Pleasant Girls (creative nonfiction)

Anger wakes me up at night. I have stuffed it. I have eaten it. I have forced myself to sleep through it. My dreams bring it out of me no matter how hard I fight against it.

I scream at my sister. I scream and shake my fists at my brother-in-law. I break up with my best friend. I cry out of frustration. I pound my fists on my ex. Sometimes I pound my fists on my god.

I wake up and my heart is beating fast. I sweat. I breathe hard. Sometimes I cry. I am a cliche. The sadness stays with me throughout the day.

I am angry and I am sad that I’m angry.

I’m a nice girl. I’m well-behaved and, despite the odd mood, I’m laid back and easy to get along with. Nice, pleasant girls don’t feel rage.

I’ve heard men say they don’t get angry. They say they get annoyed or irritated, but not angry. They, I think, have nothing to get angry about. Not all men—the abusers who have smiled at us pleasant girls and said they don’t get angry. Even while they beat us well behaved girls, they say, they don’t ever get angry. Not really.

-N. Ashley

Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe (creative nonfiction)

My first Christmas in my first apartment alone, trying to be a big time grownup, I made French onion soup for Christmas dinner. I called home to California earlier in the day. I had read a scripture, I told my mom, something about getting my house in order, and I felt I needed to do that, which involved me staying in Nashville for Christmas, again, alone. She wasn’t convinced, but because she couldn’t fly out and physically drag me back home, she accepted it.

I was trying to be so adult. I was trying to prove something, though, looking back, I can’t imagine what. Was I trying to prove that I could withstand severe holiday depression? Was I trying to prove that no matter how badly I wanted to off myself that season, I didn’t need my family to help me not become a statistic?

I called my Hungarian violin teacher after I called my family. He was a big part of my life then as music was a big part of my life and also because I adored his stories of escaping communism and how the communists used to make the Hungarians eat diseased cow meat and chocolate made from blood. Zsolt was also disappointed I wasn’t coming home. He seemed put off by my choice of Christmas dinner. He said, “Well, maybe you could float an ornament in it and make it more Christmasy that way.” I laughed and felt lonelier by the minute.

God I was miserable then—a miserable sort of miserable that radiated in waves across the country from Nashville to my little burg in California called “Berdoo.”

I was new to keeping my own appliances then, just as I was new to keeping my own household in general. For example, while I had used a garbage disposal many times as a kid growing up, I somehow never learned that putting onion skins down one is not such a great idea. By the time I had all the onions in the Christmas soup pot sautéing with butter, beginning to oddly smell like apples the closer they came to caramelizing, my garbage disposal was filled to brimming with onion skins.

I ran the water which began to fill the sink and turned the thing on. It growled like a demon but the water didn’t go down. It began to spit up chopped onion skins in great belches making of the sink water a slimy, stinky soup of its own. I stopped the thing. “That was not bright,” I told myself.

I grudgingly lugged my plunger into the kitchen from the bathroom. In retrospect, it is amazing I had a plunger given that, when I first moved it, I somehow hadn’t realized until I was in dire need that toilet paper doesn’t grow on the roll.

I stuck the plunger to the drain and plunged for dear life. More and more onion skins belched forth from the disposal along with other unspeakable things most likely from tenants past. I sucked everything out of there I could, then turned the thing on, having thought there was something stuck and I had by the sweat of my plunging arm dislodged it.

The water didn’t go down. The chopped up onion skin and unnamable goop mocked me as it danced its spiral dance around the sink.

I ended up having to strain all that onion skin and other detritus out of the sink with my bare hand, letting the water slip through, but retaining the chunks that clung to my fingers. I pulled the trash can up next to me and went to town. I think a year might have gone by.

The sink came clean, the water went down, and the garbage disposal growled happily, its gut no longer sick.

I washed by hands at least three times. I washed the plunger. I raised the plunger over my head and made He-Man muscles.

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I proclaimed to my empty apartment. The high ceiling echoed back at me.

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I shouted again. The ceiling repeated it.

I lowered my plunger and shrugged my shoulders. Shoving the onion skins down the disposal was not the only terrible mistake I made that lonely Christmas. Not by a long shot.

-m. Ashley

Watching LA Burn in Black and White (creative nonfiction)

At this time in 1990, I knew my elementary experience was over. I knew I was headed off into 7th grade and the dreaded changing of periods, seven classes a day, grown up stuff.

I knew I would no longer see some of my classmates. Some went off to starrier climbs, as it were. Some went off to Richardson where you had to win a lottery to get in because it was oh-so. The other was Golden Valley where all the white kids went. It was equally as snobby as Richardson, only without the academic record to back it up.

The school I went to from the fourth grade on, the school I’d continue to go to through the seventh and eighth grades, was a certified ghetto school, a magnet school, a school it shocked my mother’s Mormon friends that she let me go to.

At my school we really did have the academics to back up any snobbery, and we were absolute snot-heads about our school, but under the radar. Mostly people thought riots and, I don’t know, chain fights a la West Side Story went on there every day. No such thing ever happened.

Fast forward a couple of years to the LA riots re: Rodney King. They were in April. A bunch of us hung out in Mr. Espinoza’s room for lunch. It was shady in there and quieter. And it wasn’t just nerds, which was weird. We talked a little about the rioters and what we heard they did and did not burn down in our town.

Eating pizza the night of the riots at my aunt and uncle’s house, my friend Elizabeth and I watched it all on the news. I don’t know how we got this intel, but we heard “they” had burned down the FedCo. That was a huge disappointment. FedCo had the best popcorn and Icees and it was a privilege to go there because your parent had to be some kind of state or federal employee to get a membership card.

My sister breezed in and told me her boyfriend’s dad had taken up residence sitting on his roof with a shotgun lest anyone get close to his house. My sister was kind of a racist and a liar, so we took that with a grain of salt.

We speculated if they would come to the north side of town.

My friend spent the night that night. She lived in the poorest part of town which was adjacent to the black section of town, (incidentally, we still have a black section of town and it’s almost 23 years into the new millennium). We weren’t sure if she would be safe. We called her mom. Her mom said to stay put where we were.

Interesting thing about it is how many odd OLD references there are from both the 90s and the 60s LA riots, like the self-segregated neighborhoods and us watching the destruction on a black and white television with rabbit ears. People who don’t know history didn’t apply. A thirty year curse maybe. A vortex.

A lot of wicked shit put up with for way too long.


A Man and Skinny (flash fiction)

There was a man who had white hair like an albino, though his skin was dark. One morning, while his desperate little city woke up in the glaring, smoggy light of winter, he looked out from behind the oily screen of his living room window and saw a dog. He saw that the dog was skinny, ribs showing. Brown like his skin. Something like a pit bull mix, common for this neighborhood, but otherwise not distinguishable. He realized, after having looked at the dog for a while, that he never saw this dog before. He knew all the stray dogs in the neighborhood. He carried bits of ground beef for them in his pockets when he walked to and from the 7-11 for cigarettes each day, each day telling himself he would only buy one pack and that this would be his last pack.

But this dog he didn’t know. He took a long drag on the last cigarette of his last pack, blew the smoke through the oily, yellow screen, put on his green coat with ground beef already in the pockets, and started out to the 7-11 for his next last pack.

The skinny dog greeted the man on his front stoop, wagged his tail, and sniffed his butt as he turned around to lock the steel security door. He knew the butt sniff meant they were already best friends for life. Perhaps, he thought, the dog smelled the hamburger through the screen and wanted to be the first and the friendliest to hopefully get the biggest portion. Smart dog. Crafty dog. He knew this would really make them best friends for life.

He dug in his left pocket and made a double size meatball for the dog, forming it with his first three nicotine stained fingers. He offered the meatball to the dog. The dog sniffed it but did not take it. Instead, he sat down, matter of fact, cocked his head, stared at the man, and thumped his tail, matter of fact, against the gray plastic doormat that had “Go Away” stenciled in white across it.

The man offered the meatball to the dog again. He didn’t even sniff the meatball this time. The man sniffed it. He had put the meat in his pocket only this morning, but maybe it was old. It would have had to come from the grocery store old, (maybe he didn’t see the expiration date right), because he didn’t give his dogs old meat. In fact, he made a habit of checking around the neighborhood for where people had left poison meatballs out to kill the stray dogs. He liked to pick up the poison meatballs and smash them into the mail in those people’s unchecked mailboxes. Let their birthday money be covered in poison and rotten meat and let the dogs live another day.

His sniff told him the meatball was at least OK. He offered it one more time to the dog. The dog cocked his head the other way, made three more matter of fact thumps with his tail, and again did not take the meatball.

Strange dog, this one, with the face he still couldn’t make out quite right, even being this close. He thought it was the oily screen that had blurred his view, but now he thought maybe it was his 70 year old eyes. He put the meatball down on the corner of the “Go Away” mat, and tried to walk around the dog. The dog stood up and in his way. He went left. The dog was left. He went right. The dog went right.

He crossed his arms and said, “Buddy, we’ve got to come to some agreement here or we’ll be dancing all morning.” The dog did not move.

“If you don’t want to stop dancing with me, can you at least dance me down the block a ways?” The dog stood up and they did a little tangled leg pirouette off the stoop together.

A few houses down, they were met by a German shepherd mix he knew well. His name was Atticus. “Good morning Atticus,” the man said and offered him a meatball. Atticus also sat, refused, and thumped his tail. Something in the air with these dogs today.

He met Bananas a few more houses down, another pit bull mix, brown and white. Bananas was so named because she liked to bark like bananas when she saw him and saw that meat coming. A “Hi! How are you!” Bark, not the “I’m gonna fuck you up” bark that came from behind so many neighborhood fences. He understood. Freedom could make you bananas, captivity made you mean. Recently sprung from the state nut house himself, he understood Bananas deeply.

But today, Bananas was quiet. She came up to him wagging, but softly. She also didn’t take the meatball. When he offered it to her, she bent her head to his hand, but rather than grabbing the meat, she softly licked his wrist, then nuzzled into his arm. He put the meat back in his pocket and gave her a scratch on the neck that made her right leg wiggle. Maybe he loved Bananas the best, but don’t tell any of the other dogs that.

Definitely something wrong with this meat. For sure. Best to ditch it at the next asshole’s mailbox that comes up. That would be, let’s see? Paula’s mailbox. Paula thought she was too good for this neighborhood. She, with the front lawn not just mowed in straight rows, but squares so perfect, for a long time, he thought it was astroturf. The only reason he knew it was real grass was that one day, Ariel, a rottie so named because she liked to run through sprinklers and was obviously half mermaid, stood on Paula’s lawn, munched a few blades, then barfed it back up on Paula’s plump orange roses.

That grass was the real deal and Ariel’s puke made his week.

He loved to rub poison meat into Paula’s mail and mailbox. After Ariel puked on her roses, and perhaps pissed on them a few times too, he found she left a trio of what were surely poison meatballs for the dog in the munched-on spot in her perfect yard. That was the first time, and not the last, that he had taken the poison meatballs she left and smashed them into her mail. It was a hundred degree day, that first time, and one of the pieces of mail he smashed the meat into was some notice from the DMV. Greased up and fried in the mailbox with the poison meat, he was sure whatever the DMV had to say would make her week, the way Ariel’s puke had made his.

Today was cold, or as cold as it gets in desert Southern California, so the obviously not fresh meat he had to rub into her mail today wouldn’t be extra gross by the time she got to it, but there appeared to be two Christmas cards in her box, hand addressed, almost calligraphic in their perfection, so he smashed his whole pocketful of meat between the cards and it was, two days before Christmas, already a merry Christmas for him.

By the time he got near the 7-11, about half a mile from his duplex, he had a pack of seven or eleven dogs following him closely behind, which was normal, with the addition of the new dog, the skinny dog whose face he could still not quite make out thought he had been looking down at it frequently the whole way. Skinny, he was calling him because he couldn’t for the life of him come up with any name that seemed really right, had walked the whole way in perfect step with him, at his left hip. So perfect you would think there had been a leash or something binding them.

He pressed the stoplight button and turned to his pack. This last street he had to cross was a four lane free-for-all crossing a six lane nightmare. He didn’t like the dogs to cross with him here. The cars were so hot and careless on the button, he had images for a long time of one dog straggling along a little too far behind and getting nailed by some asshole driver looking the wrong way.

“All right, ladies and gents,” he said to his pack. “You stay. Stay. Staaaay.” He put both hands out in a stopping gesture. “Pappy will be back and maybe bring us all one of those nasty hot dogs to share if you’re good and if you stay. Stay. Staaaay.” He put his hands out again and, all at once, the whole pack sat except Skinny. This guy. What to do? He knew he would not leave his side. Hopefully at least he’ll let me go in the store by myself! The owners are mean and barely let my smelly self go in there, let alone my smelly self and this smelly, skinny, stubborn dog.

He heard the electric bird tweet, turned around, and he and Skinny stepped into the street.

He could have sworn he heard the electric bird tweet, but now he wasn’t sure. What rung in his ears now was squeal and pop. And howling. Seven or eleven dogs yipping and howling from the corner. Something like a splintering in his legs, something like twist and crush in his chest. Yipping. Howling. Howling from the corner. And relief.

He stood up. He saw some nerd get out of white Prius, shaking. He saw the front end of the white Prius all smashed up and he smiled. He looked the other way and saw, attached to the smashed up Prius’, Paula’s worse smashed up black Escalade. And his smile turned into a full belly laugh. He felt good. He never felt so good.

He looked down at Skinny, still there with him at his left hip. “Did you see that, Skinny? Look’s like today is our very best day.” He noticed this time, as he looked down at Skinny, his ribs weren’t showing anymore, (he would have to come up with a new name), and his face had come clear and he could swear it was not one clear face, but the clear face of every dog in his seven or eleven pack. The same faces with the same light and love in their eyes they had each day he greeted them with a new, fresh meatball. Not-So-Skinny-Anymore pressed his body into the man’s leg, took the fabric of his empty meatball pocket into his mouth, and, step by sure and gentle step, led the man across.

-M. Ashley
My first stab at fiction in ages and ages. Let me know what you think.

Gratitude My Love Song (poetry)

Gratitude, my love song to you
Love is patient and many-faced
Teaching me miraculous compassion
You sing it back to me

Love is patient and many-faced
May I, un-healed, go with you healing
You sing it back to me
May I, restless, with you bring rest

May I, un-healed, go with you healing
Safe and still my tempest past
May I, restless, with you bring rest
Just and safe my Now

Safe and still my tempest past
Teaching me miraculous compassion
Just and safe my Now
Gratitude, my love song to you.

-M. Ashley

God at the Cake Case (poetry)

We didn’t see—we sensed him
Black hair, caramel skin, dressed in blue and black
Lovely voice, petite man, graceful hand
Magically he opened the cake case from the front

Black hair, caramel skin, dressed in blue and black
Delighted ladies sighed in surprise
Magically he opened the cake case from the front
He did it for the delighted ladies’ sighs

Delighted ladies sighed in surprise
He said he’d die if he had to…
He did it for the delighted ladies’ sighs
…Go in from the back every time

-M. Ashley

Conception (poetry)

Purple kangaroo wine, cheap and bitter
Gratitude shouts louder than a flash flood warning
Climax withheld for one notch less drunk than this
Red solo cup abandoned on the windowsill

Gratitude shouts louder than a flash flood warning
Half full of wine–collecting rain
Red solo cup abandoned on the windowsill
Pajamas and flip flops in a tangle by the bed

Half full of wine–collecting rain
God’s body happens where lightning strikes something
Pajamas and flip flops in a tangle by the bed
Only one window opens wide enough

-M. Ashley

Czar of the Heavens

“…but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might be.”
-Bill W., “Bill’s Story,” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 12

I have chronic PTSD nightmares. I woke up from a particularly bad night—screaming screaming screaming—orange and red death screaming all night—and when I took my pup out for potty, I saw that her pee spot, over time, had formed an unmistakable heart on the pavement. An unmistakable heart with dog plops scattered about.

I sat on the edge of the brick planter box watching her squat, my arms wrapped tight around me, still shaking a little, and I smiled. I hadn’t the energy to laugh, but here was the Czar of the Heavens laughing for me.

How loving is the sway of this Czar that he would draw with his own shining finger a dog piss heart for me while my horror was screaming in my sleep? Pretty damn loving.

“I love you,” says this Czar, “even when things are shitty, and maybe especially then. This heart isn’t drawn around the shit. It’s drawn right thought it.”

-M. Ashley

Alcoholics Anonymous
Overeaters Anonymous

Hopeless. Interested. (poetry)

“Certainly I was interested. I had to be, for I was hopeless.”
-“Bill’s Story,” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 10

Abandon all hope, ye who enter
I lay all enamored of Interest
Who sexily swayed into the stuffy
Room where I divorced Hope—finally
Mouth all full of sugar
Heart all full of hate

Interest the mistress—
The new
Promised woman

Show me
What you’ve got.

-M. Ashley