Military Tactics for Grocery Shopping in the Upper West Side

When shopping for Thanksgiving dinner in a new city turns into Medieval Warfare


As a recent southern transplant in New York City, and my first holiday away from my family, I took it easy on myself and ordered a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for my boyfriend and I.  A few days later, a friend invited us to her home for dinner, and we decided to combine store-bought dishes with a couple homemade ones. I wanted to bring my favorite sweet potato casserole, and she offered to cook the turkey. With it being too late to change my order, I figured there was no harm in having a spare turkey around.

On Thanksgiving morning, I rolled myself out of bed to stand outside my local version of a supermarket. I went up to a semi truck being unloading of boxes labeled “fairway catering.” I asked the woman in front of me if this was the line for Thanksgiving and she nodded. There was a table set up between the line and the truck, but no one manning it. Everyone in line had their reservation confirmation pulled up on their iPhones as proof of their purchase.

We waited for the employee to return when it occurred to me how weird it was that I was living in New York City, waiting to buy my dinner off the back of a truck, when Al Franken walked past me. I squinted at the comedian turned Minnesota Senator wearing a long camel coat, scarf and round spectacles. Hmm, he must live around here, I thought coolly, since I’m a local, and don’t freak out on my famous neighbors. If anyone around noticed him, they didn’t let on, but he was probably walking home from the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade that started just a few blocks away.

it occurred to me how weird it was that I was living in New York City, waiting to buy my dinner off the back of a truck, when Al Franken walked past me

The guy in charge of doling out the contents of the truck finally came back from break, and I was first in line. I read him my confirmation number, and without even looking down at his list he said, “You gotta go inside to the meat department for that.”

“Huh? “ I asked, wondering why is my turkey inside the store and not on this shady truck? I walked toward the door to brace myself for the crowd inside. Fairway on the upper west side is a treacherous place any day of the week, but on this day it was kill or be killed. Everyone knew it. It was the battlefield that lay between my thanksgiving meal and me.

Blocking the entrance, on the front lines, are the old ladies. They come shopping everyday and bring their own rolly-carts to use as walkers. If you get stuck behind even one, you’re done. They march at a dangerously slow pace, making you an easy target for an airstrike. I brought my own rolly-cart, so I used it to my advantage. With one fell swoop, I swung open my rolly-cart and spread it in all its 4-wheel glory. I placed my purse inside to allow for unconstrained movement. My armor of wintery layers protected me from a strike, but made it harder to maneuver. I pushed through, getting inside the store, but had to watch my back for those behind me pushing their way inside.

I swiped a bag of chopped pecans off an end cap before getting cut off by a woman pushing a triplets stroller. Mommy Cunts are the next line of defense. They are the sharply brilliant women who use their military minds disciplining their kids instead of running corporations. You don’t want to get between them and a jar of Justin’s almond butter. They’re always on the defense and ready to strike. I’d never get past them, too risky for this mission. I decided to go around the perimeter of the store to get to the meat department. There would be fewer Mommy Cunts over there, because they buy all their food upstairs, in the organic section. I just had to steer clear of the line for the elevator where they gather.

Over at the cheese section, there was just a young couple arguing about whether they needed fancy cheese for their guests. I slipped by undetected. In the hot foods section, the old ladies were distracted with filling their rolly-carts with pre-made dishes, and I negotiated my way through their horde undisturbed. Finally, at the meat department, chaos ensued. I attempted and failed to make eye contact with anyone behind the counter when I spotted a confused looking young man cowering behind a digital scale. Using my most Mommy Cunt-ish voice, I said “Hello. I was told at the catering truck to come back here for my order.” I presented my phone so he could check my confirmation number.

He replied, “you have to go talk to the manager up front.”

Up front? That was a suicide mission. I barely made it to the meat department with my head, and was now being sent on a wild goose chase through an active war zone. Determined to see this through, I turned back to the field, but this time, instead of pulling my cart behind me, I pushed it from behind to make way through the store like the cattle prod on the front of a locomotive.

Staying low to communicate with the stock boys in the trenches, navigating through the produce section, asking every one I passed, “Manager?” Each of them silently pointed the way, but the last one told me the person I was seeking would be at the front of the store past checkout, AKA enemy headquarters. This could be a trap, set up by Fairway’s intelligence, to lure me into the open, where artillery could light me up. Or maybe it was the truth.

The path through the store to the checkout lanes was packed tight. No amount of pardon me’s or get outta my way’s could get me through that cluster. It wouldn’t work.

Instead I made a b-line for the front doors and went back out onto the sidewalk where it all began, then made another sharp turn into the exit doors. I bypassed the entire line to get to the commander, finally making it to the far corner, headquarters of operations. I explained to the woman who addressed herself as supervisor that I needed my order. She tried to brush me off saying, “You have to go to the trucks,” when I finally cut her off.

“I’ve been to the truck. I’ve been to the meat department; I came to talk to you.”

She cut her eyes at me, then responded, “The woman you want to talk to is over there,” pointing to ground zero, the center of the chaos.

“I’ll never make it over there. She has to come to me.” The supervisor nodded and waved her over. It took a few minutes, but she made it, the first person to give me their full attention.

I explained the story again, handed over my phone for her inspection, when she started the interrogation. “How did you order? Have you already paid? Did you get catering?”

I had to stop her and say sharply, “I just ordered online, I don’t know anymore than you do.” With that she softened.

“We take orders for Thanksgiving three different ways.”

“I just went online and ordered. I haven’t paid yet, but I will. I’m not trying to pull anything.”

“If you ordered online, your food will be on the truck outside.”

“I went to the truck. They sent me to the meat department, who sent me to you.”

“There’s two different trucks outside, which one did you go to?”

“I’m supposed to know that? I went to the truck handing out turkeys.”-“Ok, I’ll take you out there.” She walked me out; talked to the first guy she saw, he nodded, and she came back and said they had my food. Finally.

“They need to see your phone to put your order together.”

“Sure.” I handed over my yellow Kate Spade case reading “that’s bananas” to a large work gloved hand.

The manager came over to me, “I’ll grab your order, just go wait over by the register.”

“But I have other stuff to get!” I whined.

“It’s ok. Go grab your stuff, and then come find me. You can skip the line.”

I felt that strange feeling when you get yourself all riled up, and then the conflict is resolved. You were ready for a fight to the death, but then they yielded, and you won without bloodshed. But you were ready to shed blood.

“Thank you” I responded meekly as she walked off to go put out a dozen more fires that started since our encounter. I started to walk back into the store, to find the other few things on my list, when I remembered my phone back in the refrigerated truck. Could I live without it? Was my iPhone just another casualty of war? No, not today.

I went back for it just as the same man leaned down and said, “here’s your phone, ma’am, sorry about all that.” That’s when I remembered what it was like to work in the service industry, and how easily I could find myself working in it again. How you’re carrying out orders by some boss who rules off the battlefield. He’s enjoying his thanksgiving at home with his family while you peddle his wares for time and a half. I imagine the employees at a high-end grocery store have been talked at and down to five ways from Sunday. I’m sure they could handle whatever tantrum I was having, but I didn’t want to be just another entitled customer who throws a fit when we don’t carry their particular brand of gluten free gluten.

I decided to try to work with them instead of against them. I went into stealth mode, sliced into the entrance again, and yelled to no one in particular, “Where’s flour and sugar?”

“Aisle 9,” a voice behind me answered.

Aisle 9, just get to aisle 9. As if in a blackout, I sliced through every man woman and child in my path. I heard a baby crying near the seafood counter, and empathized with it rather than cursing it. One more right turn and I was on aisle 9. I scanned the shelves and saw the sundries I needed were on the opposite end. Of course they were. I got behind my shield, I mean, rolly-cart, and zigzagged through the narrow aisle. There was a woman with a shopping cart blocking the tiny baking section. The pallets of 5 and 10-pound bags of flour and sugar I was used to seeing in suburbia were replaced with neat rows of boxed ingredients fitting for miniature Manhattan cupboards.

I waited for the woman to budge and then planted myself in her place. I searched the section until I found exactly what I needed for my sweet potato casserole, and jetted for the checkouts. As I made my way to the front, I was stopped by an employee who insisted I needed to go to the back of the line, around the store.

“No, no, no! I have a deal with the manager. She told me to skip.”

“You have to go to the back of the line, ma’am.”

“You don’t understand, my stuff if waiting up there.” I was attempting to push past her, when I spotted the manager. “That’s her! See?” she waved me up and blew past the weary and wounded still waiting in line. She directed me to an empty checkout where the containers of mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread stuffing, Brussels sprouts, and green beans I ordered were being rung up. I placed my additional items next to them. I was almost out of there alive when a stock boy brought over the guest of honor, a fresh 14-pound turkey. My heart sank. All the other food was fully cooked and prepared, and this turkey was raw. How did I miss that? I must have ordered it this way, but how could I be such an idiot?

“Does everything look okay?” the manager asked before she whisked off to deal with another problem.

I took a breath, smiled, and said, “Yes. Thank you so much for helping me.”

My groceries were packed into my rolly-cart while I paid, and I was ready to walk out, almost victorious. I passed other customers who fought next to me along the way. “Did they find your order?”

“Yes! Thank you. They did.” I nodded and walked away from the battlefield.

I had a couple blocks to walk and think about the turkey. I’ve never made a turkey before. I guess technically I could cook one. But I don’t have a roasting pan. Come to think of it, I don’t have any pans. There’s no time for shopping and I don’t think that turkey would even fit inside my oven. I have a crock pot, but it wouldn’t fit in there either. Aside from butchering this bird myself and baking it in parts, I don’t have any way to cook this turkey.

I got back to my building, but had to take the long way with the wheelchair ramps because of my rolly-cart. I almost reached the elevator when I realized someone else could cook the turkey. I can’t just take it home and let it go bad. I’ll see if anyone who works in the building could use a turkey. At the front desk, I clumsily explained how it’s my first thanksgiving in the city, and I accidentally bought a raw turkey, and I couldn’t cook it, and he told me he’d try to find a good home for it.

“You’ll make sure someone who works here gets it? I don’t want it to go to waste.”

Just then a man walked up wearing the standard uniform, eyed the bird, and said, “Yeah, I’ll take a turkey.”

“Thank you!” I sighed in relief and plopped the poultry into his arms I had just slaughtered dozens of innocent people to obtain, only to give it away to the first person who would take it off my hands.

Mission Accomplished.

Marrying Young in Kentucky

shit show short stories

Just a 30 minute drive north of Metropolitan Nashville will take you to a place where fine southern heritage meets plain white trash. That place is Kentucky, where I grew up. In Kentucky, you can get married at the age of 16 with your parent’s signature, just like a permission slip for a field trip. You can’t vote, join the army, or buy cigarettes or alcohol, but by golly you can file joint tax returns. Who wants to waste money on a wedding rehearsal when you have a perfectly good prom coming up in April? By the time I was 18, I had been in three weddings, not as a flower girl, but as a bridesmaid. I’ve actually never been a flower girl, despite my requests. I was already my full adult height in second grade.

As an educated southern woman in her early thirties, being unmarried without children makes me stand out worse than a beer belly in a beauty pageant. My friends and family can’t imagine why I have restrained myself from the magic of matrimony all these years. I have a delightful boyfriend of 10 years whom I live with and co-parent two pugs. I love the idea of having a huge party with an open bar where all my acquaintances buy me gifts from a pre-selected registry. As far as I can tell, I don’t have issues with intimacy, commitment, or changing my bizarre last name. Despite all this, I’ve just never felt compelled, nor motivated to make an honest woman of myself. Maybe it’s my own counter-culture movement against my home state where legislation will chronologically grant you a marriage license before a driver’s license. Where the people you choose to be in your wedding party have a curfew, and are counting down the days till they get their braces off. I was in more weddings in high school than I have been in all the years since, and that’s saying a lot since I was in a sorority.

collageIt all started when my aunt, who was only nine years older than me, got engaged. The whole family pitched in to throw her a simple wedding on a shoestring budget. We made all the food, bought our dresses secondhand, hosted the wedding at our house, and my mom and I were the bridesmaids. I was 12. We worked hard to make everything look as perfect as it did in Leisure Arts and other craft magazines, and there wasn’t a single snag until I went upstairs to get ready for the big event.

I started my period for the very first time just minutes before the ceremony. I decided to keep it a secret and threw away all the evidence, including my undies. That’s loyalty to the bride. I didn’t want to take any attention away from her, even for my first menstruation. My sanitary supplies were limited to what I could sneak from my mom’s stash, so I was basically wearing a diaper underneath my bridesmaid’s dress. I felt my maxi pad crinkle and crunch under the green polyester dress as I stiffly marched down the aisle. I felt so grown up. My aunt, who was raised like a sister to me was getting married, I was ovulating, and my mom let me get my haircut in layers for the first time. With my confidence and eyeliner, 12-year-old me could have gotten served at a bar.

My next stroll down the aisle was for a friend at the small Christian school I attended for two years. It was the year 2000 and we made it through Y2K with all our appendages, so anything was possible. All threats of the apocalypse were silenced after the clocks struck midnight and the world’s computers refrained from resetting to 1900. We climbed out of our underground bunkers and carried on with life. My friend graduated high school that year, and was getting married to her manager at Wendy’s where she worked.   I’m not making fun of them, they’re still together, have three sons, and a wonderful life together. She even told me recently she was happy she got married, but looking back she didn’t know why the hell her parents went along with it.

This wedding took place in our church/school/building we used for everything. None of us had much money– we worked part-time after school for minimum wage. We had our dresses made by the most efficient seamstress in three counties, a Mennonite lady.  You can milk a goat without breaking a seam in your dress, but they don’t pay much attention to the frilly details. You want a bow? You don’t need a bow.  We do ankle length, and turtleneck.  You don’t want to look like Mary Magdalene do you? This was pre-Pinterest and our town didn’t even have a JoAnn Fabrics, so patterns were limited. We either got our shoes at Wal-Mart or went barefoot. Being barefoot in Kentucky isn’t only a stereotype but a way of life. If you couldn’t run over gravel full speed without shoes, you’d never survive childhood.

The bride to be was raised even more religiously than I was. We were Southern Baptists, and premarital sex was a ticket straight to hell. We had both participated in a purity banquet, a ritual where we promised our parents not to have sex until marriage. As proof, we wore rings inscribed “True Love Waits”, and our parents were given skeleton keys as a symbol that they held the key to the lock on our chastity belts. Figurative, but still creepy. All this insured there would be no snarky remarks about the color of your wedding dress. No cream or eggshell for purity gals, you earned every thread of that bright white dress.

The third time I was an underage bridesmaid was for a friend in the same grade. She was actually one of the youngest in our class and we practically grew up together. Her mom signed the permission slip since she was still 17. She wasn’t hiding a pregnancy, under a purity vow, or even dying of cancer, she just wanted to be a wife.

She asked me to be her maid of honor. I had no idea what that meant. I was in high school and worked at Piggly Wiggly. Someone mentioned the Maid of Honor plans the Bachelorette party. Hmmm, I thought: Let me ask my mom if I can have people over.  She said I can only have three girls over but we can order pizza.  Also don’t wake up my dad, he works third shift.  We didn’t have a stripper but would have had no choice about male nudity when my 5-year-old brother barged in and showed everyone his Vienna sausage. He was quite proud of it, like guys instinctively are. If she didn’t like that idea, maybe I could wait outside a gas station and ask an adult to buy us wine coolers. The town we lived in was completely dry, so I would have had to go to the next city over, and I wasn’t allowed to drive on the highway at night!

The day of the ceremony, I did my best to hide how I felt about the girl I made mud pies with as a kid getting legally bound to someone. We were still kids, but our state lawmakers didn’t find anything weird about not being able to drink during your own wedding toast. At the ceremony, traditional accompaniment like the Wedding March was replaced by NSYNC, Mariah Carey, and Shania Twain. Those were the hottest singers then and if they couldn’t express her feelings that day, who could? The happy newlyweds rode off into the sunset on a John Deere Gator, because we were teenagers in Kentucky, and that was badass.

The only logical place to go on a teen honeymoon is back home with your parents. How romantic to carry your new wife over the threshold of your home, AKA her old bedroom.  What if they shared a bedroom with a sibling? Turn up the volume on your Discman so we can consummate this thang. Then we’ll move out all the Precious Moments figurines to make room for our wedding china.

A year later, my friend’s marriage had ended and I was home from college for the summer.  As we caught up on everything from divorce to the freshman 15, I realized she had matured far beyond me. A year of college didn’t teach me what she learned about life in her first month of marriage. We celebrated our reunion by riding roller coasters at Six Flags. The last time I saw her was at our 10 year high school reunion. She surprised me when she showed up with a new husband, pictures of her adorable kids, and a very pregnant belly. Thankfully her current husband was nice enough to get the old wedding photos out of storage so I could have them as visual aids for this story.

I’m still thick as thieves with all three of these wonderful women, and I know they would do anything for me, including put on a bridesmaid’s dress, if it ever came to that. We’re all a bit older and wiser now and all agree we wouldn’t go back and change a thing. If I’ve learned anything from them, it’s that following your heart isn’t the worst thing you can do. Sure, divorces are messy, and it’s a real pain to get all new monogrammed stuff when you go back to your maiden name, but it’s nothing compared to the regret you would feel of never knowing if it could have worked. As for me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel old enough to drink at my own wedding. But until then, I’m registered at Target.

Open at the Same Time

shit show short stories

For my sister Portia <3

Read at “Holidays on Thin Ice” at Blackstone Brewery on Dec 5, 2015.

Open at the same time

Paulina Combow

When you share a bathroom with your enemy, it’s important to let them know who’s boss every now and then. When I was 16, getting ready for
my after school job at an ice cream shop, I had 10 minutes to spare and wanted to use that time to aggravate Portia, my younger sister, before I went off to scoop frozen treats for minimum wage. She was reading a book in her room when I busted in to provoke her. She looked up from the pages with flames in her eyes, stoodportia and paulina in new york city straight up, grabbed me by the throat, and slammed me into the bathroom door. I’m pretty sure she lifted me off the ground that day. It shocked me more than it hurt, and it hurt a lot. I had to go to work with a busted lip and bruised ego. The prophecy my
parents spoke of finally came true, “One day your sister will be bigger than you, and she’ll fight back.” I believed them, I just thought I had more time, she was only 11.

My sister and I are the eldest girls of four siblings. We have nothing in common, we don’t even look related. It’s nothing unusual for strangers to casually ask us if we have different parents. She sports a barbarous brunette bouffant while I’m teasing my flat pallid tresses to look like I have hair at all. Only our blue eyes and tiny button noses reveal any hint of relation. We were mortal enemies from the day she was born. I tortured her and called her every nasty name I could think of. Among them were The Beast, Porkchop, Rude Portia, and Snake eyes. Snake eyes had its own theme song and was particularly cruel because her two front baby teeth had single white dots in the center of each one, as in the worst roll you can roll with two dice. I convinced her she was the sole survivor of a multiple birth, but her twin, Dortia’s, head was hidden in our house and haunted her.

Our intense sibling rivalry started when she decided to be born the day before Halloween, causing me to miss out on trick-or-treating that year. I’d never seen a newborn look so evil. I’d probably never seen a newborn at all before her, but I knew she was bad news. I never got anything to myself after she came. I had to share my room, toys, friends, even gifts. Everything had to be even with us. When friends or family gave us gifts, it would be two of the same thing, in different colors if we were lucky. Once my grandmother saved herself the trouble and bought “twin” baby dolls and let us each take one. As in separate them at birth, like a freaky nature vs nurture experiment from the 70’s. Obviously, my baby was nurtured, while hers was left to nature. To this very day, we’ll be opening presents on Christmas morning and mom will say, “Hold on, you two need to open those at the same time.” You would think we once shared our mother’s uterus with how concerned people seem to be with balancing the scales. I can sympathize with twins. Although our dad is a twin, and according to him, he and his brother were treated like two halves of one person and had to share one of everything, which is why no one feels sorry for us.

After the power shift of the bathroom incident, things changed. We cohabitated peacefully for two years before I moved off for college. On one of my visits home, we had our cousin over with his new wife for Thanksgiving. They were a young couple and planned to visit her family in New Jersey over the holidays. I was invited along to help with gas and driving. They planned to drive from Tennessee to New Jersey in mid-December, a terrible idea, but a cost efficient one. I was won over by the promise of going into the city during our visit, since I had never been to New York. Not being allowed to have anything to myself, of course, my sister was also invited on the trip. I’m surprised she wasn’t set up with her own dormrrom after I left. Why should I have to share my trip to the city with her? I was in college, and didn’t need some junior high dork in her Good Charlotte phase tripping over my heels through Times Square. But the only way I got to go was if she did, so we both went.

I couldn’t wait to brag to everyone back at school about my holiday plans. “Oh, you’re going back home to Beaver Dam, Kentucky for Christmas? I’m spending mine in New York City.” I conveniently left out the parts about carpooling there and staying with in-laws in New Jersey. When someone asked what airport we were flying into, or which hotel, I just changed the subject to something about finals week.

My sister and I were both teenagers, without real forms of income. We were just in awe to be in the city, ride the subway for the first time, and retrace Kevin McAllister’s steps from my favorite movie, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. We saw everything we could despite having next to no cash, being with distant relatives we didn’t know, and the freezing cold wind and rain that chased us through the streets. The night before Christmas, we watched Saturday Night Live hosted by Jack Black, knowing for the first time in my life, I was less than 1,000 miles away from studio 8H. In fact, I had walked past it that very day. The world felt more possible. The places I dreamed of were just an excruciatingly lengthy car ride away.

The hard part was Christmas morning. My sister and I were sleeping in the guestroom of our cousin’s wife’s parent’s house. We asked them to have their Christmas morning and just let us sleep. We asked this so we didn’t impose on their family time, but also the thought of waking up on Christmas morning in an unfamiliar place, without our tree, our parents and brothers, and stockings was emphatically depressing. We were teenagers and preferred to just sleep through the sadness. Our request was ignored, and bright and early we were woken up to meet around the tree with the rest of the family.

“No, you guys go ahead, we don’t want to get in the way.” No such luck. We groggily shuffled downstairs and were presented with smiles and gifts, to be opened at the same time, of course.

Looking back on my past 30 Christmases, I can’t put my finger on any disastrous ones. As a family, we created our own traditions, which we added to and evolved each year. From mom’s baked French toast that sets in the fridge overnight on Christmas Eve, to “the Bird”, a wooden bird gifted to a different family member every year disguised as a real gift, to Portia’s annual jumbo pack of panties in her stocking from Santa. Playing Spoons on Christmas Eve is our favorite card game. We had to stop using spoons because we got so competitive we put gashes in the dining room table. We changed it to Candy canes, but were still so rough that the candy canes got obliterated. Now we use candy canes reinforced with tape, and the game isn’t over until the peppermint inside is pulverized to a fine powder.

Despite everything that was unfamiliar and new about that trip, I had my sister. We got along perfectly, the opposite of any family vacation in the past. We were a team. When our cousin made a double entendre of every road sign we passed for 18 hours, we stuck together. When we ran out of gas five minutes from the house because you can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey and all the stations closed, we had each other’s backs. When the rest of our crew wanted to go to the top of Rockefeller Tower, we decided to stay on the ground level, drink hot chocolate together, and watch people ice skate around the plaza. Our new relatives felt bad for us and offered to pay the $50 for the elevator ride to the top, but it wasn’t really about the money. We needed to have our own family time, warming up in front of the most famous Christmas tree in America. As far as we were concerned, we were already on top of the world; the roof of a skyscraper wouldn’t change our view.

Pledging My Summers Away

shit show short stories


“I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.” This was the soundtrack to my summers growing up in a small town in Kentucky. I would mumble through the words, then take a seat in a creaky church pew and wait to get dismissed to my assigned classroom for Vacation Bible School.

For my parents, Vacation Bible School was a vacation for them, and free babysitting for me. Every week a new church, a new group of kids, and a new Vacation Bible School. A couple summers I was lucky enough to spend a week at 4-H camp, since it was cheaper than Girl Scout camp, but the remaining weeks of my summer vacation were back to VBS.  Every church in my quaint Southern town hosted one, and each one tried to outdo the others. I was sent to each one, regardless of religion, and by religion of course I mean Christian. We had every variety of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and several others. There were no mosques or synagogues in this town, and no need for them either.  Whether it was the wealthy First Baptist church downtown, or a tiny brick chuflagsrch out in the county, I was in attendance for VBS.

Sometimes they were in the morning, others at night. The church my family attended had such a small congregation that decided to do VBS all in one day to save money, and entice more kids to attend. With these subtle differences, they all had one thing in common, the pledges to the American Flag, Christian Flag, and the Bible. I would sit in the audience and watch the three young volunteers, each displaying one of these relics. I never asked, nor received answers to my secular questions. Since when do we say pledges to the Christian flag and Bible? Why do we only do these at vacation Bible School? And why do we have to recite them every night?  Are they just stalling for time? 

The most different and memorable of all the churches was the Mennonite Church. They sang a song every night instead of the three pledges called “Come to Bible school.” It was a welcome break from the pledges, but it had upwards of 14 different verses, and they spoke in distinct Dutch Amish accents so it sounded more like “Coom to bye-bell skyool.” It was hard not to giggle watching men, women, and children sing it with such conviction.   Theirs was the farthest out in the country, and lasted the longest. I’d estimate I spent forty days and forty nights there in the wilderness.

I was the only girl in pants, making me what they call English, or non-Mennonite. All the others wore solid colored dresses made by their mothers, and a thin white bonnet over their bun called a “covering”. If I thought I stuck out from my peers at public school, I was a flaming beacon of Other amongst these kids. There were no musical instruments, no flare, everything about their faith required them to be plain. The inside of the rooms were reminiscent of one-room schoolhouses in old movies, nothing but the basics; desks, books, and a chalkboard. VBS was a glimpse into their real school days since their church served double duty as their school. Although these kids only attended school through 8th grade, they were smart and well read. Instead of eating dinner in front of the TV at night, they read real books and actually studied the bible.

Other than that one, it’s hard to keep all those vacation Bible schools separate in my head.  I’m not sure why my mom made me go. I wasn’t an outdoorsy kid.  My ideal summer days consisted of sleeping till noon, watching TV, and definitely not doing any chores. Maybe she thought it would be good for me to get out of the house and hang out with other kids, or maybe she just needed a break from my mouth breathing on the sofa as I zoned out to summer re-runs. She was so committed to me going to VBS that I remember getting ready on the night OJ Simpson’s White Bronco was in a full-scale police chase on TV. While the rest of the country was glued to their tubes, I was reciting pledges with a new group of church kids.

As an expert, I can tell you All VBS’s start the same way. You’re herded into the pews of a musty sanctuary. Some would have cushions; others were bare wood that amplify every sound. Heaven forbid you had a heavy dinner and got a little gassy. Take my word for it, squeeze those butt cheeks during prayers, kids.

When I got bored I could stare at the baptismal pool where people went to have their sins washed away. I would watch for the stagnant water to ripple behind a small glass window where you could watch the person getting baptized, trying to act like a man in a robe holding them underwater was natural. It was almost a shame you only got to do it once. I think I could have done a much better job with some practice. I was totally unprepared for getting baptized. I was wearing the new dress my grandmother sent me in the mail; my bangs and hair were styled big because fashion-wise it was still the 80’s in Kentucky. My dad looked to me while I was playing with a doll during the sermon and asked if I wanted Jesus in my heart. Of course I nodded ‘yes’, and the next thing I knew I was getting into a pool of water with my clothes on.  My dad let me know this meant I could take communion now, which for Baptists is a small plastic shot glass with grape juice and an oyster cracker. I always wanted to take those cups home for my dolls. While I’m pondering all this, wondering what happened to that cute dress, everyone around me in the pews stands.

It’s time for the pledges. Thankfully I’m not a member of any of these churches so I don’t get picked to hold the flags or Bible. They’re always the same flags. They even have the same stand and gold tassels, and even the same eagle at the top of the flagpole. Were those included in the church starter kit? You need bibles, pews, hymnals, and don’t forget the American and Christian flags. Those are included in the Gold and Frankincense packages, but not the Myrrh.  Was there a warehouse or a catalog like Oriental Trading Company the preacher would order them from?

Those damn pledges. I bet I said them more times each summer than I got ice cream. Of course I knew the pledge to the flag.  We said that at school every day. But what were these Christian Flag and Bible pledges? Where did they come from? Were they in the old or New Testament? The pledge to the bible was easier to remember because it was poetic and rhythmic like song lyrics. It must have been written by a woman.   But the pledge to the Christian flag just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. It’s also sexist, “One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service and in love.” It could definitely be updated to be more gender neutral.

When you’re young, VBS is cool. You get to play with other kids, have sugary snacks, and eat glue. But when you get a little older, you go to the “big kid class”. That’s when you’re expected to actually learn things about the bible, and retain them. I just wanted to go in the basement with the little kids and string beads. They ask what grade you’re in. The grade I just finished or the grade I’m going into? It was hard to fake being younger since I was already my full adult height in 3rd grade, but they don’t figure you’ll fib in front of the life-size Jesus hanging on the cross. The older you get in VBS, the less fun it is. The less colorful your lessons are. At a certain point, there isn’t an age group for you and they ask if you want to help serve refreshments.

After your segregated lessons, everyone rushes to finish their projects and meet back up in the sanctuary.  We say the pledges 10 more times, then wait for parents to pick up their kids. They always remind you to come on Friday for the big party. The Friday party was always a relief because it meant the weekend was just around the corner, and that’s when I started my real summer vacation, until Sunday, when I had to go to church. Then it would all start back over on Monday, a new church, and a new group of kids, and those same three pledges.

Papaw in the City

shit show short stories







As Told at Tenx9 Nashville on 9/21/2015.


Question: Tell us why you’re here today?

Papaw: You tell me, they scheduled me to be here.

Question: Has anyone in your family had a stroke?

Papaw: I don’t know, that’s their business.   Question: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease?

Papaw: Pretty much all of ‘em.

If you want to bond with your Grandfather, go with him to his doctor’s appointments and fill out the Medical Questionnaires with him. I had the pleasure of accompanying my 77-year-old grandfather, who will henceforth be referred to as Papaw, to some doctor’s appointments. He lives alone on the side of a mountain in East Tennessee, the same mountain where he was born, and most of his ancestors are buried. Despite multiple invitations and pleas for him to come live with family, he’s content whittling on his porch. Making the four-hour drive to civilization for medical procedures is a necessary evil even he can’t argue with after emphysema, prostate cancer, arthritis, and all the other trophies of living beyond life expectancy. I volunteered to take Papaw in for a Radiology appointment in Nashville to get a stint replaced. It was a routine procedure and we planned for him to sleep and recover at my house while I was at work that day. I was somewhat unprepared to play nurse though as I was just getting back from a 10-day trip. Regardless of the condition of my home, Papaw showed up at my front door.

We were the first ones there for a 7:30am appointment and the door was still locked. I jiggled the door and even attempted to pop the lock with a credit card. An angry-eyed receptionist in scrubs opened the door. She grouchily let us inside but informed us they weren’t “quite” open yet.  The main reason I was there with my grandfather was because he was required to have a driver for this procedure.  He also left school in the 4th grade to work on his family farm, so filling out forms is not a strong point for him.  When the front desk lady finally allowed us to check in, she informed us his appointment was actually the following day.  I handed her his paperwork, with that day’s date, and gave her the he drove to Nashville from East Tennessee, and we’re not leaving without the procedure look. She caught my drift and gave us the first round of questionnaires.  I wasn’t much help on my own, and he’s a farmer from the Appalachian Mountains so he’s not one to dwell on past sicknesses. We went back and forth for a while, and then I called in reinforcements.  I faceTime’d my mom, his daughter right there in the waiting room. Papaw, only having a landline was baffled by this technology.  I read each question aloud, then the three of us decided on an answer. For each one, Papaw answered he was fine or couldn’t remember.  He didn’t know the name of his medications or the doses.  He didn’t know the dates of his surgeries.  He would however recall other helpful medical history facts like how he was shot between the eyes with a .22, but removed the bullet himself, or how he had been bitten by a snake and drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniel’s to kill the poison. We finally got all the questions answered to the best of our abilities, to the relief of everyone in the waiting room, who no doubt felt a lot better about themselves that morning.

I decided to stay with him as long as I could in case the doctor gave him information that would need to be relayed to my mother.  It was a good thing I did because there were more questions, and he was also left alone for a long time.  He got changed into his hospital gown and complimentary slipper socks. He reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge with his tall slender frame, and this was the first time I could remember seeing his legs. Years of working outside made his skin dark and leathery, but he always wore jeans, so his legs were white and freckly like mine. We chatted while the nurse took his vitals. So many vitals.  He told each medical professional how he pissed off his doctor back home after demanding a second opinion.  They all responded the same way, with an awkward smile that said, we’re in for a real treat. The real fun began once they administered the valium.  He became chatty and explained to me how a water birth works and went into detail about his burial plans. Once I decided he was fully loopy, I tried to get him to crack some deep dark secrets.  I leaned in and asked, “Papaw, have you ever killed anybody?” That very second a nurse burst in through the fabric room divider. So close. I should have pretended that was on the Questionnaire.

They finally took him back and I had to return to the civilian waiting room. By the time they brought me back to see him, he was awake and drinking his second cup of coffee.  The procedure went fine, but they didn’t find what was causing his pain and fatigue, so they set up an MRI appointment at another location in a different part of town. We tried to convince the nurse to just let him wear his hospital gown, but she insisted he should get dressed.  “How many times do I have to get naked today?” he asked the nurse, flirting with her. He was infatuated with her, and hopefully not too pervy when I wasn’t around to chaperone. He asked her to help him to the car, the same man who grew tobacco and birthed calves alone. I could tell he just wanted to put his arm around her, so I didn’t want to interfere with his moves. As she assisted him into my passenger seat, he gazed up at her with a glimmer in his eye and said, “I think about you all the time.” Oops, time to get Papaw out of here.

Since we had some time in-between appointments, I ran a couple errands. Papaw stayed in the car, wanting to roll down the windows and get fresh air. It was 94 degrees that day and I had to put my foot down. “You just woke up from anesthesia! You get air conditioning whether you like it or not!” Next I took Papaw to lunch. When I go visit him in the holler, he always takes me to a little Chinese buffet where everything is fried.  I took him to my favorite Asian place, a Japanese restaurant where the sushi comes around on a long conveyor belt. I knew he wasn’t going to be a fan of raw fish, but the restaurant would give him something to brag about to his farmer buddies. I ordered him some fried stuff off the menu.  Even though he claimed to be full from his post-op pack of crackers, he ate the entire dish. He argued he would pay even after I pulled cash out of his wallet.

Him “I told you I was paying.”

Me “I know, this is your wallet”

Him “Where’d you get that?”

Me “You gave it to me when you were naked, remember?”

The next radiology office was expecting us. We filled out another set of questions for an MRI.  I asked him each question out loud, including ‘are you pregnant or could you become pregnant’.  He smiled and answered to the best of his abilities. I skipped the question about the penile implant because I really don’t need to know that. ‘Do you have any shrapnel in your body?’ That’s actually a fair question, for this guy.  ‘What was the date of your last menstruation?’ We were enjoying it a little too much now.  We sat in that waiting room long enough to get the backstory of everyone there. When he finally got called back for his MRI, there were a lot of goodbyes to be had.

“Bye, hope your mission trip goes well.”

“Good luck with that online dating”

“No, I don’t have a Facebook page.”

“Have fun in Cincinnati with your choir.”

“Ok, talk to ya later.”

Before I could hack into some free Wi-Fi, Papaw was already back out. We were finally free to go.  We each accepted complimentary airplane-size Cokes for the ride home, and climbed into my car for our last ride. As we were sipping our mini sodas and laughing together, I realized all the time I’d ever gotten to spend with Papaw was usually in his neck of the woods, literally, he lived in a holler in the Smokey Mountains.  There’s no internet or cell phone service at his house so we’re limited to looking through the same photo albums for the 100th time or watching wrestling on TV.  He was finally on my turf. We’d spent the whole day in Music City, and all we had seen were waiting rooms and recovery rooms.   I drove him all around the city, through downtown and Broadway, West end, around Opryland. He didn’t seem impressed by anything on his tour of Nashville until we passed a wrecker service where he perked up and pointed to each totaled car announcing whether he thought the family inside lived or died.

Once home, I got him tucked comfortably into the guest room. He’d had needles sticking him, anesthesia, x-rays, and a whole team of other physically exhausting routines, so I hoping he was in bed for the night.  No such luck. An hour later he emerged requesting a cup of drip coffee.  Everything in my house was foreign to him. The Kuerig, the dozen remotes to watch TV, all touch screen phones, no landlines. He insisted touch screens don’t respond to him. I tried my best to keep my two energetic pugs from jumping on him, and he swore they were “showing out” for him. I was amazed how only one generation separated us, yet our lives are so different. His days are about peace and quiet off the grid, while I’m drinking $5 coffees playing games on a space phone.

The next morning he was already outside when I went to walk the dogs. He was antsy to get back to the mountain air, and I had to wonder if he had a good time, and if this trip convinced him to come back and visit me. Maybe being in the city and seeing how fun it is would change his mind. Once I got home from work, I realized just how much Nashville rubbed off on him, or rather he rubbed off on it. Through his nervous pacing, he’d stepped in the world’s largest pile of dog poop, and electric-slided it through my entire house. He must have really committed to his boot scoot boogie because I found smeared dry dog turds in every square inch of my home. Well, at least now I know he can line dance when he comes back to visit me.