picking up any piece of junk that might fetch a couple dollars at the recycling plant. You can spot his truck at all the Stumptown landmarks- Arby’s or Zesto or the SaveRite Grocery. “I got but one wife now,” he says, “and that’s the microwave.”


I have been this way all my life.

I am only in the third grade, but already annoyed with things. Mrs. Parks, always stepping out into the hallway to chat with another teacher. Homer Copeland, who thinks I will return his love by stabbing me with a pencil. Mrs. Parks, forever lotioning her hands, says, one at a time at the pencil sharpener, you know the rules. She may know about cursive, and all the times tables, but what a fool. I'll have a tiny gray spot of lead in the heel of my palm for the rest of my life, you lazy bitch. I will write a full report of your misconduct and see what Principal Adams has to say.

My first nanny was a woman from Tibet called Pima. She was small in her ancient blue jeans, guiding my stroller down Fifth Avenue to visit Dad. A sherpa in Manhattan. For a long, long time, I thought everybody was calling their mamas “Pima.”  

One day I will wander into a Williamsburg boutique called Pima. The walls will be festooned with silk scarves, beaded slippers, bejeweled scrunchies and the like. I'll try on earrings for a while before I ask the lady behind the counter about that name. Turns out, its such a common name, most girls in Tibet are named Pima. It means daughter. The miracle is that I can sponge this new trivia without ever dimming my sense of having always known it, always had the upper hand.

I know all about histamines and organ transplants. Unless there’s an accident, y’know, I think if a person’s organs fail them cuz they’re old or something, they should be just, y’know, let go.

Next we had a housekeeper named Mrs. Bell. I was still pretty small and only remember that she was dark brown and spherical, like a series of rounds: buttocks, breasts, hairdo and lips. The meals she cooked for us came across as brown and mangled, no matter how they started out in colorful boxes and freezer bags. One time she served stuffed bell peppers. What is this? said my little sister. Stuffed what? You don't like bell peppers, I told her. And she never has eaten them since.

Why is everybody so determined to fuck things up? I protest, not because of some big holy idea of right vs wrong, but because you people are not acting in your own best interest. Sometimes I wonder if Pima judged me for wearing Gucci footwear before I could walk. Not that I had any role in my attire. Sometimes I wonder if Mrs. Bell got the joke about bell peppers. Her first name was Evilee. Did she say the little curse I often heard from Mrs. Parks, Lord give me strength to endure? And sometimes I wonder if Mrs. Parks was sleeping with that cute dentist who came to tell us about flossing and brushing, and don't forget to brush your tongue. That way, he said, the only way you'll have bad breath is if you burp. The roomful of us, indian-style on the floor, laughed, but to me, it was a revelation.

People avoid me because I’m disapproving, I’m judgmental, I’m no funatall. But, let’s be realistic. I wish I had a friend like me! Someone who refused to accommodate my bad choices. Someone who pointed out that, hey, sleeping with the 17 year old busboy is a really stupid move. Buying that orange leather Coach purse on Dad's credit card is not a step towards the kind of person you want to be. Changing the pricetag on your organic groceries? Will I look the other way? No, and again, not because I sympathize with Whole Foods. Because it makes you a thief.

You are all avoiding my stern, holier-than-thou opinions. But then you call me a role model? You line up for my monologues? A wire rake to scratch my back, s’il vous plait. I hate sitting still to learn card games. I refuse to learn to play solitaire. I hate being taught the colors of the spectrum, I knew that already.

I am the nanny of my friends. With my headphones on, I listen to this guitar solo and fantasize about playing it for the entire school cafeteria. They didn’t know I could play guitar. Even the 6th graders are moved to cry quietly, even the boys. Is it this song, I wonder, or the awe of my hidden talents?