Although it was dark and the chill was settling in, the plaza was busy on the first of a three-day weekend. The restaurants and bars were full of bubbling conversations. Couples strolled by with restaurants on one side and the harbor on the other.
Sue and I had enjoyed an impromptu road trip to find a kinda famous “dented goods” place run by Mennonites in the middle of “I’m Lost” Wisconsin. Because of getting lost, we got there a half hour before closing, and discovered that we didn’t need more time than that. My primary purchases were corn remover pads in every configuration. It’s been 5 years and I still have stock, but what a deal!
We found roadside attractions to take turns posing beside. I felt like a true American standing beside the big ass upright cow statue that was wearing a chef’s hat and holding a big raw slab of sirloin.
Our last “official” destination before heading back to Illinois was established: Baumgartner’s in Monroe. It is one of a kind, so far as I can tell. The walls are covered by a battle between wine and beer, which I understand is symbolic of a battle between the Huguenots and the Catholics. In Monroe, the beery Protestants win.
Years earlier in our friendship, when Sue lived upstairs from me, we had gotten drawn to Monroe by their rotating festivals—one year it was the cheese festival and the next an accordion festival. Fortunately a girl never had to choose between them.
We’d almost come to blows during the Cheese Festival parade that honored families of cheese makers—seriously there were flatbed trucks with a bunch of old German farmers sitting on chairs. It was cute and funny, but the people of Monroe are serious about their cheese. They set up chairs days in advance, we later learned, to watch the parade. When I stepped out to take a couple of pictures, a wave of seething hatred washed over me from behind. Soon the grumbling began and we moved along, hoping not to have drawn the short straw in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” re-make.
On this day in Monroe, we were bound to try a local cheese of lore: limburger! We knew of its stinky reputation, but we’re fans of stinky cheese! Until our sandwiches arrived, we didn’t know that limburger actually smells like roadkill that has been in the sun for several days. We laughed and cried and cried.
Last week I walked down Franklin Street for a meeting. A man was working on his car, crouched on the street to get under the front seat. From his hat, I know he’s an A’s fan, but otherwise I only know that he needs a belt, more effective underwear, and perhaps a bit more time in the sun.
Dick was sitting at his kitchen table stirring the sugar into his coffee. He never managed to get it all into the cup and didn’t Noreen bitch about starting her day with sugar gritty elbows. Christ. If that was the worst of her troubles. He flicked his lighter and pulled in a lungful of smoke, first of the day.
“Yes, Zippers, this here is the most satisfying time of the day. Just you, me, coffee, and nicotine. It’s a man’s paradise right here, old Zip, isn’t it?” He scratched the black and white cat’s chin.
Zippers was a skinny bastard, probably because he spent every night outside carousing and whoring around.
“I need to give you a multi-vitamin, old man?”
Time to put his shoes on and head out to the shoe shop. If he didn’t punch the clock and get to his machine on time, Donnelly would be on his ass all day long. What a bastard.
Maybe, Dick thought, I should cut old Donnelly some slack. After all, his almost-pretty wife disappeared on him and he was just a working stiff earning a few extra bucks for all his supervisory prickishness. Probably sucks to be him. Maybe more than being me, even.
“But I got Zippers, don’t I boy? He don’t got a Zip Man, now does he?”
Dick scratched the cat behind his ears and bent to tie his shoes.
I am pleased to announce that my flash fiction piece, “The Light” received an honorable mention in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. I am in good company with my friends Sue Granzella, who got an honorable mention for her essay, “Geography of a Final Resting Place” and Barbara Ridley who won first prize for her short story, “The Ring” and third prize for her memoir vignette, “Half and Half.” It’s a fortuitous start to the new year!
In celebration, I am re-posting The Light.
“Let me light that fire for you,” I said. “I’m good at it.”
The moth paused for a moment, contemplating. Her antennae quivered, as if there were a tiny breeze.
“Yes, that would be fine,” she said. “Actually, it would be quite nice of you.”
“So, where are you off to?”
“I’m searching. I’m called to search for the thing I am missing. There is a shadow inside of me, a cool empty place.” She paused looking over my head.
“I see,” I said, picking up the two smooth, dry twigs. Rubbing them together, I felt warmth radiating from the friction.
“Why do you ask?” said Moth.
“I wondered how we both happened to be in this dark place, as if we were here to meet.”
“That could be. Perhaps,” Moth said. “And you. You are here for a purpose?”
“I am consumed with too much heat,” I said. “I came to cool my face under the light of the moon. It was here a moment ago. I don’t see it now.”
“Nor I. Nor I,” she said, again rubbing her spindly legs together.
I slid the twigs back and forth and sparks glinted off, cascading onto the mound of straw I had gathered.
“Oh my,” Moth said.
Soon the straw was ablaze and I tossed my twigs onto the top, watching the tendrils of bark glow and curl back, exposing the tender innards to the fire. I turned to gather more twigs and when I turned back, Moth was gone and the fire was inexplicably larger, like a passion recently kindled.
The two ladies at the nail salon are giggling again. This place is truly a hole in the wall. In fact, it is the kind of place that might even have holes in its walls–although I have never seen any. The salon is a few yards from my house. I go there for pedicures when the urge strikes me, which is to say rarely. But I always smile and wave as I pass, and they always seem tickled to see me.
The topic came up a few months back about a guy they know from the neighborhood. He is Vietnamese, like they are. They have told me in their limited English that he is “crazy,” by which I understand they mean developmentally disabled. They always add that he is ugly. That he looks exactly like “the biggest kind of monkey,” by which I have come to understand they mean the gorilla.
Here are some other things I have learned about him. His name is Tuk. He receives SSI, because he is “crazy.” He is 42, the son of an American GI stationed in Ho Chi Min City during the Vietnam War. His father was African American. Tuk is thoroughly Vietnamese, although you would not know that by looking at him. Anni says he just looks like a poor middle aged black man; the commonest of sights in our neighborhood.
Tuk’s mother abandoned him as soon as he was born. He was raised in “the temple.” Vietnam, Anni and Mai always tell me, is extremely racist. “Mixed” children had little trouble in Vietnam, even though their fathers were gone. But no one wanted the mixed children whose unknown fathers were black. Tuk has never known a family member, ever. What happened was, when the American government began allowing the children of GIs to come to the U.S., he was quickly snapped up by a Vietnamese family who wanted to come here. As soon as they all arrived, they bid him “goodbye forever.”
It is true that Anni and Mai laugh their asses off every time they talk about Tuk’s appearance. But they like him, and always help him. Mai gives him $five dollars for food whenever he stops in. If she has no money, she gives him her lunch. His rent is $550 per month. His SSI check is $700. So he has a place to sleep but has to choose between bus fare and food. Clothing, he only gets if someone at the temple gives it to him.
I showed them on Mai’s i-phone the website detailing where he can get a free lunch in the neighborhood from a St. Vincent de Paul program, four days per week. I said if he could get to the Alameda County Food Bank, they would give him groceries and determine whether he’s eligible for food stamps, now optimistically termed “Cal Fresh.” When I showed Anni and Mai these things, they were super excited to tell him about the resources he might access to have more food.
Today when I came in, they told me he loves the lunches from St. Vincent de Paul and that the Food bank gave him a lot of food, but said he is not eligible for food stamps. Mai said she wishes he could get a job helping out at a Vietnamese business, because he loves to work and is such a good person. But they added that Vietnamese people are so racist that they would never hire him, and would say that he would drive all the Vietnamese customers away.
Tuk wows the African-American ladies who come in to the shop when they hear him speaking Vietnamese, they tell me. Then they repeat that he is soooo ugly, and double over with laughter. Anni adds that people have always “used” Tuk, and that he has had nothing but terrible luck his whole life. Mai manages to get out between giggling fits, “I always tell him he is ugly,” and he always answers, smiling, “Wrong, Mai. I am handsome.”
Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.
Thanksgiving night, I started in on some cheap white wine one of my brothers had brought and we hadn’t gotten around to opening. I had lived alone in my furnished apartment for a couple of months at that point,having begun my graduate studies at the university. My brothers had come down from Portland for the holiday. My ex, Marty, had flown up from California. He was a good boyfriend and every bit as good an ex. He was living at his artist brother’s place in San Francisco.
We’d eaten early and they all hit the road by four. I spent the night picking at the leftover stuffing and sipping from a plastic tumbler of wine. Outside my furnished apartment, my tree-lined street was bereft of green. The sidewalk-colored sky seemed slashed with hard black phone wires. I didn’t want to leave my apartment, even though its very impersonality normally soothed me.
I had this giant old microwave someone had discarded and left in the laundry room. But I burnt the microwave popcorn into a black and smoldering ball, and now my apartment reeked. I was drinking and drinking that ersatz chardonnay, and calling Marty. Now it was seriously late. But I just kept calling and listening to that ringing phone in his brother’s concrete studio, willing myself to register the sound for as long as I could, before the next billowing silence.
It wasn’t that I wished we were a couple again. Hadn’t I just put the brakes on that crazy affair with my old flame from college? It had ended spectacularly, with him driving me to Matador Beach. Me nauseated from the drive. Begging him to take me back home. Stopping at the Westward Ho supermarket in Brentwood, seeing him deliberate over ten dollar bottles of bubbly. I had gotten used to expensive things by then.
By the time we got to my place, I had gathered myself to say at last that I really was leaving for Oregon. That I wanted him to be happy; to meet someone great. A surreal night flowed, with him repeatedly leaving the apartment, then returning. In my sleep-deprived state after those crazy nights of love I was having waking dreams he was coming back again and again. Then, at last, he was gone.
I finally got drunk enough that I stopped calling Marty and lost consciousness in my bed filled with books. The next morning I awoke with a caved in feeling in my skull, belly roiling. The streaming sun made my eyeballs pulse. I was hefting that giant microwave back into the laundry room when I ran into a neighbor I’d met only once before. Tall, good looking, friendly, Gay, of course. I remembered my landlord telling me he was a high-end hair stylist. He surprised me by inviting me to take a bike ride. An invitation so normal, so not-me. I was still pretty green around the gills, as my grandmother would have said.
“Say yes,” he instructed me, so I did. We rode for an hour or so. I had this red Schwinn I’d brought from Santa Monica. This hairdresser guy and I rode down the empty midtown streets, then cut over to the river. I must have told him about my struggle to be happy. My starting graduate school after this crazy affair and how my old flame still wrote to me and telephoned me every day. How he’d informed me that if I was breaking up with him, I needed to do it in person. And then calling from the train station not far from my house, scaring me. How cruel I ended up being to him on the phone.
My building was so quiet I could hear the splash of urine in my upstairs neighbor’s toilet bowl. According to my landlord, he was a Japanese violin maker. But all I ever heard was his soft footfall; his piss. I was trying to begin graduate school life, but it was going badly, with the sleep deprivation and the late night calls.
I guess I told my neighbor the famous visiting editor who was leading my writing workshop had called me out for coming to class unprepared. That I’d torn though all of my material the first-ever class I taught, then realized only twenty minutes had passed. That I’d visited the famous women-owned bookstore in my neighborhood. My idea that I’d work there part-time. Join a community of women, now that I was single. But the cashier had snapped at me that I needed to close the door so the cat wouldn’t get out.
In the clouds, airplanes appeared and reappeared like a line of stitches in laundered-thin quilt. Sitting beside our bikes on the weedy bank, the sun had a chance to warm us. “See that plane up there?” my neighbor said at last. “It seems like everyone on it must have it made. But how much do you want to bet every single passenger is up there asking themselves why does happiness elude me? What am I supposed to be doing. I’d be complete if I could just have that job, that partner, that lucky break.”
I know; I know. It sounds simplistic now. But for some reason, sitting on the warming dirt beside our bikes, I laughed. The night of drink and self-pity began to turn the corner in my mind. I never saw that guy again. It really was an extremely quiet building.
Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.
At the museum today, a young couple stands before a painting called The Yellow Lampshade. The young couple is dressed inconspicuously, in light colors. Their faces are plain. Their very youth provides their color and aliveness. The painting depicts a couple standing in a corner windowed apartment. A penthouse, I guess you would say. They are standing a distance apart. A good stretch of carpet between them and the big windows with all the gray skyscrapers in them. The young couple at the museum is kissing. With deep love, you might say. But lightly, too. Sweetly but lingering. I am standing near the painting, closest to the man. My husband stands before the next painting over, closest to the woman. We give them their time–young love is to cherish. And when they move away, we come together in front of the painting and kiss, smiling.
Another painting is by Modigliani, a favorite painter of mine. This painting depicts a Polish friend of the artist, Pierre-Edouard Baranowski. Either a poet or a painter; maybe both. The subject is described as having blue eyes. But really, the Pole’s eyes are a complete blank. Even though I read the printed placard beside the painting, I still thought of the subject as being female. The angular face; the tilted head, the pronounced cupid’s bow. I loved that she appeared to be wearing a black jacket and a white shirt with the collar loose. Like Patti Smith, I thought.
Here’s the third: In a gray gravel alley shirtless metal workers called puddlers relax, shirtless. They are pale. Spindly. Not mighty workers of the world. Yet their professional was a skilled one. Later, I learn that the job entails continuously working with boiling iron. Puddlers performed strenuous work, very close to the high heat–a job of skill as well as strength and stamina. In the painting, one’s skin is reddened at his clavicle. All of them are arrayed in poses of stretching, reclining and twisting. Poses recalling classic Greek sculptures. The green onion stink of their skin, their unwashed hair and animal restlessness; palpable to me. Their male-ness, you might call it. In their way they are mighty workers. Still, the factory behind them looms large. If you were here, I would touch your arm to show them to you.
Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.
The thing about being a con artist is to be in it for the art. Not for the swindle or the cash payoff. I conned the older ladies at that new wine bar just last night. They bought me dinner, yes. But that wasn’t all. Part of the role I was playing was that I didn’t wear glasses. I subordinated myself to them. Had to, because I really couldn’t see! So I had one of them reading me the list of sandwiches while another waited to resume the story she’d started telling me about her trip to Austin, New Orleans and Memphis. I am old enough I don’t care about looking cool. I told her I wouldn’t mind heading off on one of those senior citizen trips. I don’t know about yours, but in my town, you only have to be 50 to get in on those classes and movie nights and trips.
How old do you think I look?
No mirrors in this jazz bar, which is more of a restaurant. They have a hundred types of wine there. Pictures of Django Reinhardt everywhere. Red wallpaper. Gypsy jazz, or Jazz Manouche, playing all the time. None of the ladies were ordering up any wine, so I asked for water. I’d been heading into the main part of the place to see if my girl Conchett’ was there. But I saw a side door open. I’ve always been like that. If I see a side or back door propped with a chair or a matchbook; I have to take a look.
What kind of sandwich? BLT. But without the T, because I can’t stand tomatoes.
So in this side room, there are two dozen older ladies. A club. Retired, most of them, from the looks. And in the door I pop, right when they are winding down the flag salute. And the head lady waves me over. She’s in a cream colored turtleneck and plaid slacks. Those crinkly eyes from smiling a lot. And the ladies at this short side of the table all have name tags and are all standing. I am with them, so I stay standing, too. And then one of them says they are all sorry as can be about Diane. I look around and some of them have their eyes all shiny, thinking about their friend.
“I can hardly think about it,” I say, and I hang my head because I don’t know why I need to con these nice ladies who end buying me dinner and letting me mourn Diane with them. And all the while, I’ve got money in my pocket. A sweet smelling Sicilian girl waiting for me in the main bar.
But my first love’s name was Diane. English girl. I don’t mind telling you I was already in my twenties when she and I met at the bank. The bank where she was working. Younger people don’t believe we used to smoke everywhere back in those days. Supermarkets, movie theatres, banks. But it wasn’t a regular cigarette I slipped to Diane. It was a joint. And it wasn’t a slap on the wrist she got when her boss found it in her cash drawer. I’d long since gone home by the time Diane got shit-canned.
The women are all going around the table telling me the things they liked about their Diane.She’d drive you places. Always brought a pie to their parties. Loved old movies. Cute things like that.
My Diane rang my bell at ten that night. I was painting. My heart racing, the room awash in the stink of gesso and paint and a body revving. Diane had been drinking, for sure. She was a nice girl, but had a taste for the wilder life. Well, she and I dove for each other like…like Stanley and Stella in Streetcar named Desire. You know that scene where he is hollering for her in the rain and she runs out and he picks her up high against him and she runs her nails hard on that wet skin? Diane and I didn’t leave my room for four days. Her daddy came out from Pleasant Hill and fetched her home pretty quick after that.
I give Conchett’ harder things than old school marijuana. And she doesn’t have a dad; at least one that would come and take her from me.
I knew my Siciliana wouldn’t wait for me long. But still I stayed there in the side room, enjoying my sandwich and water, sharing an hour wIth those wholesome mothers. Their grief was a thing of great beauty to me. The pantsuits, the not drinking. All of it. Remembering Diane. It was the oldest one of them all who held me when I cried. Like I was her son, and just as pure as he must have been.
I’ve been asked about my name at least 100 times. Probably more. I give different answers, depending upon the circumstances and my frame of mind at the time.
When someone I don’t know well or am just meeting asks something like, “Is that your real name?” I respond with some version of, “it sure is.” Sometimes the persistent acquaintance will follow up with, “but is it the name your parents gave you?” and I reply with something along the lines of, “It is my real name and it is not the one my parents gave me. At this point my name has been Blaze for half of my life and I don’t share my original name because it isn’t a factor anymore.”
Of course there is more to the story and I do tell it when the time and place are right, and when the person asks with a wide open face and heart. It’s best when there’s time for a mutual exchange, because everyone has a story and it’s nice to share.
It occurred to me recently when meeting a lovely couple of women who I was about to give a reading with that I needed a better answer to the question at times when I wasn’t in the space to tell my story. So here it is, in some version of fullness, in a place and on a date I can remember. The next time some intrepid, curious soul ventures into my craggy waters, I can say, “if you really want to know the full story…”<points to blog>
As early as the second grade, I had a feeling my given name wasn’t right for me. When someone said my name, it felt like “who, me?” One day at recess, I was swinging for all I was worth in the sun before the bell called us back to class. Little Johnny, who’d apparently developed a crush on me, stood at the pole supporting my swing, calling my name repeatedly with love and longing for my attention. I became annoyed by the weight of his affection and snapped, “Don’t call me that. You can call me Rose.”
It was a moment’s inspiration and the name didn’t stick past that moment. Nonetheless the seed was planted and the roots spread out and grew within me.
When I was nearing the time of my high school graduation, the urge to re-name myself sprouted up again. The timing was perfect. I would make a clean break of it and my new college friends would only know the new, true name. I bought name-your-baby-books and tried names on, wrote out different combinations in my journal, but nothing fit. Nothing lasted beyond a temporary interest and there was so much else to figure out and prepare.
I moved on with my old name and my ambivalence about it. I was searching for a meaningful life in many ways when I happened onto the Feminist Spiritual Community, where I found a group of (mostly) women who were also seeking and celebrating authentic lives and a spiritual connection to the earth. After participating in FSC for a couple years, I joined one of their small groups–Native American Spirituality. Having a bit of Native blood way back in my family heritage, it felt like a good path for exploration. That first night we talked about creation myths and the creation of a personal mythology. We did a guided meditation to help connect with our deeper knowing about how to approach our life stories.
As I journeyed I saw sparks and went toward them. There was a fire and I stood hearing it pop and feeling it warm my face. I saw the life of the fire as it aged from tinders to embers, and knew it was my story. I asked myself, but where am I now? And I answered I am a Blaze.
The shock of it ran through me like lightning. I had come home to myself. This was the name, my name, and so it has been ever since.