Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Shiny Things"

By Val Haynes

First of all, I didn’t start out being a shoplifter. It’s not something I was consciously aware of doing, at least not that first time anyway. The other times, I admit I was guilty, even planned on stealing, but not that first time.

The first time it just kind of happened and after the first time, it became easier and easier. In my career as a shoplifter and thief, I have taken: a man’s Piaget watch, $2500 from a pot-dealer, two pairs of jeans (brick red and blue), and $100 from a hard-luck alcoholic who happened to be my boyfriend at the time—oh yeah—and a skirt full of candy from the corner deli down the street from where we lived.

The hundred dollars was for the shaking I needed to stop and the candy was for all the times I had to go to the Saturday matinees empty-handed. I feel remorse about the $100 (my friend needed to pay his rent and his twisted face revealed the anguish my stealing had caused), for everything else I don’t care. My stealing didn’t make a bit of difference to me or anyone else. But the first time—the very first time I stole—it was for my mom. That first shiny thing I stole was a heart-shaped pendent in gold-toned quilted metal. It was my Rubicon—my maiden voyage into a career from which there was no turning back.

You see, I loved shiny things. I still do.

It all started with my Pa. See, when I was little, my Pa called me “Princess.” He called me that name so much I started to believe it, I guess. In third grade I wore a metal and rhinestone tiara to school seven days straight till finally Sister Mary Catherine made me stand in the corner saying it was a vanity.

The tiara didn’t go with the plaid blue uniform worn at St. Peter’s Academy anyway, so it didn’t bother me much, having to give up wearing it to school. Still, I loved shiny things and their clean brightness. Diamonds and bracelets, those kinds of things. You could put a ring on your finger and change your world. People did it all the time, like when they got engaged. Of course, I was too young to think about getting engaged or anything like that. I just thought diamonds and rings and necklaces, stuff like that was, well life-changing. Maybe those things only changed the way you thought about your life. Maybe wearing jewelry and seeing it day-to-day reinforced a kind of possibility—that things—good things were possible. Even for me. Not just people in shiny magazines. Maybe I’d grow up to be a princess after all.

Back then, my favorite place was Adel’s, the small jewelry shop I passed each day on my way to school. Adel’s was an island of shining prospects despite its location wedged between two abandoned store fronts on a side street littered with other shiny things like beer cans, broken glass and foil wrappers. I didn’t mind the street so much; it’s that Adel’s stood diagonally across from the El Dorado, a smelly old man’s bar, where my Pa spent most afternoons seated on a barstool.

He became a “regular” when one of our town’s chief employers, a paper-mill, went bankrupt. I didn’t understand why he drank instead of getting another job. I suppose he resigned himself to being out of work in the same way I resigned myself to being called names other than “Princess.” You just get tired and give up the ghost.

Both to and from school I walked this street never once passing in front of the El Dorado for fear I’d see my pa’s scowl or worse, his grin. If he grinned he was happy and I would have to go in and suffer the embarrassment of one of his drunken exhortations about how I was such a good girl and such a smart girl, all that kind of crap. I was hyper vigilant about avoiding him especially those days.

It was Christmastime and he was drinking more and more—getting stranger and stranger. There were mornings when I found him passed out on the john, mornings when I woke to find my mom with a black eye, mornings when the car we once owned mysteriously vanished. The winter I turned thirteen I passed Adel’s so often, on my way to do some errand for my mom, that old man Adel practically invited me in as I paused for a quick peek at the window.

One December afternoon the shop’s window glittered with the traditional colored lights and garland of the season forcing me to a full-stop while I stared mesmerized by the shiny display of rings and bracelets and watches. I had yet to buy my mom a Christmas gift and knew I wouldn’t be able to afford anything from the shop. Still, I planted myself in front of the window my gaze focused on the polished array of silver and gold.

Since my Pa lost his job I no longer received an allowance and the only extra money I had saved was from baby-sitting. I wouldn’t have much to spend on gifts this year. Still, I went in. There might be some cheaper items in the back of the store. I remembered that old man Adel kept a saucer of mints on the display counter. I went in for a mint and a closer look at the sparkly selection of jewelry.

Inside on the countertop suspended from a velveteen display rack was a row of chains and necklaces. That’s where I saw it. The watch. I’d never seen any thing like it before. It was a pendant, really. Heart-shaped. In the center of the heart was a watch. The pendant hung from a gold chain dangling near the edge of the rack. I fingered the pendant with care fascinated that there was a small watch inside the heart. I wanted it for my mom. For Christmas.

I closed my eyes and pictured her mouth forming a small oh of surprise as she cooed over the pendant’s beauty. It was seventy-five dollars more than I had. Despite saving all the money I earned baby sitting, I knew I’d never be able to save enough to buy the pendant by Christmas Eve.

Later that day around suppertime, while I helped my younger brother assemble a model airplane, my mom called to me from the kitchen.

“Could you pick up your father, Connie? I know you just got home but I don’t think he should walk home alone tonight.”

“It’s okay, Ma... I don’t mind.”

As I walked down the El Dorado’s street through the dusky twilight, I looked up at the streetlamps. They groaned and flickered on one by one in the wake of my footsteps crunching against the crisp, clean snow. It was funny how the flakes disappeared as soon as they fell into the lamplight. I noticed a small crowd of people on the normally desolate street.

It’s the holidays, I thought.

I saw myself in my second-hand winter coat reflected in the empty storefronts and paused. I thought about my ma and my brothers and sisters, how they seemed so innocent. I thought about how my ma, especially, was always going on about miracles and Jesus and heaven. Sometimes I wished I could make her see it was all a lie meant to keep people from doing things. From being who they really were. I wanted to believe but I thought only suckers believed in miracles and Jesus and heaven.

I passed Adel’s stopping briefly and raised my hand to wave at the old man who for once didn’t seem to notice me outside in the cold. Maybe he’s ignoring me, after all, it’s not like I’m a paying customer, I thought. Without thinking, I saw myself make the sign of the cross before I entered the shop.

The old man hunched behind the counter, busy with a woman wearing too much lipstick and a brown, old lady, fur coat. He held out a charm bracelet and she practically snatched it from his hands.

“It’s for my niece, her first year at Cornell. She’ll be home for the holidays and I want to give her something really special,” the woman chirped.

I tapped on the counter to get the old man’s attention and noticed the exaggerated arch of the woman’s penciled in eyebrow as she turned her head to look at me. The woman stared straight through me while she went on and on about her niece.

“Got any more of those mints, Mr. Adel?” I asked.

Sure enough the old man while in the middle of helping the woman turned his back to fill the empty saucer from a supply of candy he kept in the back of the shop.
It happened in an instant. I grabbed the pendant and shoved it into my coat pocket, the one without the hole in it. The woman was too busy toying with the bracelet to spot me and I figured that before Adel noticed the pendant missing I would be long gone. I felt like I'd unzipped my skin as I flew onto the sidewalk. It took me all of five seconds before I realized I was under the El Dorado’s faded awning.

As I skipped across the El Dorado’s threshold I saw my pa slumped across the bar. I wasn’t sad or scared; I wasn’t even ashamed of him. I tapped his shoulder and he lifted his head and grinned at me in that sad way drunks have.

"Hi ya, Princess."

I smiled and hummed along to the tune playing in my head. It was a song I heard while listening to Dr. Laura’s radio talk show.

I was just thinking.

I needed a little white gift-box.

Val Haynes. a writer, actress and singer, is earning her Master of Arts in English at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Some Things I Learned From My Dentist"

By Ellen Zunon

Ever since childhood I have had a visceral fear of dentistry. At every six-month check-up, I always had new cavities; my older sister rarely did. My mother thought it was because my bones and teeth had been cheated of calcium because she became pregnant again so soon after my sister was born.

So I was always the one who had to listen to the dentist’s song and dance – literally! - while he pierced my tender gum with the novocaine needle, drilled until my skull vibrated, and then filled the crevasses in my teeth with that shiny metal. The trinket I got to choose afterward was small compensation for my ordeal.

In contrast, with Dr. Koiné, my dentist in Abidjan, there was no song and dance, no trinket, no nonsense, only cool, clean-edged professionalism.

Walking up the stairs and along the corridor to her office for the first time, I felt a sense of trepidation. My first experience with an Ivorian dentist, after I had broken a tooth, was not very encouraging. This was a professor who taught at the dental school in Abidjan. He had tried to grind down the tooth stump without using an anaesthetic. I vowed to myself at the time, if I ever get out of this dentist’s chair alive, I’m never coming back here again.

I think Dr. Koiné had been trained in France, but I’m not sure. In any case, she had learned her craft at the very same dental school from which my tooth stump still throbbed.

I preferred to think that she was trained in France.

She was extremely particular, meticulous even, about the sterilization of her equipment, and wanted me, as the patient, to know this. She wanted all her European and American patients to know this, as you could catch any number of noxious tropical diseases from unsanitary dental equipment.

Her assistant Kouadio was in awe of her. He was a dark black man with patches of pink here and there on his skin due to tinea, and it was his job to sterilize the equipment and to hand her the instruments. I had root canal before the crown went on, and many instruments were handed back and forth during this delicate process. Dr. Koiné admonished me in no uncertain terms to sit very still because the tools were extremely sharp, and missing the mark by even a millimeter could be disastrous.

Dr. Koiné definitely did not fit the Western stereotype of the submissive African woman. In contrast, she was very self-assured and in charge. She exhibited the resilience and self-reliance that I encountered again and again among the women I worked with in my community development projects.

Although she had a traditional Muslim last name, she was a devout Catholic. At first I thought that must be her married name, but I eventually learned otherwise. Incidentally, Koiné is not her real name. I’ve changed it to protect her privacy. But what you need to know about her name is that in the Ivory Coast a person’s tribal identity and religious affiliation are usually evident from their name. And it is quite unusual to have a mixture, as Christiane Koiné did.

As I sat gaping, slack-jawed, I learned how her family had disowned her when she had converted to Christianity. I wondered under what circumstances she had converted, but never learned any more details. I am guessing that her Christian first name had been given to her when she was baptized. She was very close to her priest and spoke highly of him on several occasions.

Dr. Koiné’s grandfather was known as El Hadj Koiné. He had earned the title El Hadj by accomplishing the hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, from Guinea to Saudi Arabia on foot during the early part of the 20th century. As Christiane spoke of her grandfather, I pictured him in sandals and flowing robe, trudging through the sandy Sahara from oasis to oasis in the wake of a caravan of camels. The family’s name is really that of one of the famous clans of the Ghana Empire, going back to the Middle Ages. It is a name which is still prominent throughout the Sahel.

I learned something about the degree of Muslim-Christian tolerance in Côte d’Ivoire from Dr. Koiné’s situation. During my years in the Ivory Coast, the country put forth an official face of tolerance and neutrality, but there were always private prejudices under the official façade. These became more evident later, after my family and I left Côte d’Ivoire, and it was torn in half for a time by ethno-religious tension. Some say that the conflict was purely political. Or was it? It is impossible to separate the religious from the political in a country of 60 diverse ethnic groups.

I also learned something about myself from Dr. Koiné. While drilling, and while her assistant was sucking up my copious saliva with that little plastic straw, she told me that my excessive salivation was a sign of someone who keeps everything in. I wondered if this was something she had learned in dental school or an observation drawn from her own practice of dentistry. It is true that I am an introvert and tend to hold things in, but not nearly as much as I used to. But who would have thought that this tendency would be reflected in my degree of salivation under dental stress? Is it because we introverts tend to swallow literally and figuratively things we should spit out?

I thought of Dr. Koiné last week when I learned that the rebels from the north of the country had finally burned their weapons in a public ceremony of reconciliation, putting an end to seven years of turmoil in Côte d’Ivoire. I hope this symbolic act will lead to a real and lasting peace, and that people like Dr. Koiné can go forward and lead their lives free of the anguish caused by ethnic conflict.

Ellen Zunon, a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives, is a writer living in the Capital Region of New York State.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"And Their Echo Will Never Cease"

By Jennifer M. Wilson

My son and daughter, twins, are now two and a half years old, and I am going through their things, sorting what can be sold or donated and what I want to keep for sentimental reasons.

I am not planning on having any more children (I am almost 37), and it seems like I just had these two. It seems to me as though I am still recovering from new parenthood, and yet I am researching pre-schools and giving away baby gear and noticing that the photo in my wallet is already a year and a half old and needs to be updated.

How did I go so long without updating that photo?

The first four months all I did was take care of them and take photos of them.

Photos that displayed round scrunched-up faces whose beauty I now see was so exhalted in my eyes that looking at these pictures now, I have to wonder if anyone really meant it when they cooed, "Oh how beautiful!"

Not that I care what anyone thought, it just strikes me as funny now, that time has given me perspective on what was once the most beautiful thing I had ever layed eyes on in my life.

Now I have trouble remembering, I have trouble recognizing my own babies as I have grown so used to their wide-eyed little people gazes. Their funny faces and their angry gestures fill my days with things I cannot believe I will ever forget. But I already know how much the mind pushes aside as it moves forward.

Ten years ago I felt as though I had lived so much life, in my pursuit of endless experience, that there was hardly room for any more. I felt ready to settle down, and yet I had a few more paths to travel before it came to that. And now I can see just how far we still have to go.

And I am beginning to get a hint of just how quickly it will pass. And I am hearing the voice inside of me yearning for my own time, my own space again, wishing I could spend a morning writing and reading Proust instead of cleaning up Cheerios and refilling sippy cups.

And yet I fight it. I fight it as best I can and try to turn my attention back to them when I notice my journal sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Because I can see in the tiny outfits I barely remember them wearing, in the shoes so small I have to stare at them and rub my fingers over them to believe my own children wore them once, I can see that before I know it, I will have all the time in the world again, as much time as I will allow.

Jennifer Wilson lives and writes in Pennsylvania. Visit her wonderful website, and check out her novel, "Witch," at http://www.jennifermwilson.com.