Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Three Circles of Pesticide

Couldn’t take the bugs anymore, so I went to Home Depot and bought fifty bucks of industrial-strength chemical compounds, nearly every pesticide I could find for spiders, ants, bees, flying insects. Swiped them off the shelves and into my basket, including foggers, powders, sprays, and foams, with names like, Bug Stop, Real-Kill, Ant-B-Gon, Hi-Yield Kill-A-Bug II, Hot Shot Spider Killer, and No Bugs in My Backyard. Even bought something special for the inevitable arrival of rodents.

Walking in circles around my trailer with a can in each hand, I sprayed a stream of white ooze from up to six feet away on baby spiders, brown furry spiders, black shiny spiders with red bellies, and anything else that dared breathe or move. They shriveled under the foam, and I thought, I’m going to win!

I’m determined. This place is not going to be like my apartment where I shivered and rocked back and forth in my bed while ants that had broken the barrier of pesticide dust around the foundation outside gathered crumbs from my abandoned nacho plates and readied themselves for crossing the 2nd barrier, the ring of dust around my bed.

This is chemical warfare on a new scale, and I’m determined. I won’t be taken prisoner, a hostage in my own home. This barricade of safety will be inpenetrable.

I sprinkled the standard ring of dust around the skirting of my trailer and then went around a second and third time for good measure, specializing my sprinkling each round, isolating a few select populations and peppering their homes with Green Light Many Purpose Dust, my apocalyptic snow, and in some cases giving them directives like, Eat up, boys! Come get your last meal! Then sat on my porch with a canister of Agent Orange for Insects across my lap like a loaded shotgun and waited for a bug to cross the three circles of hell, so I could introduce myself.

Fruit Not Welcome Here

An excerpt from a eulogy about my life: “Derek Smith was concerned with doing good work, and his work was often good, whether it be teaching, writing, or parenting. He liked the idea of eating fruit but didn't get around to it until his early thirties.”

(I already wrote my eulogy. I don’t want my family screwing it up at my memorial service. An interesting side effect of doing this was that thinking about what people will say about me after I’m gone helped me set some goals – yep, I’m that lazy and insecure, needing to cling to some imaginary fear that my loved ones will gossip after I’m gone about how I wasted my life to get me off my butt and work.)

But I digress. So far I’m doing well. With the exception of some frozen blackberries, pineapple juice concentrate mixed with rum, and a canteloupe joining the compost bin at the bottom of my refrigerator, fruit has never entered my trailer.

I figure that if I eat enough MSG, high fructose corn syrup, and carnuba wax, my body will never deteriorate and that I will become a human candle. That way my memory will be preserved in a wax museum (hopefully) and I won’t need a eulogy after all.

A Conversation with Trevor

Trevor, my realtor, told me the county inspector would be visiting and that he might be picky or he might be chill. “Really,” he said, “it could go either way.”

“How?” I asked, “How could it go either way? Is the inspector going to ignore the shed, the coop, the treehouse, the outhouse, the cabins, all without county permits, the 220 and 110 volt electrical cords strung across the creek, and the two barrels of chemicals in the yard?”

“Sometimes inspectors look the other way and normally you wouldn't want that,” he said, beginning one of his realtor-to-layman explanations, “because the point of the inspection is to make sure you’re buying legal property. But we want the inspector to ignore problems because by the time the problems get fixed the sell date will have passed and we’ll have to file again. That will be more money."

“Let me get this straight: even though the inspector is looking out for us, we want him to ignore the jerry-rigged powerline that could at any moment fall in the creek and electrocute legions of salmon and small congregations of swimming neighbor children so we can save a couple bucks?”

“Exactly. It'll be cheaper for us to fix stuff on our own. Don’t worry ‘bout it. Richard, the realtor on the seller’s end, has been working to make everything up-to-snuff out there. He already sawed off the extra rooom to make the trailer appear mobile for the county."

“Wait, he sawed off the room on purpose? But kept it connected with staples and tarps to make it look mobile, even though it hasn’t moved since 1985? That doesn't make any sense. If you see that inspector tell him I don't believe in meaningless rules and that I'm more interested in reality than image."

"But then he'll want to investigate."

"That's okay. While he's investigating he can help me unwind the tree roots from the plumbing and hook the trailer up to my car and I'll drive it down the street with tarps flapping behind me in the wind, you know, to demonstrate its mobility."

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dog Food Derring-Do

Decided to clean behind major appliances today, starting with the fridge – preparing the premises for the inspection of the priest, you know – and found there a virtual carpet of doggie kibbles. Kibbles! Just like the ones in the recliner cushions and kitchen cabinets, but melted and polka-dotted green.

Maybe rat poison pellets?

Moistening, expanding, bonding, dehydrating, separating, and moistening again over the course of time, the brown and green substances must have been every type of matter. Water, liquid, gas. Without my interruption, they probably would have witnessed the melting of the arctic glaciers, or at least another defrosting of the freezer.

I poked the congealed mass with a fork to see what would happen, and when it didn’t move I went at it with the hose of the magic vacuum. (The magic vacuum eats anything from beer caps to twigs the size of walking sticks, and I haven't emptied the bag in two years. Hence, the magic.) It sucked the chunks but left the slime, so I soaked some steel wool in ammonia and starting scrubbing, hoping the goo would find a good home in the pores of a metal-fiber sponge.

After about fifteen, fume-filled, minutes, I called it quits and got ready to move back the fridge, but as soon as I pushed - ding! ping! chime! ding! ping! It sounded like marbles. Even though I hadn’t inserted a quarter or turned a metal lever or asked for a prize, a few kibbles rolled out the front.

What? Who were these people? I want to know. And why did they store dogfood under the fridge? When it spilled on the floor did they just kick it there with their boots and figure the rats would get into it and maybe haul small packs of it up the maze of tubes in the back, storing up for the long winter? Were the rats their pets? Did they want their fridge to double as a vending machine for extra dog food like those automatic dispensers people use on vacations, and then they could just give it a hearty shake or two and the pebbles would come rolling out?

I was steaming like the bucket of ammonia at my side, and I felt dirty. I hadn’t even found the kibbles under the washer and dryer yet, which would be more of the same. When I finished, I got in the shower and washed myself with the only unpacked soap: liquid, lemon-flavored dishsoap. Slimy, but a good slimy.

My Trailer is a Step Up

Literally. I used to live in an underground apartment with one window. This place is propped on Home Depot cement blocks, two-by-fours, and shims. Granted, it’s in a sinkhole where snakes and shady creatures burrow and tunnel, and that puts it slightly below ground, but it's still got six windows and three separate steps that lead to the front door. That means most of the time I’m above ground, walking on air in the light. Lots of people who live in houses can’t say that.

Fungus! How Relevant!

This is the most useful piece of Scripture! I wouldn’t be surprised if God put a serious fungus in a house in the land of my possession.

I’m not a great person; I’ve got all the usual addictions (empty women, full beers, tiny gadgets, big screens), and exacerbating the problem is my weird hankering for rebelling against God and justifying it with thin social commentary, i.e. late-night half-drunk e-porn as American right, liberal duty of reluctant twenty-something, and covert subversion of crumbliing patriarchy. After all, some women enjoy stripping, and who is this institutionalized deity to say I am doing anything but participating in their empowerment?

A fungus infection might be exactly what I deserve, and my living conditions are making it easy for Him to pull it off; this place could host a photo shoot for a Department of Health introductory pamphlet on environments favorable to mushrooms and other toxins, organic or not: hot, moist, and closed-up.

While my deodorant sweats on the bathroom shelf and the butter on the counter transforms into a oily, gelatinous puss, the air underneath the trailer can’t circulate because there aren’t enough vents on the fake plywood panels that surround it.

The air heats up and steams the carpet above it like a tortilla turning green in a plastic baggie, and the air inside the trailer can’t get anywhere because I refuse to open the windows. Why? Because opening the windows is not an option when several phyla of insects are beating their tissue-paper, vein-filled wings against every one of my screenless windowpanes.

I would rather sit here and suffer and every once in a while wash something with cleaning chemicals until about 4 pm. That’s when my trailer will turn into a bleach-scented sauna and beads of moisture will streak my walls like greenhouse rain, and the ninety-degree air outside will feel cool.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Leviticus 14:33-47

Yesterday I came across this revelant passage in the Old Testament (translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message):

GOD spoke to Moses and Aaron: "When you enter the land of Canaan, which I'm giving to you as a possession, and I put a serious fungus in a house in the land of your possession, the householder is to go and tell the priest, 'I have some kind of fungus in my house.'

The priest is to order the house vacated until he can come to examine the fungus, so that nothing in the house is declared unclean. When the priest comes and examines the house, if the fungus on the walls of the house has greenish or rusty swelling that appears to go deeper than the surface of the wall, the priest is to walk out the door and shut the house up for seven days.

On the seventh day he is to come back and conduct another examination; if the fungus has spread in the walls of the house, he is to order that the stones affected by the fungus be torn out and thrown in a garbage dump outside the city.

He is to make sure the entire inside of the house is scraped and the plaster that is removed be taken away to the garbage dump outside the city. Then he is to replace the stones and replaster the house... Anyone who enters the house while it is closed up is unclean until evening. Anyone who sleeps or eats in the house must wash his clothes.

Letter From a Student

Dear Mr. Smith,

How are you? Are you having a good summer? I am!

I wanted to recommend a book to you. Pomegranate by Debra Spencer. I read three poems and fell in love with it. A lot of her writings are things I would expect you to read to your class as the beginning of the period, just to kick us off. You need to read it, this is the kind of writing you can drool over!

So, have you moved into your trailer yet? I think you should paint it neon green with black trim. I’m not quite sure why, it just sounds like it would look cool. My dad’s is dark blue on the bottom and sky blue on top. I told him it needed polka-dots, but he just laughed. Well, I’m sure you have something fun to do...

Your student,
S.G.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Remembering the Tum Tum Boys

Scott Howard, as a five-year member of the Tum Tum Boys, lived in a trailer and never brought cupcakes to class when it was his birthday. But that didn't mean he never brought food.

Among other items, Scott brought our fourth grade class a briefcase lined with Pizza Hut coupons (which he bundled like dollar bills and tried to sell), a coffee tin full of cookie crumbs (which he passed around the room), and a stack of Dixie cups to go along with the suspicious Kool-Aid his dad once dropped off with the teacher, who placed it awkwardly in the back of the room.

I remember riding his bus once and looking at the trailers and converted garages and storage spaces out the window and feeling sorry for the Tum Tum Boys, always dirty and late to school. But the Tum Tum Boys had their own self-defense against pity like mine, and I learned about it as they sang a rhyme over and over again, the bus rattling and bumping over the dust-filled, pothole-ridden turnarounds and driveways:

We are the Tum Tum boys
We have no toys
We live in caves and ditches
When pussy’s rare
We’ll fuck a bear
‘Cause we’re mean sons-of-bitches

That made it plenty obvious why the cookie crumbs went uneaten and the room-temperature Kool-Aid sat untouched on the back counter that June afternoon. These were scary kids. But now that I live in a trailer and teach students who live in trailers, I think there might be another reason: we were afraid of the unknown, especially the unknown part of ourselves that lived in people like Scott.

My Best Buddies

I boxed a few things for the move; the rest I threw into super-stretchy garbage bags. Moving into the trailer now, I kind of feel like I am hauling load after load of trash into my place, which is not how I want to feel. The previous owners left enough trash in the backyard to fill a Wal-Mart dumpster, and I'm going to have to clean it up. At the minimum, I want the inside to feel clean and not like there is a recliner piled high with unpackaged, soggy dog food in the living room.

But after forcing the oversized boxes through the door, vacuuming the Kibbles out of the creases in the recliner, and finding about twenty lost Nalgenes in a sea of clothes and hiking gear (Nalgenes I thought the universe had stolen from me and returned to the rightful owners, since I seem to collect them from other people’s houses), I thought I deserved a break.

I grabbed a Bud Light and a book, pushed my way through a newly-formed wall of spider webs on the front porch, and headed for the blue lawnchair in the front yard.

Shortly after I sat down I saw two guys walking down the road sipping Bud Lights. My first neighbors! I will meet them! We will converse! And that conversation will be my first contribution to the community! I got up and shook their hands and tried to establish common ground by complimenting their choice of beverage.

“Drinkin’ Bud Light, eh? My friends criticize it, but that’s because they’re beer snobs. They say Bud Light is like making love in a canoe – "fucking close to water" - and when they go to restaurants they order micro-brews made on the premises. But Bud Light goes down easy, and I like the new logo and clear label," I said, taking a drink. "You can hardly tell it's there. Yeah, this is good stuff," I continued. "So, um, what do you guys do?”

“We go to school at Mason High,” one of them said.

They're in high school, I thought. Ha! I had no idea! “So you’re like, what," I asked, "sophomores or juniors? Maybe seniors?”

“Juniors,” the other one said, "and what do you do? Where are your parents? Are they home now?”

They think I'm in high school! Ha! I know what they're doing.

“My parents are away,” I said, “and they probably won’t come back for awhile. I’ve got the place to myself – six acres and four empty buildings, although not all in good condition. The realtor called them ‘woodland cabins,’ but I think ‘rotted plywood shacks with sporadic tin siding’ might have been a more appropriate label. But hey, some activities only require a roof, right?”

They laughed. “Really?," one asked. "You've got all that? And no parents around?”

“Yeah,” I said. “My parents have been away a long time. Almost a decade. They kicked me out when I was eighteen and made me go to college, where I majored in Secondary Education and eventually got hired to teach freshmen to read and write."

“Shit,” the first one said, as they dropped their beers. “You teach?”
“All the time,” I said, "even in the summer."

Monday, August 14, 2006

Rooms of One's Own

After vacuuming spiders from windowsills and cupboards, corners and crannies, after wiping the ceilings and walls clear of webs, I had time to look around.

Two bedrooms! A bathroom! A kitchen! There are four rooms here, and I find myself walking from room to room just to confirm that I can. After three years living under a garage – where all one needed to do to get from the kitchen to the toilet was turn ninety degrees – I relish the amount of movement required to get from one task to another, for instance, the preparing of fresh food in one location and the dispensing of digested food elsewhere. The hallway between the two tasks reminds me of this separation, and sometimes I just stand in it, admiring it, thinking that maybe it should also count as a room, for a total of five.

(Plus, there’s a bonus room. Among other things the owners left behind is a dayroom that looks like it was sawed-off the trailer. At some point it was an addition, but someone along the way wanted it subtracted, and now it's sawed-off, although the tunnel of tarps to the front door keeps it connected. Yes, it's a bit of an eyesore, but hey, no sawed-off shotgun, and that’s good, right?)

Spider Man's Forced Entry

Moved in this morning, even though I haven’t signed the papers and the deal hasn’t closed. My reasoning, though, is sound:

1.), the place has been abandoned for three months, so I doubt anyone is going to come checking on me. And if they do, good for them, they’ll find me checking out the property, taking care of it;

2.) closure is less a legal technicality than it is something people want at the end of a relationship, or after sex, and I don’t plan on either since my realtor is my brother and having sex with him would change our relationship;

3.) in the grand scheme of things, God owns the place, not the Brooks, and I’m pretty sure He wouldn’t want a human definition of something like “ownership” to get in the way of my smooth transition from apartment to trailer.

Still, the neighbors don’t know my reasons, and they might be wondering why I was stacking garbage cans in the driveway, scratching at the aluminum siding below the bedroom window, and eventually posing in the windowsill like an unpracticed cat. It’s not the first impression I want to make here, even though the boy and girl next door apparently enjoyed the show enough to stop riding bikes and stare.

I had no key, and balancing there with the trepidatious glory of someone who refuses to play sports with balls or other accessories due to lack of grace when his body is forced to interact with objects, I didn’t see the small labyrinth of spiderwebs inside the window until I fell through it. And I didn’t know that when I stood up, covered in crackling lint, I would see more of the same: pregnant spiders hanging from the ceiling, ready to burst forth with babies, everywhere.

My Chocolate-Covered Loan

Asked my older brother for money today after I found out he’s rich. Somehow he made a quarter of a million dollars last year renting chocolate fountains out of the basement of an abandoned church. In fact, he made so much that he’s going to turn the Church of Chocolate into a daycare and move his business to a warehouse in Tacoma. The down payment for the place is as much as the total cost for my six acres of paradise.

And I can’t even afford the down payment for that.

Maybe instead of teaching and trying to enrich the imaginations of my students by cultivating a love for the life of the mind, I should cater to the base fantasies of brides and wedding planners, for whom, I guess, the image of metallic tiers flowing with melted chocolate activates some kind of subconscious archetype, like that of a dove, or a banana. I mean, these women are obviously not in control of their money, and I deserve it just as much as my brother. They fantasize than an entrepreneurial chocolatier will baptize their event in holy chocolate, and they will pay anything.

My brother obliges. And he makes bank.

So I asked him for a couple grand and told him he should take me out to lunch. Somewhere nice. And I urged him to reconsider the daycare idea, given that the place is next to a freeway offramp. He ignored the last comment but did write me a check a little later at Taco Bell, where he and I both ordered whatever the hell we wanted.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Wrong Kind of Lie

The loan officer called me today and asked me a bunch of questions, starting with “What kind of car do you own?” I figured that since I’m applying for a loan I should make it seem like I don’t have very much money, like when my mom and I filled out FAFSA forms for student aide in college. Back then, if everything came out on the low end on our side, the government put me on the high end of loan recipients, and I got lots of money.

That’s why even though I own a 1997 Dodge Intrepid, I told the loan officer I own a ’78 Pinto – so that she and her friends would want to loan me money enough to buy my trailer. “A ’78 Pinto?” she asked. “Really?”

I couldn’t resist. “Really,” I said. “It has a unicorn engraved in the window.”

Then she asked me to estimate the sum total of my possessions. I looked around my underground apartment: handmade clothes from Costa Rica, a collection of My so-called Life VHS tapes, four bluegrass-concert posters, several books of poetry by Wendell Berry, a lamp from a rummage sale, a mug full of beer caps.

“Um, $2,000,” I said.

“Count all of your electronics,” she said, “and all of your clothes and furniture. Count your chairs and tables. Count everything.”

“Um, $4,000?”

“We’ll round up to twenty,” she said.

Wait, what? Why would she round up?

A Vision For My Life

My mom has a certain vision for the lives of her children, and she tries not to let the facts of our lives get in the way of that vision, at least publicly.

My younger brother is a real-estate agent and was, for a short while, a carpet salesman and youth pastor. And despite the fact that two of those jobs require employees to refer to clusters of raisins smushed into carpets as “wear patterns” – which to me is entirely fascinating – Mom focuses on the pastor part, especially when updating friends about her children’s achievements.

It doesn’t matter that Trevor no longer has that job, and it doesn’t matter than when he first decided to go to a non-accredited Bible college, she asked, “Well, what are you going to have to show for it?” He managed to pass Ecclesiastes 101 and give a few sermons at a local church, which meant that he had done well with enough with God that she could afford to renounce her dream of framing his college diploma. And now, she can finally accept his godly ambitions - two years after he quit pastoring.

What's the turnaround rate for the decision I made today? When will my new digs make it onto Mom’s list of acceptable accomplishments? The current list for her three boys goes something like: aspiring chocolatier (oldest son), youth pastor (youngest), teacher who plans on pursuing master’s degree (me, the middle). All of it is true, or was true, at some point in time. It’s just not all true simultaneously.

But yes, it does sound better than the other list, my list: Willy-Wonka Wannabe, real-estate angent, teacher about to buy trailer in the woods.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Leaping Green Spirits

I can't believe the fir trees! - their stately roots and grand aspirations. It's like an open-air church, a green cathedral, a six-acre amphitheatre for God. The place inspires in me a thankful kind of prayer, and for someone who usually prays for things like comfort and salty snacks and new Claire Danes movies, that's saying a lot.

My brother Trevor, a real estate agent, took me on a magical mystery tour of some local properties for sale this afternoon, and the final property we looked at was God-given.

We had seen mansions mounted on steep hillsides overlooking the Puget Sound, prairie manors framed by backgrounds of deciduous trees, and ancient ruins of rural meth labs squatting in puddles of mud. None of it really worked. I don't want a perfectly-trimmed yard with twiggy saplings planted on the perimeter, and I don't want a tick-infested marsh with chunks of cement thrown in as stepping stones to the doorframe without a door. Something between desolate and decadent would be nice.

And then, miraculously, we found it.

I can't even get my arms around some of the trees on this place, and that is just one of the perks. There's a treehouse in the willows overlooking the creek and a roomy single-wide trailer on the hill and a tire swing dangling from the largest apple tree I've ever seen. And the current owners are nice! They don't collect satellite dishes in the front yard, and they have matching old-people bikes leaning on the front-yard fence and his-and-her galoshes lined up on the front porch.

"This is it," I say to Trevor, "Imagine it. Owls cooing at night, hens clucking in the coop in the morning, the stream gurgling all hours of the day. This is it! But how am I going to afford it? I can't afford $160,000."

"Don't worry about making your payments," he answers. "If it comes down to it, you can harvest this baby for sixty grand, easy."

The Stripper-Pole Shimmy

Stumbling through the darkness last night on my way to the bathroom, I hit my head on the pole in my underground apartment. Then I started crying, sobbing, in fact. And not just for my frontal lobe, but for my life: I have a stripper pole in my apartment. That is the nature of how and where I live.

For three years, I have made my home in the damp expanse under the garage of an elderly couple. Despite my mother's silent wish for me to marry, I live alone. There is no state of the union here. There is only a state of singularity.

The pairings in my apartment are few. I have one sink where the plates air-dry next to the toilet, one fire alarm missing a double-A battery, and half a bed donated by my Uncle's black lab, who gave me her futon when she upgraded to a twin. One metal support beam juts through my small, open space, and the two times friends have dared to visit me here, the first thing they did after offering the obligatory compliments was wrap their legs around the black pole and shimmy.

This morning I found myself doing the stripper-pole shimmy to the synthesizer music at the beginning of Morning Edition, and I knew it was time to move. The sound of cars rolling in overhead at night has made me a little crazy; I need to find a new place, a new kind of health.