And now, without further ado, I present my 89th-place winner in the 80th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition, Memoir/Personal Essay category:
One Great Big Not-Listening Party
I live in a hillbilly mansion. Not a retro-cool, Milburn-Drysdale-selected, Beverly Hillbilly mansion, with a cement pond out back. Just a three-bedroom, cedar-sided, wraparound-porch home in the middle of nowhere. Or Missouri, as some people call it.
Behind my mansion stands an above-ground pool, vinyl and metal, with a curved wooden deck on one side. My hillbilly husband, Hick, built that deck himself. It’s one of the few things that turned out the way he planned. The pool, or Poolio, as we call him, is one step up from an old claw-footed bathtub that you might find cooling its toes in a cow pasture. Poolio, unlike Hick, has a filter. Not that it matters very much. Poolio contains the same water he was filled with way back in 2006. I refuse to bask in the buttwater soup that is Poolio’s main ingredient. How can I possibly feel refreshed after floating around in water that has washed the sweaty rumps of Hick and our two boys over previous summers?
Hick says that he puts enough Baquacil in Poolio to neutralize any buttwash that survives the filter. He puts the same chemical in his hot tub, but it still smells like old people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My high school students lump me right in there with the old-people group. According to one of them, “If I told you to act your age, you would drop dead.” Which reminded another one, “You’re so old, God signed your yearbook.”
I make my living teaching physics and biology to high school students who are not impressed with my status as a former high school valedictorian. I know that, because they ask, “What is a valedictorian, anyway?”
In my job away from work, I spend the majority of my time protecting the world from the schemes of my hillbilly husband. Namely, keeping Hick from: being shot, setting the mansion on fire, building the kids a clubhouse in a sinkhole, mining copper in the back yard, chucking dead possums over the neighbor’s fence, stealing the dog’s pillow for our marital bed, nailing a giant Save A Lot sign to the barn, cooking roadkill turkey with a blowtorch, making sausage out of the other neighbor’s pot-bellied pigs, and bragging that our son has an IQ of almost 100.
That shooting incident turned out fairly well. The Shooter apologized to Hick, citing his fondness for alcohol as a mitigating circumstance in the confrontation. That, plus a $1000 bond and $1500 for a lawyer after he threatened to shoot one of the deputies Hick sent to investigate, made him see the error of his ways. Hick offered to let The Shooter cut down two cedar trees that were near his driveway, and explained that he would not have made such a fuss about the old garage door and cartons of junk The Shooter had placed on our property if he had known that it was a temporary condition. I’m surprised they didn’t file a charter to form a new chapter of the Mutual Admiration Society. I fully expected to find them building a unicorn feeder, or sitting under the rainbow, crocheting toilet paper cozies.
Sometimes, Hick gets a bee in his bonnet. That’s figurative. Hick doesn’t really wear a bonnet. That would just be creepy, like a little baby with a giant adult man’s head in its frilly bonnet. And that bonnet would get the worst end of the deal, what with Hick’s head sweating all the time, especially when he eats hot wings or jalapenos, or mows the yard wearing one of his collection of 1500 caps. But if that were the case, he would not need a bonnet, because, well, he’s already wearing a hat.
Hick is not exactly Sarah, Plain and Tall, a great bonnet-wearer in fictionalized history. He is more like Scary, a Pain to All. While I’m unbonneting Hick, let me confess that there was no actual bee. It’s a figurative bee. No need to call the entomologist to order a round of antivenom. Hick’s noggin is a virtual hive of virtual bees. His head is chock full of ideas for improving the old homestead.
Last year, he decided to move the big-screen television to an area that would block a little walkway under our basement stairs, right between the gun case and the mini-fridge. To which I said, “Hold on thar, pardner! What if you crave a cold beverage whilst you’re a-loadin’ up your weapon?”
Hick was all about cutting off access between the armory and the watering hole. “We will never get rid of the mess until the TV is moved.” Perhaps he is privy to some weird type of hillbilly Feng Shui, in which major appliance placement channels Chi to clean the house.
If I didn’t need to concern myself with house cleaning, I would have more time to cook. I could come up with culinary creations to rival Hick’s shallow-fried roadkill turkey. I might reformulate my vegetable beef soup recipe. Hick once told me that he likes my soup, he just doesn’t like the juice. Which, um…I believe is the main ingredient of soup. I once caught him with a bowl of soup piled six inches high. If you define soup as an entire beef roast that has been simmered and steeped in a pot of vegetables to impart both name and flavoring to vegetable beef soup. Hick has a habit of mining what he wants from the pot of soup, and leaving the rest.
Because Hick doesn’t like the juice in soup, my recipe is kind of thick. This does not please the oldest son, Genius. When asked if the soup was good, he replied, “Well, it was not so much soup as it was a bowl of assorted vegetables.”
The boys learn more about their father every day. They know that when he uses his clippers to cut their hair, some blood will spill. And not Hick’s blood. He tries to teach them skills that he feels are important. Like how to be thrifty. One man’s junk is Hick’s treasure.
On the way to a baseball game, Hick slammed on the brakes, and jumped out of the Yukon to walk back and pick up something in the middle of the two-lane blacktop. He climbed back in with a piece of metal that he said was a linchpin. At first, I thought he was getting it out of the road so that some driver like me would not run over it. Then he said, “That’s worth ten dollars. I’ll take it home and use it to pull the hay wagon or the lawnmower trailer.”
The boys started teasing Hick about his ten-dollar treasure. He used the incident to lecture them on the value of ten dollars. Or five cents. “That’s a lot of money. You boys have it too easy. When I was a kid, I had to work for my money. Do you know what my first job paid?”
We answered in unison: “You pumped gas for all the soda and candy that you could eat.” Because, you see, we’d heard this story before. Or so we thought. His first job was working in a gas station twelve hours a day and on weekends for candy. Then Hick started a new story.
“I shot birds with my BB gun for the lady next door.”
I couldn’t let it go. “What, like that would get rid of them? What’s the point? Wouldn’t more just fly in to take their place?”
“She didn’t do it to get rid of them. It was for her cats. She felt sorry for them because they watched the birds out the window and couldn’t catch them.” That got the boys interested.
“They were for the cats to play with?”
“No. For the cats to eat.”
“She even bought our BBs for us, and paid us five cents a bird.”
Now the boys were really laughing. “Dad! You did all that for five cents a bird? Hey! I just saw fifteen cents fly by!”
“Wasn’t that a lot of work for a few cents?”
“We shot four or five a day.”
“Woo hoo! Twenty or twenty-five cents! What did you spend that on?”
“That was a lot of money back then. I could get a chocolate soda for five cents.”
“Eww. No wonder. It was a chocolate soda.”
“Hey! I thought you got all the soda you could drink anyway.”
“No. This was before. When I was younger. Go on and make fun. I had to work for my money.”
“Yeah. Like you wouldn’t shoot birds anyway.”
On the way home after the game, there was a car parked by the creek near where Hick picked up the linchpin. “Look,” said Genius. “I bet that guy is looking for his linchpin.”
That’s how my life unfolds here in America’s Heartland. One day I’m propping up the back hatch of my Yukon with a crutch lovingly provided by my hillbilly husband to replace the broken hydraulic lifter, and the next day I’m diplomatically declining his offer to buy me some auction meat. He couldn’t explain what kind of meat, because on the side of the box, it just said, “Meat.”
A lesser woman might have given up by now, abandoned all hope of ever changing Hick’s manner of meandering through her world. Not me. I’m up for the challenge. One of these days, Hick is going to listen to the voice of reason. My voice. The boys are not so sure. They have also inherited some of their father’s selective-listening genes. I am reminded of another Yukon ride, home from a baseball game played by The Pony, then seven years old. Genius was ten, and not a great spectator.
The minute we piled into the car, The Pony was done with baseball. “GameBoy, please.” The GameBoy was a great bargaining tool.
Me: “You’re not getting it. I told you that if you didn’t stop picking up dirt, you couldn’t have it.”
The Pony: “No. You didn’t say that.”
Me: “Yes, I did. I told Dad to tell you. Remember when he came over to third base and said to quit throwing dirt and standing on the base?”
The Pony: “Well, he didn’t say it. And nobody ever throws me the ball, anyway. So why did I have to stop?”
Hick: “I never told him about the GameBoy. I didn’t hear you say it.”
Me: “And anyway, you’re in trouble for trying to take over first base and not getting off of it when Coach told you to.”
The Pony: “Nobody ever throws to me on third. So I went to first. They always throw it there.”
Me: “That other boy plays first. You can’t just go there. Where was the one who rolls in the dirt all the time?”
The Pony: “I think they took him off.”
Genius: “He probably didn’t come, because it rained. And that would spoil his dirt-rolling, Imbecile.”
Hick: “That’s it! You are going to your room when we get home.”
Me: “It’s your own fault. Dad tells you all the time to stop the name-calling.”
Genius: “Well. Isn’t this just one great big not-listening party.”