Here is some writing I have done recently that I think doesn’t suck.
The First Time
This is the first draft of a creative nonfiction piece I wrote during a writing workshop I attended this past June. We were invited to “have a conversation with a poem” that was read aloud during this session. The poem was titled, coincidently, “The First Time.”
I was fifteen the first time I sat on a boy’s lap but was naïve enough not to know it was wrong and so innocent I hadn’t thought of the “other things” it could lead to; until my mother caught us. I don’t remember the boy’s name. I met him at the county fair and he went to a different high school, but I see his stringy blond mullet and his black band tee shirt, probably advertising AC/DC or Metallica. I can still hear his excited heart beating in his bony chest as I laid my ear against it, sitting together in that brown recliner. The fabric was soft if you brushed the nap the right direction, except where my dad had worn spots through the chair’s arms with his elbows, holding the Drovers Journal or Lancaster Farming to read cover to cover while he waited for supper to appear on the kitchen table. I sat in that boy’s lap in silence and stared at the orange stain in calico shag carpeting where my brother spilled a gallon jug of iodine. The boy and I frozen by inexperience and the lack of imagination for what might come next.
Mother lacked no imagination about what might come next and was not frozen when she walked into the house on some invented errand. She hissed my entire given name- Melissa Marie Wilcox- through clenched teeth and pursed lips, from around the dining room corner. It was not the first time she used my whole name or hissed at me through clenched teeth. Both actions were common displays of her displeasure.
My brother and I were accustomed to her pursed lips and pointing finger aimed at us over the aqua velour front seat of the Caprice Classic. “Just because your cousins will be there,” she would hiss, finger wagging, referring to whatever dreaded family dinner we were headed to, “just because those cousins will be running around crazy like wild Indians, does not mean my children may behave that way.” After a few of these warnings, the consequences were left unsaid, but they were not unknown. We would be banished to that blue Chevy parked in the driveway while the rest of the extended family enjoyed a lengthy meal and good times inside. My brother and I wondered if just once behaving like wild Indians (or normal active children) might be worth a short stint in the car prison. Neither one of us was brave enough challenge mother’s hiss. That tightly contained sound was more frightening than any screaming exhibit of anger.
We saw that clenched face over the same car seat each Sunday morning while my Dad drove us all to the Methodist church, one of four buildings in Lander. “Just because all the other kids get up and run to the bathroom during church, does not mean my children can leave their pews.” Again her finger emphasized each word. She would be in the choir loft during worship while my brother and I occupied our regular pew with my dad. In my mother’s opinion, this left us practically unsupervised during the service. The only movement from her children during the sermon happened when we elbowed my dad awake before he started to snore.
The scrunched expression was equally effective deployed through the car’s rear view mirror if accompanied by the hiss. “Sit in the pews, do your homework and do not embarrass me.” Was the order each Wednesday evening as we drove to choir practice with my mother during my years in junior high school. We were more than old enough to be left by ourselves, especially with my dad milking cows in the barn one hundred yards away, but my uncle, my mother’s brother, was having some “problems” (or serious mental health issues) and was roaming the countryside suicidal, possibly homicidal. We were never left home alone. Only once was my brother brave enough to defy an order given through the rear view mirror. He Army crawled under the sanctuary pews, popping up to make faces at the tenors in the back row of the choir loft. Since the choir faced the pulpit and not the congregation this went undetected for some time by my mother but not the tenors, who were egging him on, until my mother marched down the church aisle and surprised my brother with a hymnal to the top of the head when he sprang up, just like she was playing a game of WhackaMole. We obeyed all rules hissed through clenched teeth after that.
“Nice girls do not sit on boys’ laps,” my mother hissed at me in the dining room. I leaned against the wall of green paneling with a show of teenage indifference. This was not the first time I had been told how nice girls do not behave. Nice girls did not pick their noses, chew their fingernails or knot their oversized t-shirts under their breasts to show off their flat stomachs. Nice girls did not wear red or say the word “fart.”
The hissing in the dining room continued. “Do you want people to think you are a harlot?” The idea was flung between her pursed lips as if it were the worst thing imaginable. My mother never would have said the word slut. She wouldn’t even whisper it from behind her hand the way she would learn to say “suicide” a year later when she was forced to acknowledge my uncle’s death in a conversation.
Maybe I do want people to think I’m a harlot. The words were loud in my brain but I would never say them to my mother. At least then people would think something about me. It would mean I had some emotion, showed some feeling, lacked restraint. I would not suffer for years in a loveless marriage, sleeping on a rollaway cot in one corner of the sunporch, covered in my daughter’s discarded Holly Hobby sleeping bag and my son’s unwanted Buffalo Bills blanket. I would not hiss at people in displeasure. I would scream. I would kick chairs and punch walls. Cry violent rivers of tears and tear my hair, instead of sucking in my breath and dabbing at my eyes with the ladylike hanky I kept tucked up my shirt sleeve.
I said none of these things to my mother. I shook my head and then rolled my eyes at the water stained ceiling after I turned away. I went back to the boy in the living room but perched in the matching brown recliner instead of his lap. Our fingers just barely touched in the space between the two chairs. The boy never came to our house again.
Letter To A Nebraska Visitor
This letter was written as an assignment for a class last semester
To Someone Visiting the Sandhills,
The most important thing you should know before you come here for the first time is: don’t be afraid. I know that this place is wide open. There are no mountains or trees to embrace you; no grounding rock formations and the sand beneath your feet continually shifts. It’s true that you can see forever and the sky isn’t bigger just in Montana- it’s huge in Nebraska too. Some of our visitors think that gravity is not strong enough; that they will fly off the earth without something massive to hold them down.
Don’t be like the tour group my boss took to visit the ranch farthest from any Nebraska town. Those retired farmers from Illinois came close to tour bus mutiny with their demands to turn the bus around, believing that no one could possibly live out there when the single lane of pavement ended. They had another twenty-five miles to travel.
When my future husband brought me from Lincoln to meet his parents for the first time, we drove most of the journey at night. It was very dark on the highway. Small towns were far apart and traffic non-existent. I described the country as desolate and the nothingness worried me. Kyle tried to ease my worry by reassuring me that the area was not deserted.
“You can see twelve yard lights from the highway between Thedford and Valentine,” he said. It was sixty-five miles between the two towns. “You are never more than five miles from help.”
In the last twenty years I’ve grown to rely on this space. If I meet more than three cars on the highway during my late night commute home, I complain about the traffic. (Semi trucks hauling cattle don’t count.) When my neighbors notice and comment on things happening around my house, I feel the intrusion.
Your cellphone won’t work every place out here. Welcome the silence. Disconnect for a little while. The Sandhills are subtle and you will miss the important stuff if you are distracted. Take time to meet new people and talk to them. People here are friendly and hospitable. Locals don’t get see many strangers and they are full of things you need to know about. They will invite you in for a cup of coffee and biscuits smothered in homemade plum jam or chokecherry jelly.
Fill up your gas tank every chance you get. Sometimes there is more than fifty miles between stations. Some of those stations close at six on weekdays, don’t open at all on Sunday and don’t have credit card pumps. Gas stations still exist in the Sandhills where the owners want to give every customer a friendly greeting while money changes hands. Gas stations exist where the eighty-year-old owner with a heart condition will chase down drive-offs and then confront the thief with a shotgun, even if that thief is an escaped felon driving a stolen car from Missouri.
Follow directions scribbled on the back of an envelope by real people. Turn at the ranch sign and go three miles west if that’s what you were told, even if Siri says something different. Don’t believe her shortcuts and take all the roads that Siri can’t find. Those are the most interesting and have the best scenery. Float the Niobrara River or tank the Dismal. Fish the refuge lakes south of Valentine and go boating on Lake McConaughy. Have a cup of coffee in a small town coffee shop and a beer at the local bar during happy hour. Go see Carhenge. Park on the tallest Sandhill you can find and look at the stars. Meet real cowboys. You won’t find them in town. They aren’t wearing clean hats or big belt buckles. They will be accompanied by a dog. They might be a woman. Watch the clouds and get used to paying attention to the weather. Experience the hills horseback and what it is to be in the midst of hundreds of placid cows. Drink some local wine.
Listen to the stories. Those who put down roots here and survived, even if they are withered and gnarled have the best stories.