Never a Bother (creative nonfiction)

In the third grade, waiting for the little bus that, thankfully, came right to my door, I sat in front of the window and sang Silent Night softly to myself. Christmas had been past for a few months, but it was still cold. Fog pushed into the valley obscuring the park across the street. Very few cars passed on the road. It was day and silent night all at once.

My great aunt and uncle’s living room never really made it out of the 60s, which was and is fantastic. They had a cream colored couch with a burnt orange floral and geometric pattern on it. On one wall, next to a curio cabinet holding Lladro figurines was a plush, burnt orange chair. Over the fireplace on the opposite side of the room, a wrought iron “F” for Foltz stood sentinel. In front of the picture window, where I sat, two low, round plush swivel chairs in harvest gold. None of my cousins nor I were allowed to get into those chairs and spin and spin the way we wanted to, but we were allowed to sit there quietly, once in a while, waiting for the school bus mainly, and turn the chair toward the window.

I had my feet tucked under me in the chair—a minor offense. In 1986, stirrup pants were the rage and mine that day were royal purple. With them, I wore a long, white top with puffy paint film rolls and popcorn boxes on it. For eight, I was quite the fashion plate, due more to my mother than myself, but I was happy to take the credit anyway.

As I sang, I heard my great uncle in the kitchen softly ruffling the onion skin pages of his Bible. He woke up every day at 5am and, before he went off to work at the Santa Fe Railroad yard, he spent an hour or more reading the Bible. Over the years, he read the Bible in just about every translation and formation you can think of. He read all the footnotes about all the Greek and Aramaic and Hebrew. He read all the reference books. He read reference books the reference books referenced. He believed organized religion was the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity.

Many times, he told me about a dream he had when he was a younger man of himself on a crowded ship. The ship troughed so low sometimes, the waves seemed as if they would come crashing down from above. The sky stormed and blustered. The heavy, black clouds obscured even a hint of sky. He told me then, in the midst of the storm, he saw the hand of Christ reach down and beckon him with love. He never forgot it. He carried this in his heart as he studied the Bible each morning. This love he carried in his heart always.

I continued to sing softly. I didn’t want to disturb him.

On my third or fourth round, I heard him get up and pad softly across the living room carpet. I looked up startled and more than a little sheepish. I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you.”

A gentle patriarch, he reached his hand out and patted my head and said, “You singing would never bother me.” He smiled. He turned and walked to the back of the house to get ready for work.

Whenever I sing, I carry that touch with me. I try to carry that love in my heart always.

-M. Ashley

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.

-M.

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

God Guy Buys Me a New Purse

“Open your hands, if you want to be held.”
-Rumi

If your hands are closed or, worse yet, clenched, where does your lover lay the present? I wrote a poem to that effect once and it’s quite profound, especially if your lover is Rumi’s THE Lover and the presents are all the good gifts of god.

I have this sort of boyfriend—this man who loves me unreadably as I have shattered his heart many times. Maybe in this unreasonableness for exactly that reason, he is exactly like god. Jokingly, (sort of), I told him he should buy me a new purse because I was soon to be acquiring a lot more stuff—gifts from actual god. I was (sort of) joking, but he said, enthusiastically, “OK!” And I might accept. I don’t want all the sticky little strings that are attached to love-in-desperation presents, but unlike with god gifts, I can keep my fist clenched for this one.

I can keep my fist clenched. He can go ahead and hang my new Hermes bag on my one outstretched arm.

-M. Ashley

Uber Gangster Heaven

In an Uber, coming home from an appointment an hour away, stuck in traffic, the driver spent the first half of the ride telling us how important unions are and how he went around stumping for the union all the time when he worked at the Albertson’s warehouse, and then in the second half of the ride, he told us how he wants to get a collage of American gangsters tattooed on his leg (he had tats all over, including his face). He wanted everyone from Al Capone to El Chapo (not an American gangster, but I kept that to myself), to all these relatively current drug lords I’ve never heard of, and then somehow we ended up with him telling me how crack is made (or so he’s heard) and how much Percs and Fentanyl cost on the street (or so he’s heard). When we got to the destination, I told him that that ride was the most fun I’ve ever had in an Uber by far, which is a fact! I told him he was fantastic and gave him a big fat tip. My male friend, more conservative than I, was not thrilled, but I was in Michelle heaven!

I love people so much.

My only regret is that I forget to tell him he needed to add Jimmy Hoffa to his tattoo. Dang it!

-M. Ashley

Authentic African Musical Tiger Says

In a moment a pain, crying and praying, my god brought me this. The radio playing mysterious drums and me… I had to look. Authentic African music surely… with a tiger on the cover. A tiger.

Hard to pain cry and SMH cry laughing at the same time.

And if that weren’t enough: That look in the authentic African music tiger’s eye: “You… Hey you… Hey you there lady, crying. You! Authentic African musical tiger says, RELAX!!!”

And buddy, you’d better fucking relax.

-M. Ashley

Ghost Heart

“Much have we loved you, but speechless was our love, and with veils has it been veiled.”
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In a moment of pain, suffering again with a traumatic memory, beyond trauma, that gave me tremors in my right arm and down the length of my leg, I cried out in loneliness and, in the imaginary conversation I was having with my therapist, I said how lonely I was with my trauma and how talking to my god was not enough because “he’s a ghost!”

(I am thinking of a ghost’s sheet as a veil.)

I hurt my god’s feelings. He has been right here with me through all the blood and guts.

Many times, talking to others about him, I have referred to him as “a figment of my imagination,” and “my all-powerful psychosis.” He joyfully laughs.

I called him a ghost and broke his heart.

-M. Ashley

My Eternal Creative Space

I am working with an art therapy book geared toward body acceptance and the first art prompt was to depict our ideal creative space. I think the idea was to draw what houseplants and implements and draperies we would like in our art room, but this is what I came out with instead. It may not be a still life style depiction of what my ideal creativity space would look like–I would never be able to realistically draw a grand piano, an ancient viola, stacks and stacks of sheet music, an art table big enough to lie down on, cement floor to make messes easier to be messy, a photo studio, a recording studio, a big sink, every brush and paint and crayon and color and implement known to man, redwood tall shelves of books, red velvet chairs, open atlases mapping out all the adventures I’ve had and am yet to have, and above it all, the ceiling painted with the zodiac so I have a mapped out sky and eternally turning fate overhead always–I may not be able to realistically draw any of that, but what I did come up with accurately represents what would be going on in that space in the ether, among all that glorious stuff while the art was happening. There would be the spirit of Mercury, planet and god, and a Valentine from him charged electric positive and negative. There would be wild hair–my hair–probably red and black paint in my wild white hair. There would be me looking through my glasses, their dark frame the slightly warped symbol for infinity. My poodle, blue in this drawing for tranquility, would be there nosing my hands across the page in smarter directions than I would have ever thought of on my own. The numbers 12 and 21 would likely pop up everywhere, mysteriously as they do in every corner of my life already. The technological universe is coded on 0 and 1. My little universe is 1 and 2. There is eternity everywhere! The ouroboros, the dense spiral in Mercury’s head, the glasses… And yellow sunny swirls all over and underneath because this is Apollon and the Muses’ space as much as, if not more than mine. And finally, a treble clef because, in this space, everything sings.

-M. Ashley