Neighbor State

On Friday night, Bob and I went to Neighbor State, to celebrate his birthday, which is a bigger deal than it sounds.  Consider:

1. We tried to visit Neighbor State in 2009, and failed.  The mounting costs of dismantling our house, coupled with the mounting costs of keeping our Jeep running, changed all vacations to staycations for the foreseeable future.

2. We tried to visit Neighbor State in 2010 for Bob’s 43rd birthday, but failed again, because we’d forgotten we were still broke.

3. Bob was in the hospital two weeks back, with chest pains.  (?!)  He turned out to be fine, but since he has a family history of heart disease, we were worried it would turn out to be something serious.  After that, we’ve both been very grateful just to be around each other.

All this should give you some idea why this simple trip across the lake on a car-ferry was more than just an outing, and why I was convinced for much of the drive that something would go horribly wrong.

Like when we passed through Delburgh, and the tarmac got a bit rougher. “Bob, do you hear that?  Do you think it’s the tires?”


My freaking was well-intentioned.  I just wanted to get us to the hotel for his birthday, like I promised.  I explained this to Bob.

“I know you do,” he said. “And I also know that you will do whatever you can to subconsciously ensure we don’t.”

“But I know that too!”

* * *

Miraculously, we got across the water, and drove the twenty minutes to the crackpot college town where we would be staying while we visited.

We walked through the center square to find jugglers in the streets, a guitar chick singing “Fidelity” outside a used bookstore, and gaggles of young hippies with cardboard signs, looking for spare change.  Crowded bars, horn-rimmed glasses and beards everywhere.  You get the picture.

The Neighbor State is like that.  A kind of green liberal utopia.  People like Bob and I can even marry there–it’s been legal for a while, no big woop.  Meanwhile, in my home state, such rights have remained a point of contention for years.  Even as Bob and I snuck past the Greenpeace advocates on Main Street that night, the matter was being voted on in our senate, and we were pretty sure it would be shot down.

Naturally people have often asked me, why not just relocate?  Isn’t Neighbor State just like Lonesome Valley, when you get down to it?  A bunch of green hills, barns and bleeding hearts?

Actually, there are ways that Neighbor State is better than Lonesome Valley.  Lots of them, and not just the matrimony.  For instance, it’s a fact that there’s more money to be made over there, and lots of it.  There’s more doctors, too.  (It’s a sure sign that you’ve got something serious if my office sends you to Neighbor State for treatment, no joke.)

There’s also wine in supermarkets, something my home state has yet to trust itself with.  And Neighbor State is prettier all around–not the environment per say, which is similar to ours, but the buildings, professional and otherwise.  People over there just know how to make things look appealing and welcoming, whereas the Lonesome Valley folks expect you to take in the natural beauty and ignore the rest.  Sure this restaurant is in some dude’s living room, but get a look at those mountains!

Trouble is, the people who live in Neighbor State drive Bob and I nuts.  We can’t even put our fingers on why. Maybe, as liberal as we are, these folks outliberal us.  There’s certainly something doe-eyed and idealistic about them, and it alienates us on a central level.  Or could it be the simple fact that their state doesn’t suck enough?  That they haven’t earned the right to be so cuddly?  It’s true that there’s something hard-won about learning to love The City, and there’s something similarly hard-won about learning the ropes of Lonesome Valley.  “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere…” as the song says.

Neighbor State doesn’t feel like that.  It’s not antagonistic.  It doesn’t bite you back.  How can you trust a place like that?

* * *

Bob and I puzzled over this on our drive home, trying out theories.  And when we were done talking about that, we started talking about the plans for our upcoming wedding.

Because on the eve before Bob’s birthday, shortly after we ducked into a Neighbor State Denny’s to hide from the hipsters, my phone started lighting up with texts.  The senate passed it: Our home state had made it legal for us to get married.

And we didn’t even have to defect!


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The Mardi Gras of Coleberry Lake

The carnival reached its climax with the Winter Carnival Parade, which marched down Main Street this weekend, with Bob running sound for one of the floats, and me hanging out by the print store to watch.  It was the best.

Toward the top of the parade, we had an appearance by the official mascot Fluffy the Snow Owl, a “suited character” specifically commissioned for the carnival season.  Fluffy’s costume is effectively cute, which is saying something for an owl, but the headpiece’s sightlines are murder, and the actor inside keeps looking down at her feet to keep from tripping.  This of course translates into a snow owl who’s perpetually hanging her head and slouching while she walks, a real Charlie Brown of the wilderness.  Even when some kid called for her attention, Fluffy would only look up for a moment to wave before inevitably hanging her head again, and dragging herself down the rest of the parade route.  “What a week I’m having…”  Of course, all this only made her more endearing.  You wanted to buy Fluffy a drink and lend an ear to her troubles.

Next came the floats.  This year’s theme was Medieval Times, so it was probably inevitable that there would be a number of floats themed to Python’s “Holy Grail”–though cleverly, each local business chose a different part of the film that was suited to their sphere.  The local hardware store, for instance, focused on construction, and marched with a trojan bunny.  Our church, with its obvious focus being religion, marched as the famous chanting monks, periodically whacking themselves with (foam) boards.  As for the local tuberculosis research facility, they of course focused on the plague, and had the “not dead yet” guy in a wheelbarrow.  Groups with no Python fandom still honored the theme, with the womens’ synchronized lawn chair marchers re-upholstering the seats of their “instruments” with royal crests, and the beard-crazy Brothers of the Bush (essentially a bear scene for straight people, yes even straight women) getting kilted and vikinged out.  The whole event became an anatomy lesson in the building blocks of this town, filtered through a Renfair prism.

Though some groups stuck to what they knew.  The Shriners, who have probably paraded as clowns for the past thirty years, paraded as clowns once again, inadvertent contestants in a John Wayne Gacy lookalike contest.  The various Re-enactors, too, fired rifles and marched in their appropriate period garb like always, since they couldn’t figure how to cross-breed two eras of American history with one era of British.  (Not Harry Turtledove fans, I’m guessing…)

My favorite marchers wound up being the Coleberry Lake Green Circle and The Whistlestop Bar, probably because they were both so nuts.

The Coleberry Lake Green Circle had this troupe of bucket drummers with them, all in these very cool, very creepy, carnival masks.  The men and women at the front of the group dressed as rangers and neo-pagan madrigal ladies, with lots of leaves and greenery on everything.  I don’t know what any of it had to do with composting and sustainable living, but as a promotional exercise, it sold me.

The Whistlestop Bar constituents dressed as sock monkeys, which I know, has nothing at all to do with the medieval theme, but you know what?  I love sock monkeys, and I love them even more when they are visibly manic.  These folks were prancing and hopping around like they could surge into Kricfalucian frenzy at any moment, crazier than the extras in “The Crazies”, I kid you not.  And while some of them were college-age kids, many of them were decidedly not, and the older ones were even nuttier.  This one guy who looked like he ran a roadside gas station kept bouncing around with his tongue hanging out, poised on the edge of transmutation into some horndog cartoon character.

* * *

The sock moneys came toward the tail-end of the parade, and this was appropriate, because they served to smooth the transition from “small town fun” to “shitfaced frenzy” that occurred immediately following the event.  The balconies on Main Street were all stocked with revelers.  The bucket drummers from the Green Circle made their way from storefront to storefront, jammed in the street with other musicians, and then actually headed inside to jam in the stores.  The air was not entirely dangerous, but not entirely safe either, like Woodstock with just a hint of Altamont.

I bought a couple of bottles of wine and headed back home to the apartment, to cook a Betty Crocker recipe for Chicken & Dumplings, as Bob and I were having a guest over for card games later that evening.  I felt the pull of the carnival, but figured I’d engage in the madness another night.

For now, it was just nice to know it was there.


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As you know there’s a week-long winter carnival here in Coleberry Lake.  It’s intended to break up the monotony of the season, and give everybody an excuse to talk to each other for a few days, before returning to hiding until spring.

Bob and I were only able to enjoy a slice of the carnival events last year, thanks to our being a mite further away, and our vehicle being so unreliable besides.  But this year we’re within walking distance of most of the festivities, so we have no excuse not to take in more of the scene.  Like the coronation ceremony, for instance.

Every carnival, a king and a queen are crowned from a list of local volunteer leaders.  (The candidates nominate themselves, and are then voted on by carnival committee members–a process remarkably similar to the user competitions on free porn sites, which I mention purely for flavor.)  Once chosen, the pair has their picture taken for the paper, and appears at the carnival events in robes and such, accompanied at nearly all times by a “court” of local High School students, in thick Edward Gorey furs, and younger “pages”, who trot around and look precious in their Disney Princess garb and Burger King crowns.

Nobody takes any of this too seriously, including the participants, but there’s also something weirdly, well, medieval about the whole affair.  You start to see the court everywhere, after all–you see them at the Elk’s Lodge, then you turn around and they’re at the frying pan toss.  Always in their formal attire, too.  It gets so you start to feel the whole week is actually about them.

For instance, I recently heard that they (the royals) were coming to the church for a special service on Monday night, and I nearly shoveled my hernia back, clearing the snow extra-clean for them.  Then again, my church is Episcopal, so it’s only appropriate that we bend over backward for the crown.

* * *

The coronation itself is the first event of the carnival.  It happens at the Coleberry Lake town hall, a place in itself so authentically “small town” that you feel convinced a serial killer with a pickaxe is due any moment.

Bob had to rehearse a carnival-related concert that night, so I went alone, and ran into a friend, who had brought her kids along.  “I love how excited the boys are when I tell them we’re going to the coronation,” she told me, “as opposed to how bored they are when they’ve been here a while.  They always seem to forget how long it is.”

The ceremony began with a prayer, which was not nearly as weird as that probably sounds, because the prayer was so theme-specific–a briskly non-denominational ode to snow, slush, sleet, long dark nights, and how glad we are for them.  It sounded like something a family of Yetis would say before eating Thanksgiving dinner.

Then the speeches started, with different members of different volunteer organizations taking the podium to talk about the carnivals past, and the carnival coming.  (This is the 114th.)  For fun, my friend suggested that I begin counting how many times the different speakers ended their speeches with, “Let the carnival begin!”  She wasn’t kidding, either.  The presenters repeated these words, or variations of them, so many times that any related drinking game would have proven fatal.  By the time the actual coronation portion was introduced, my friend’s son whined aloud, “I thought the coronation started an hour ago!

* * *

The most entertaining part (aside from the closing number, which saw half the court participating in a Red Hot Chili Peppers dance-off) was the procession.  During this, all the members of the court, young and old alike, made their way down the center aisle to the stage, with the chamberlain introducing them over the loudspeaker.

The thing with this procession was, everybody wrote their own introductions–even the pages.  So you’d have a local mother come down the aisle while the chamberlain said, “Georgina is an active volunteer for the local food pantry, and a member of the civic association!  In her spare time she enjoys gardening and cross-country skiing!”  And then the next person down the aisle would be a page, and the chamberlain would say, “Billy likes Legos, Wii, and playing fetch with his dog Skipper!”  It was kinda priceless.

I found myself really envying all the people who live in this place, especially the kids, who don’t know how rare it is to live in a city that’s also a bona fide community.  Though I guess that, as a church shoveler, I am now also a part of that community, in exactly the way I’m most comfortable being a part of it–by secretly making sure it doesn’t break its ass.

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What About Your Chicken?

Harrybadface asked a question that requires an official answer, so here goes…

Bob and I used to have five chickens, as you know.  Then, about two weeks before moving day, those chickens got attacked by a forest creature.  Probably an ermine, since we’ve seen them on the property, and since it was able to sneak both ways through our wire fence.

Two chickens were killed in the attack, and I should point out that these were not food kills, but thrill kills, which are more popular in the animal kingdom than you might like to think.  Essentially, this ermine killed our chickens for kicks, then sauntered away.  Now he’s out getting pet in some oil painting.

But wait, there’s more: Over the course of the next days, two of the remaining chickens, despite being otherwise unharmed, died of fear-related causes. We’re guessing that they found the memory of the attack too much to bear.  And this is something that happens to chickens, or so I’m told.  They literally scare themselves to death.

Unless of course they’re too stupid to realize that they should be scared.

The lone surviving chicken, it would seem, is just that stupid.  When we opened the door one morning to find that her last remaining coopmate had expired during the night, she paid even that no mind–just stepped over her dead friend like a doormat and greeted Bob at the threshold, her neck moving in inquiring spasms.  “Whatcha got?”

* * *

I think Bob began to hate this chicken at that moment, and if it were up to him, she would still be in solitary confinement out of town, no joke.  Add to that the fact that all our prospective chicken inheritors withdrew their offers right after the attack, perhaps fearing they were getting damaged goods, or worrying the survivor had done it all herself.

Luckily, our neighbors’ daughter was able to find a new home for the bird with her ex, a guy who has a bunch of chickens already.  She even helped relocate the bird personally.  The only flaw in the plan, as I saw it, was that this ex of hers also had a rooster.  Bob and I never kept one ourselves, partly because they never shut up, and partly because we’ve seen the clawmarks on the backs of popular hens–another dark facet of the chicken lifestyle that The Left works hard to cover up.

But this time, it would seem that the proverbial claw is on the other chicken butt.  When the new girl arrived, all the other hens in the pen took it the wrong way, and got real jealous of her.  Fighting jealous.

They have been kicking the shit out of that poor rooster ever since.

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I think it’s safe to say that it’s time to retire my header. Last chance to see:

Just for the record, it’s a cropped still from “Tourist Trap”, that grand 80’s slasher flick about telekinetic redneck Mr. Slausen’s doomed romance with “last girl” Molly–or as one of Slausen’s mannequin henchmen calls her, Molllleeeeeee!!!

Slausen (right) is pictured here trying to convince Molly (left) to remain in his attic as his prisoner, and whenever my sister Diane and I see this movie, we kinda wish she’d say yes.  Chuck Connors’ longing is so palpable, his ability to control showroom dummies with telekinesis so dashing.  All this and overalls!  What’s with the cognitive dissonance, Molly?

* * *

This header went up when I felt ready to commit to a summer spent in the trailer with my very own Mr. Slausen, who you know as Bob.  And what a summer it was, just the one we expected to have when we first came up here, full of unexpected fun and relaxation.  I still fondly recall the arrival of the heavy metal cow deity to Morris Lake, the cheap-wine-tasting night at our neighbor’s double-wide, etc.  I was as happy as I’d always imagine Molly might have been, had she stuck to the script.

Then winter set in, and Bob got busy with work.  Soon lightbulbs started to fizzle, pipes started to freeze, and my psychic redneck princess fantasy began to crumble and crack.  If the apartment hadn’t come through when it did, it’s quite possible that things in the Prowler would have resolved the way Molly’s and Mr. Slausen’s romance did–with a hatchet.

So this header is being retired, in the hopes that our new life in the apartment will be one with a little more fairness for both of us.  No more heavy lifting for Bob, no more heavy leaning for me, and a creepy new town to explore besides.

This is how we always pictured it, now it’s time to see the picture through–and the new header is just the picture for that.

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So we relocated to The Church.  On New Year’s Eve, appropriately enough.

Not everything we need has come over with us yet, but we were able to spring most of the important furniture from our soon-to-be-useless storage unit out in Delburgh: A few antique tables, some fireplace pokers, and of course, our trusty inflatable mattress.  The new stuff fell into place like puzzle pieces, as though the furniture had picked the apartment, all by itself.

Moving day was surprisingly simple.  A perfectly-timed thaw in the weather made our few trips back and forth a breeze, and eliminated most of the ice on church property that our predecessor (a not-so-careful caretaker) left in his wake.  We arrived here to find the driveways and paths like clean slates, with even the disturbingly spear-like icicles over the rec room dashed to bits in the driveway.

Now we’re here, and I feel like the most complicated riddle in the world just turned out to have the simplest answer.

For one, I barely have to drive anymore, which is amazing after all the ferrying back and forth in December.  My job is barely five minutes away, and as for Bob’s job, he’s already at it.

And while we’re speaking of work, let’s discuss the wintry chores we’re doing on the property, which are suspiciously like the ones we performed on our own property–only suddenly, these chores come with free heat, free running water, and a cute apartment as incentive.

Collectively, this new gig is the Barnabas Collins to our “Dark Shadows”.  We’re well into the show’s second season, but somehow we’re just getting started.

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The theory goes like this: By agreeing to spend your days in Lonesome Valley, where rough weather is the norm, you should at least be free of unpredictable rough weather.

But like that other theory about gay couples having enormous amounts of disposable income, this one has not proven true for us.  And so it was that a thaw-born windstorm inaugurated our December, downing power lines outside of town on the first of the month.  We read by Coleman lantern that evening, until the power came back on and woke us up early the next morning, then turned off again and made us worried it wouldn’t come back on, then came back for good at the permanent cost of our trust.

I should have taken that night as a sign that stability would not be the order of the day this December.  Even work is crazy for us: As I mentioned before, Bob’s a church organist, and thereby a cog in The Christmas Machine.  He can’t celebrate the season because he’s too busy making it happen, and if you think the holidays are crazy from your side of the footlights, you should see it from the wings.  As for me, I’m in the midst of a bid for Medical Care Certification at The Practice, and when I tell you that the application is roughly the length of my novel, you should know that I am not using hyperbole.  In a Bizzaro-Dickens moment, I actually had to ask my Boss to let me work on holiday weekends, just to be sure I’d have enough time to finish the thing.

And then there’s The Big Move.

* * *

Well, it’s not so big really.  We’re not moving to The City, after all.  But we are moving to a city.  In fact, we are moving to Coleberry Lake, the original “Silent Hill” lookalike that won Bob and I over so long ago.

Bob has gotten a gig as property-keeper for his church.  The gig involves copious amounts of snow shoveling, a fair amount of gardening, and a free apartment with free heat.  And did I mention that its (free) water does not need to be coerced out of a well every day with a garden hose?

I can’t explain what a good thing this is for us.  Less driving for me, less gasoline for us, no more storage space in Delburgh.  The amount of money we’ll save adds up–the equivalent to getting a $300-a-month raise.  (Which is a $600 raise in Lonesome Valley Dollars.)

Even better, we are going to be living behind an old church, on its property, in one of the creepiest little towns on earth.

I’m a lizardman invasion away from living a Lovecraft story, and I’m so jazzed.

* * *

This is, of course, going to create more confusion, as Bob’s caretaking gig begins on the very first of January.  And it’s not as if he’s no longer organist!  But there’s a certain elegance to cramming all the crazy into 2010, so that 2011 will feel like closing one box, and opening another.

The only thing we haven’t done is tell our neighbors.  We have to find the right moment.

It’s a delicate situation, since we’re sure that Bev and Helena, the chain-smoking sisters with whom we share our bi-weekly game night, will assume we’ll never visit again once we move.  And that’s just not true.

First off, Bev and Helena’s family has just about adopted us.  We’ve been to Helena’s kid’s houses for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ve been given rides by them when The Je was clunking out on us.  The amount of friendship and support these people have given Bob and I is not the kind of thing you forget.  I feel as though we’re related to them now–by deed if not by blood.

And even if all that weren’t true, I just spent six months teaching Bev and Helena how to play Mahjong.  Would I give up on the thrill of introducing them to Yakitori tiles, and teaching them the meaning of the term, “Flip Your Chicken”?

That’s not how I roll.

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