Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Aquarius

(January 20 – February 18)

Let’s be honest: The foundation is crumbling. So, too, are the walls. That’s Pluto in Aquarius for you, and for the next 20 years, the planet of destruction, death and rebirth will shake us to our collective core. You were, quite literally, born to show us a new way forward. When the North Node of Destiny links up with Chiron (the wounded healer) on February 19, there’s no stopping you from sharing your weirdest, wildest imaginings out loud. Bring on the renaissance, space cake.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

A box of chocolates, minus the gooey, pink nougat.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Three words: milk of magnesia.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

There’s more than one way to peel an orange.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Try not to scare off the neighbors.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Apply rose water.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Gentle pressure will suffice. 

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

Soften the muscles in your face.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

What if there isn’t a wrong way?

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Best not to skim the fine print.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

If you can’t laugh at yourself, there’s work to do yet.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Tighten your bootstraps.  OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Feature image: Cham (Encounter No.9), 2023, Hand cut silk, acrylic, canvas mounted on wall, 84 x 120 in.

 

Sculpture in Silk

Kenny Nguyen’s unique medium weaves tradition with ingenuity

By Liza Roberts

“Every time I start a piece, I imagine there’s a body underneath it,” says Quoctrung Kenny Nguyen, a former fashion designer who makes rippling, three-dimensional sculptures out of paint-soaked silk. “Instead, there’s this absence of a body, in sculptural form. I think it’s beautiful like that.”

Torn into strips, dredged in paint and affixed to unstretched canvas, Nguyen’s silk segments fuse to become a malleable but sturdy material that he molds with his hands and pins in place. Every time he hangs a piece, he changes the pin placement — and with it the object’s shape, shadow and energy. Some have a “more architectural feel,” others are more organic.

These works explore and illustrate Nguyen’s experience with reinvention, cultural displacement, isolation and identity. His chosen material — with its direct ties to the cultural history of his native Vietnam, where the fabric is revered and traditional “silk villages” keep ancient production techniques alive — is a key component. “Identity is changing all the time,” he says, “and the work keeps evolving, in a continuous transformation.” It all begins with the fabric in his hands. “Silk is already a transformation: from the silkworm, to the silk thread, to a piece of silk. So it’s holding a metaphor.” More than one: “People see silk as a very delicate thing,” he says, “but actually it’s one of the strongest fibers on earth.”

Right: Encounter Series No.5, 2023, Hand cut silk, acrylic, canvas mounted on wall, (Approx.) 72 x 120 in.

 

Nguyen’s work has earned him solo exhibitions and dozens of awards, residencies, grants and fellowships all over the world. It began to take off commercially in a big way during the pandemic, when he began using Instagram to share images of his pieces, and after Los Angeles-based Saatchi Art named him a Rising Star of 2020, one of the 35 “best young artists to collect” under the age of 35 from around the world. He now has art consultants and galleries representing his work all over the country and in Europe, and has had to move his studio out of the garage of his family home and into a former textile mill to keep up with demand. He no longer works alone, with three assistants (all art students from UNC Charlotte) helping him with prep work, photography and studio management. His biggest challenge is no longer finding an audience; it’s managing the business.

Nguyen couldn’t have imagined this kind of success when he immigrated here in 2010 from Ho Chi Minh City with his family. He was 19 and had a BFA in fashion design from the University of Architecture Ho Chi Minh City. But he couldn’t find a job and spoke no English. “It was just a culture shock. You can’t communicate with anybody. You feel so isolated. Homeless, in a way. I was struggling,” he says.

Art called him. Nguyen enrolled at UNC Charlotte to study painting — Davidson artist Elizabeth Bradford was one of his teachers — and found himself yearning for a way to incorporate his own culture and passions into the work. In the end, the way those came together was a happy accident.

During the summer of 2018, three years out of UNCC, Nguyen had just arrived at an artist’s residency in rural Vermont, where he planned to continue painting the “very flat, very traditional” types of canvases he’d been creating until that point. He realized that in his rush to get out the door, he’d left a container with most of his colorful paints and brushes behind. In fact, he realized that he’d managed to bring only three materials with him: a bucket of white paint, skeins of silk and some canvas. “What can you do with that?” he wondered. He began ripping pieces of silk, dredging them in paint, affixing them to canvas, “and you know, it just happened.”

Left: Encounter Series No.1, 2023, Hand-cut silk fabric, acrylic paint, canvas, mounted on wall, 84 x 65 in.

Middle: Encounter Series No.9, 2023, Hand-cut silk fabric, acrylic paint, canvas, mounted on wall, 48 x 63 x 5 in.

 

Quickly, he decided he was on to something: “The material was speaking for itself.” Bits of transparent silk dripped off his canvases, letting light shine through. “I decided I didn’t want the frame anymore. I decided: Let’s sculpt it.”

To get there, though, he knew he’d have to manipulate his silk in new ways. “Silk has such a value in the Vietnamese culture,” he says. “For me, to destroy a piece of silk, to cut it into pieces . . . that’s a big deal for me. I pushed myself to do that.”

He hasn’t stopped. “The work is evolving in such an amazing way,” he said in late December. “I’ve just been in the studio nonstop, producing work.” Nguyen says that kind of work ethic has been crucial to his success. Some of it is rooted in his early years working in fashion while in school, some of it is hard-wired, and a lot of it is simply about his love of the work.

“The more that I work with the materials, the more I realize how it works and the more capacity I have,” he says. He’s experimenting with large-scale work, which can be challenging to mold in lasting sculptural forms, but not impossible. His largest works are now as many as 40 feet long, and he makes them in five or six different segments, which he then sews together. “It’s not evolving in a straight line,” he says. “There are a lot of tests, and a lot of failures. Little accidents happen, unexpected things happen, and I pick up on that.”

When he’s not working on commission for collectors with requests for particular dimensions or colors, Nguyen often goes right back to where he started, letting colors and shapes come to him intuitively, sometimes reworking old pieces that didn’t originally come together, pulling out paints he hasn’t used in a while, relying on instinct. His materials never stop inspiring his creativity. “It amazes me,” he says, “that the material, this silk, can hold a sculptural form.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Project Runway

Sitting on a tarmac is boring: Sitting beside a tarmac is another story

By Maria Johnson

“Here comes one!”

Conversation freezes and heads swivel to the horizon, where two bright beams glow, side by side, above a distant tree line.

“Oooooh, that’s a big one,” says our airplane-obsessed friend, whose birthday we are celebrating with a parking lot picnic beside a runway at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

The four of us, all empty nesters, are way beyond the age of coveting stuff. Well, most stuff anyway.

Experiences, time together, moments that morph into stories and embed as warm memories — that’s what we prize.

So, recently, our wee gang has been celebrating birthdays with daytime excursions that introduce us to new places and people.

During one of these forays, a friend who was not being fêted at the moment came clean about her obsession with all things aero. As a young woman growing up in Rockingham County, she tinkered with the idea of becoming a flight attendant. That dream never took off, but her fascination with soaring above it all persisted.

As an adult, she regularly asked flight crews for tours of cockpits; bought toy jetliners with battery-powered engines and lights “for the grandchildren.” She even bought a captain’s hat from a former Piedmont Airlines pilot.

Side note: If you ever want to see a bunch of 60-plus North Carolinians get misty-eyed, ask them about Piedmont Airlines. It really was the best. Sigh.

Anyway, our well-traveled pal also revealed how much she loved to watch airplanes take off and land. She said she liked to imagine who was aboard, where they were going, what it was like there, and what the passengers would do when they got there.

Escapism? Totally.

The rest of us knew what we had to do for her birthday: Find a place to watch planes come and go. I remembered that there used to be a diner near PTI where you could catch the action aloft. An internet search confirmed that the restaurant had closed, but a few clicks later, I landed on a website called planespotters.net, where jet-heads post their favorite viewing sites.

A recon mission was called for. One pal piloted. I co-piloted, translating the map app’s instructions because who the heck knows what 500 feet looks like when you’re going 60 miles an hour? Just turn left where that blue car is coming out.

We cased several parking lots, some right next to the runways. I’m quite sure we appeared on several security cameras.

To dispel fear — and reduce the odds of being placed on a TSA watchlist labeled “HUH?” — we waved at the control tower as we drove past. Several times.

Maybe it was the time of day, late one afternoon in the fading light of fall, but we didn’t see much action.

The next day, I stuck my head in at one of GTCC’s aviation training buildings, “yoo-hooed” my way down a hallway and found a darkened classroom where three young men sat at computer screens doing . . . we’ll call it homework.

“Hey, fellas, I know this sounds weird, but do y’all know of a good place to watch airplanes take off and land?”

“Yeah, I know a great place,” one of the guys said, popping out of his seat and walking over to show me a map on his phone.

He pointed me to a gravel lot off Old Oak Ridge Road.

I drove right over. Jackpot.

I dropped a pin and shared it with our foursome. We booked a date.

A couple of weeks later, we packed up camp chairs and a knee-high table.

One of us brought fruit and crackers.

Another brought Biscoff cookies and packs of almonds.

Another brought prosecco.

The birthday girl brought her captain’s hat, which she wore proudly as we cheered and waved at the passing planes.

They looked so small, even the big ones, when you considered that these sleek aluminum tubes carried so many people, each connected to their own constellation of lives. The passengers would scatter as soon as they claimed their bags, and yet, for a precious few ticks of the clock, they were on the same trip.

Was it any different on the ground, at our makeshift celebration only a stone’s throw from barbed wire and warning signs?

Between the drones and roars overhead, we turned to our seat mates and talked of the things circling our hearts. Of joys and worries. Of health and family and friends.

As we chatted, sunset painted the sky in neon pink and somber purple.

A flock of starlings, headed for their evening roost, rippled like a flag in the sky.

The nighttime lights of the airport emerged like the skyline of a city.

Other people came and went from the parking lot: a lone young man perched on his motorcycle; a middle-aged woman and her small dog; a young couple who spent most of their time taking pictures of themselves and their car.

Small eddies of humanity swirled and dissipated here.

We were one of those swirls, sitting in a tight circle on a dusty patch of gravel, wrapped in throws against the deepening chill as we sipped and nibbled, nodded and mmm-ed, rode the crosswinds of laughter and tears, and occasionally looked to the clouds and let our imaginations fly.

We were determined to enjoy the ride.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at
ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Dicey Drama in Haiti

Looking for treasure but finding trouble

By Anne Blythe

Given the political fracture in this country and the intensified drumbeat of questions about the survival of democracy, it might seem daunting to tuck into Ben Fountain’s Devil Makes Three: A Novel.

The sheer size of the North Carolina native’s latest book — 531 pages — is intimidating enough. When you throw in that it’s a deep dive into life in Haiti immediately following the 1991 military coup that sent President Jean-Bertrande Aristide into exile, you might be tempted to put this novel about abusive power, excessive greed and dictatorship back on the shelf and save it for a less divisive time.

Don’t do that. Instead, open Fountain’s work of fiction. Let the story pull you from a once blissful beachfront through streets littered with butchered corpses and the headless body of a mayor, to crumbling estates, voodoo priestesses and treasure hunts on the turquoise waters lapping against the former French slave colony fallen under the rule of an oppressive military regime. A political thriller and adventure-filled page-turner, Devil Makes Three explores a country in turmoil from different angles through four main characters in their 20s.

Matt Amaker is a rootless American college dropout drawn to Haiti with unrealized ambitions after circulating through the Caribbean as a “dive gypsy.” Alix Variel, the ambitious and beguiling son of a prominent Haitian family, persuades Matt to come with him to Haiti to start a dive shop of their own catering to a wave of the expected tourism before the coup upended the country’s dreams of democracy and prompted international trade embargoes.

Despite the upheaval, Matt and Alix have not given up all hope on ScubaRave being a successful business, and turn their attention to hunting Conquistador treasure and artifacts in the under-explored ocean waters off Haiti.

“Haiti has treasure,” Alix tells Matt while they are smoking a joint and pondering their future.

One wreck he was aware of had as many as 12 cannon among the wreckage. If they were bronze, they could attract high-end collectors, deep-pocketed people who might pay as much as one Saudi oil prince had — $600,000 for a pair of cannon.

“Why the hell are we messing with scuba,” Alix asked. “We should be hunting treasure all the time.”

“Because it’s a really stupid business, that’s why,” Matt responded. “A few people make some money and everybody else loses their shirt. It’s like Vegas, the lottery, it’s mainly just luck. You happen to dig over here instead of a quarter mile over there, that’s the difference between a fortune and wasting your life. Screw that. It’s too random for me . . . Treasure is trouble.”

That prognostication is a driving line of the novel, which also focuses on Audrey O’Donnell, a rookie CIA officer, a sharp and aspiring government agent also known as Shelly Graver, who quickly finds herself involved in ethically questionable drug deals and agency-supported operations to keep Aristide out of power.

All the while, she wrestles with the part of her job that calls for manipulating people, even as she’s romantically involved with Alix. Audrey’s belief that it is in Haiti’s best interest “to integrate into the global economy, which last time she checked, was overwhelmingly trending toward the free market American model” puts her in direct opposition to Misha, Alix’s sister and a love interest of Matt’s.

Misha returns to Haiti in the midst of researching and writing a thesis at Brown University with a working subtitle “Psychological Rupture in the Literature of the Black Atlantic.” Instead of going back to school while her homeland is in tumult, she goes to work at a public clinic where the CIA tries to mine the medical records of her patients to test their political loyalties. “The coup d’etat had unfolded as a kind of twisted affirmation of her still gestating dissertation,” Fountain writes.

In a country where the minimum wage was $5 a day in the early ’90s, Misha wrestled with “the contradiction of the lived experience” in her homeland. “Once again Haiti was instructing the world, pushing ahead of the historical curve, and it was paying the price in blood and grief,” Fountain writes. “Why take to the streets if you are already free, as you’d been told every day of your life you were. Forget your slack stomach and aching back, your weary mind. Whatever else might be said or alleged of him, Aristide gave voice to, made visible, the contradiction of the lived experience of the country.”

Despite their differences, Misha and Audrey come together to help save Matt and Alix from the throes of dangerous and misguided adventures brought about by their attempts to “float up” bronze cannon. The men find themselves being arrested by soldiers on “conspiracy to commit terrorism charges” and are thrown in prison.

Haiti’s top general, however, has a keen interest in scuba diving and treasure hunting, and springs Matt from prison on a working furlough to help find Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria before the 500th anniversary of its sinking in December 1492.

By making Haiti the focus of Devil Makes Three, Fountain is able to weave themes of power, politics, race, history, capitalism, globalism, voodoo and the legacy of plantation slavery throughout the novel using the characters’ dialogue as they down rum and tonics, smoke marijuana and feast on creole dishes.

Whether it’s Fountain’s description of Port-au-Prince as a city with “a dull orange haze hanging over everything like a fulminating cloud of Cheetos dust” or his tightly knit storylines, this Dallas-based lawyer-turned-writer, born in Chapel Hill, raised in Elizabeth City and Cary, gives the reader a lot to digest.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Backseat Smooching

The joyride home from elementary school

By David Claude Bailey

This is a story about pre-adolescent smooching, but the pre-teen boy in me wants to start with the car, a huge 1947 Pontiac Streamliner with those sweeping, flared fenders favored in gangster movies. (My father had a 1954 V-8 Pontiac Star Chief, a sleek and powerful car with an illuminated face of an Indian as a hood ornament. But Dad’s car didn’t hold a candle to the Streamliner, with its sleek, Jaguar-inspired lines and capacious interior.) This automobile was obviously the choice for those who dreamed of a luxurious and fabled life on the big screen.

Our chauffeur, Marian Orren, always perfectly coiffed, would pick up her son, Frank, plus me and our classmate, Evelyn, from elementary school every afternoon.

The Art Deco radio with golden illuminated buttons and dials would be aglow in the middle of the dashboard. From its mouth-like speaker, which looked like a howling mask from a Greek tragedy, the latest Hit Parade tunes would pour, setting the scene. “Volare.” “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” And, oh my God, the “Witch Doctor.” The back seat was big enough to host a party, but Evelyn and I would settle into the plush, cushy, tufted seats, and slide into the corner. Before we’d reached the stop sign, we were locking lips.

Who knows why and how we got started with this passionate car-noodling. I, with one eye, was bullied all day long, and the idea of someone caring about me, much less showering me with kisses, was the high point of each day. I’ll never forget Evelyn, my first sweetheart.

We were in fourth or fifth grade and our dalliance was limited, neither of us even close to the fervor of adolescence. And maybe that was a good thing.

Frank would sit in the front seat, begging his mother to make us stop. She, in fact, encouraged us, and we’d carry on until the Streamliner pulled up to the curb of 602 Boyd Street, where I reluctantly hauled the coat I’d shed and my army pack out the side door.

Evelyn came to a recent high school reunion all the way from New York City and we had an absorbing and long chat, catching up on our various trajectories.

And then I said, “What was all that smooching about?”

If Evelyn had a good answer, I didn’t hear it. Maybe I’d had one too many gin and tonics.

But magic comes to mind.  OH

David Claude Bailey still enjoys kissing in cars and can sometimes be found fogging up the windows of his 1981 Jeep CJ-7 with his wife of 56 years, Anne.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

A Winter Visitor

The handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker

By Susan Campbell

Woodpeckers abound in central North Carolina, even more so in the Sandhills. On a given day, you might see up to eight different species. Only one, however, is a winter visitor: the handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker. This medium-sized, black-and-white bird is well camouflaged against the tree trunks where it is typically found. It also sports red plumage on the head, as so many North American species do. The female has only a red crown, whereas the male also sports a red throat. And, as their name implies, both sexes have a yellow tinge to their bellies. However, young of the year arriving in late October to early November are drab, with grayish plumage and lacking the colorful markings of their parents. By the time they head back north in March, they too, will be well-patterned.

There are four sapsucker species found in North America. The yellow-bellied has the largest range and is the only one seen east of the Rockies. Sapsuckers do, in fact, feed on sap year round. They seek out softer hardwood trees and drill holes through the bark into the living tissue. This wound will ooze sap in short order. Not only do the carbohydrates in the liquid provide nourishment to the birds, but insects also get trapped in the sticky substance. Holes made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers form neat rows in the bark of red maples, tulip poplars and even Bradford pears in our area. Pines, however, not only tend to have bark that is too thick for sapsuckers to penetrate but rapidly scab over, rendering only a very brief flow of sap.

The injury caused by sapsuckers is generally not fatal to the tree, as long as it is healthy to begin with. Infection of the wound by fungi or other diseases may occur in older or stressed trees. Although the relationship is not mutually beneficial, sapsuckers need the trees for their survival. It is also interesting to note that others use the wells created by sapsuckers. Birds known to have a “sweet tooth,” such as orioles and hummingbirds, will take advantage of the yellow-bellied sapsucker’s handiwork.

The species breeds in pine forests throughout boreal Canada, the upper Midwest as well as New England. We do have summering populations at elevation in western North Carolina. It is not unusual to find them around Blowing Rock in the warmer months. As is typical for woodpeckers, sapsuckers create cavities in dead trees for nesting purposes. They use calls as well as drumming to advertise their territory. The typical call note is a short, high-pitched, cat-like mewing sound. They use more emphatic squealing and rapid tapping of their bills against dead wood or other suitable resonating surfaces to warn would-be competitors of their presence.

In winter, yellow-bellieds quietly coexist with the other woodpeckers in the area. They will seek out holly and other berries in addition to feeding on sap. These birds will feed on suet, too, and may be attracted to backyard feeding stations. Generally, the yellow-bellied does not drink sugar water, since feeders designed for hummingbirds or orioles are not configured for use by clinging species. Of course, as with all birds, it may be lured in by fresh water: another reason to maintain a birdbath or two — even if you live on a lake.

Seeing a sapsucker at close range is always a treat, so keep an eye out for this unusual woodpecker.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Home Grown

Home Grown

Taking a Breather

A nose that worked on the company dime

By Cynthia Adams

I leaned close to the restroom mirror, examining my nose. With the company newspaper I edited (the last in the state) going to press, I took a breather.  A breather — ironic given my breathing had been permanently altered following a painful childhood swing incident. Nosebleeds and sinusitis became commonplace.

But after 20 years, that would finally change when I decided I’d see a doctor about my nose. A few weeks later, I remained mostly silent while a surgeon studied my X-rays, pointing out the years-old damage that led to a deviated septum.

Merely 2.5 inches of cartilage and bone gone wrong. Easily corrected, he explained. 

Seeking out a surgical remedy had been set in motion after a human resources exec visited my office, requesting we publicize a company-wide insurance campaign, specifically to encourage outpatient surgery — not yet commonplace. It would save the company, which was self-insured, significant money. As an incentive, company insurance would cover the entire cost of outpatient surgery — every dime. 

“Find someone who needs outpatient surgery and write an article about it,” the HR guy said matter-of-factly. 

My mind raced as he stood there waiting to be congratulated for his brilliant idea. Who the heck was going to volunteer for surgery? 

“How the . . . ?” I began, but stopped before insulting the same person who okayed my raises.

So I mumbled, “Well, I . . . ”

Then I surprised us both by blurting out there was a possibility of someone: Me!

He brightened.

“Great! Just be sure it’s medically necessary.” 

I was already wearing adult braces to correct a misaligned jaw and bite; maybe it was time to address another problem. My constantly blocked nose.

I agreed to a consultation with an ENT who was experienced with trauma surgeries. It was during the second consult he presented my X-rays. Pointing to damaged cartilage and bone, adding sunnily, “There’s complete blockage!” He sounded exactly like a plumber.

With a notepad in hand, I asked nuts-and-bolts questions and made notes. The surgery was called septoplasty. The benefits included fewer infections and nosebleeds, and, with mouth breathing remedied, no snoring. 

But I looked down as he spoke and wrote the question, Will he break my nose?, heavily underscoring the last three words. 

Mentally, I sketched an enormous mallet, a target inked onto my schnoz, and me, a hapless fool, reluctantly holding still. 

But I took a small step back when the surgeon explained the how of the surgery: It would necessitate internal incisions and a tiny flap opened up over my nose in order to clear the passages.

I revised my mental cartoon: not so much a mallet; more like miniature miners excavating a cave with tiny picks and shovels. Except, excavating cartilage. And, perhaps a little bone, he added. I must have blanched.

“You won’t feel the procedure,” he reassured.

How would I not feel that? With fearful misgivings, I shakily booked a date for surgery.

An older friend had a deviated septum corrected years before. She, too, couldn’t breathe properly; she also snored (to the great irritation of her former partner, a cranky artist). 

Over drinks she told me about the worst of the aftermath, nearly swallowing the gauze packing her nose when she dozed off once home. Of course, she didn’t choke to death, but she did have a frantic ER trip.

At the pre-dawn check in for surgery, my blood pressure was elevated (terror will do that), but this didn’t halt the procedure. I remember my nostrils being swabbed with something to staunch bleeding. Then an IV was inserted.

Blissful indifference streamed into the veins of my wrist. 

Picks? Shovels? Bring them on, I mumbled to the nurse, who smilingly reassured me they would use neither.

I remembered nothing until the nurse called my name, telling me the procedure was over. Still blissed out, she helped me sit and, soon, stand. When my mother met wobbly-legged me in reception, she looked stricken. 

“Hey, Mama! I’m fine and dandy!” I chirped with drugged-up enthusiasm. “Actually, I’m gonna bake these nice people a cake!” 

The nurses tittered knowingly behind me, according to my mother. I never baked anything more ambitious than box brownies.

Indeed, there was packing extending deeply into my nasal passages, the thing I feared the most. My under eyes were lightly bruised. But, in my happy daze, I was mightily relieved it was all over. 

Days later, during a post-surgical visit, I waited with other patients. But this was the A-team, apparently, who had opted for the more thrilling cosmetic procedure: rhinoplasty. 

A nose job.

I curiously scrutinized them with a side eye. Some wore tiny casts over their softly feminine, narrow noses. Each had a refined tip.

They had all been given a celebrity nose; specifically, they had supermodel Christy Turlington’s nose. (That was then. Now, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has the most requested nose.) Though it intrigued me that ordinary folk could alter their face to look like a star, I was there to report on my less thrilling, non-cosmetic surgery. But — a nose was a key feature! I obsessed with how they would look once all swelling resolved, imagining them on a catwalk, a procession of proud noses, raised high.

After my brief check, I stood stock-still on the sidewalk, inhaling; was that great smell the restaurant a block away?

The corners of my mouth tilted upwards following my gauze-free nostrils. A world of fresh air and sensations awaited; I followed them straight to a lunch spot. The former Ham’s on Friendly was a greasy spoon I’d frequented before — but this was next level. Seems I had never really tasted the deep-fried fries. Bliss again!  Pausing to sniff the catsup (a condiment that didn’t smell so much after all, I discovered), I savored my lunch as if it were a Michelin Star experience. What could Christy Turlington possibly eat that could top this, I wondered, happily popping fry after fry into my mouth.

Like my nose, possibilities seemed wide open.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Starting Over

The magic of wiping the slate clean — at any time

By Cassie Bustamante

A new year is the perfect time to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start. Over 20 years ago, I learned just how to do it in Austin, Texas.

In 2002, Chris, now my husband, and I moved to a new apartment on the north side of the city, relocating for his job with Abercrombie & Fitch. His role as district manager came with perks, including a brand-new company car. And not just any vehicle. It was my dream car: a Jeep Wrangler.

He traveled a lot for work and when he left one weekend for an out-of-state business trip, unbeknownst to the powers-that-be at A&F, he handed me the keys to his ride.

With Jimmy Eat World blaring from the speakers and the soft top rolled down, I blissfully cruised south like a Texas cowgirl without a care in the world to the now defunct Highland Mall, where I’d taken a job as a manager for J.Crew. Being new, I was determined to make a good impression despite it being a boring job.

My hours on the clock ticked slowly by. Finally, 5 p.m. struck and my shift was over. Freedom, the kind you feel when you’re blissfully young and the wind rushes through your hair, awaited. However, when I stepped out of the mall doors, dark gray, threatening clouds were rolling in.

Chris hadn’t shown me how to put the Jeep’s soft top back up before he’d jetted off, but how hard could it be? I did my best and was pretty sure I had it right. Five miles along at a clip of 75 mph, the rain about to burst from the clouds, the front of the vehicle roof caught the wind, reared up into the air like a hand waving at incomers and nearly ripped right off the Jeep. Whoops.

I pulled over and wrestled with it. And it wrestled back. (I’m a writer and not an engineer for many reasons.) In the end, I limped home with sweat instead of wind in my hair, grasping the steering wheel with one hand and barely managing to hold the roof in place with the other hand as rain began to pelt the top.

Back at our apartment and feeling like a royal idiot, my arm tingled and ached, and I dreaded calling Chris to tell him that rain had soaked the seats — surely the Texas heat would have them dry in no time, right? So I didn’t. Instead, I poured myself a glass of wine and decided tomorrow was another day, and I’d be driving my own car, a reliable, practical Volkswagen Jetta. But sometimes the universe has a good laugh at our expense, doesn’t it?

The next day, as I began my 20-minute trek to the mall, I felt a sudden thud, thud, thud. A flat tire. Are you kidding me? Once again, I resisted calling Chris, but I did manage to convince a good friend of his, a fellow Demon Deacon who lived nearby, to come to my rescue, giving me a lift to work while my car was being towed into a garage.

Sweaty and flustered, I arrived to the store late, immediately hopping on the sales floor. As it turned out, I was scheduled with my favorite associate. Pam was a woman in her mid-30s, who seemed older and wiser to my naive 22-year-old self.

Reading my expression, Pam offered a calming smile and asked if everything was alright. On the verge of tears, the words spilled out in a jumble: the roof nearly ripped off Chris’ brand new Jeep in the rain and then the flat tire. The floodgates opened and I told her about the immense isolation I felt in a city where I knew no one with Chris being frequently away and my not wanting to bother him. And what was going to happen next? “It’s just been a really bad 24 hours,” I said.

Pam looked at me, her face serene and soothing. “Take a deep breath and just start over,” she said. “Right now.”

Just start over? That’s your solution?

Seeing bewilderment on my face, Pam nodded encouragingly. “Yep, just start over,” she said. “You know, I’m a recovering alcoholic. And on my journey to sobriety, there were days that I’d slip, but it didn’t mean that things couldn’t get better, that it was over for me. Because the beauty of starting over is that you can do it any time.” She paused. “Like right now.”

I took a deep breath. I hadn’t been hurt. Nor were either of the cars permanently damaged. Chris would be back tomorrow, and I sure had one good friend who knew just what to say.

Three children later and a long list of things gone awry that have proved to be so much worse than a flat tire or a cantankerous Jeep top, Pam’s comforting words and her serene smile have come back to me many times.

Just start over. Right now. Wise words from a woman who understood and had lived their meaning.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Queen of Bath

It’s a bit of a stretch, sure. But this dream tub sorta works

By Ashley Walshe

If you’re a bath person like me — that is to say, someone who soaks ritualistically — then perhaps you’ve spent time imagining what life could be like if your tub was just a little wider; a little deeper; a little more picturesque.

An elegant garden tub aglow with flickering candles. A cast iron clawfoot laced with salt and rose petals. An hourglass drop-in complete with whirlpool jets.

Such visions used to rule my mind.    

Now, having spent the last two years living in a 32-foot travel trailer with my husband and my canine shadow, my dream tub has but one requirement: I can bathe in it.

Which brings me to my current situation.

A standard bathtub holds about 70 gallons of water. Suffice it to say that our RV tub does not. Think farmhouse sink with bobsleigh undertones. Bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a storage tote.

I’ll be honest. It took a while to see potential here. The tub’s fun-size dimensions combined with our 6-gallon hot water heater don’t exactly add up to a space for quiet contemplation and long, soulful soaks. Quick showers are fine. But when baths are your primary indulgence, you consider all your options.

My first bath attempt was, frankly, valiant. I’m no bobsled pilot, but given my daily yoga practice, I was deftly able to navigate the tub’s shallow waters. A knees-to-chest pose, for instance, followed by seated pigeon, a gentle variation of boat pose and — after a bit of ocean breathing — a legs-up-the-wall inversion. 

Despite this series of postures, most of my body was not, in fact, wet. Still, half baths are better than no bath in my book. I lit a candle and resumed my lazy pigeon.

All of this was fine. Really. But when the ankle-deep water began cooling with unholy swiftness, my efforts seemed altogether fruitless.

“I wish we had more hot water,” I mumbled as the basin drained.

“We can try using the electric kettle next time,” my husband offered from the living space. “I’ll even be your bath butler.”

I felt my lips explore the foreign words.   

“Bath butler.” I liked the sound of it.

My bath butler has changed my life. Weekly, per my request or his proposal, I luxuriate in what I’ve taken to calling my Queen’s Bath — a modified version of a full bath, sure, but a yogi can dream.

Pre-kettle, I add a swirl of Epsom salt into the finger-pour of steaming water, get the candle going, flip off the lights and climb in.

If I fits, they say, I sits. 

By now, my bath butler has mastered water control. He knows that, after adding a kettle to my bath, it’s time to heat up the next one. Sensitive and compassionate, he keeps things strictly professional, a trait any honorable bath butler should possess.

“How’s the temperature?” he might ask. Or, “May I bring you a beverage?” Most often, he simply pours and gives a courtly head bow. Role playing at its finest.

Four kettles in, the water nearly hugs my waist. By kettle five, I’m beginning to feel like a Greek goddess. Kettle six? I could not ask for more.

You don’t opt for camper life without sacrificing some modern comforts. Still, we have everything we need: clean, running water; electricity; full bellies and warm hearts.

My butler is the bath bomb on top. 

If it’s true that gratitude is the quickest path to happiness, I think I’m already there. As for my husband?

“I’m happy to bring you water,” he assures me. Although he insists on maintaining his professional butler pose, I pry.

“What’s in it for you?” I ask.

He pours the kettle, shrugs, then clears his throat. “I guess I like the view.”  OH

Ashley Walshe is a former editor and regular contributor of
O.Henry magazine.

Almanac January 2024

Almanac January 2024

January is a sacred pause, a rite of passage, a miracle in the dark.

As the Earth sleeps, a brown thrasher sweeps through the dormant garden. Gray squirrels skitter across naked gray branches. A grizzled buck disappears into the colorless yonder.

These bitter mornings, you study the critters beyond the window until the kettle calls out. Back and forth, you putter from stovetop to window, marveling at the movement amid the still and desolate landscape.

You open your journal, turn to a fresh page, watch your thoughts wax introspective.

Sifting through the humus of last year — the upsets, obstacles and lessons — you procure a wealth of nourishment. Glimpses of who you’re becoming. Morsels of wisdom to carry forth.

So much is stirring beneath the surface. Surely the crocus feels this way. Growth isn’t always visible. 

At once, the thrasher breaks your focus with spontaneous song.

You put on the kettle, fill up your thermos, step into the freshness of a brand-new year.

The buck has shed his antlers at the forest’s edge. Gray squirrels skitter from cache to cache. Each critter is a holy mirror.

The darkest days are behind us. Within the ancient quiet of winter, a secret world awaits discovery. Those searching for spring will never see it. Those looking within will find the key.

 

Don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.     — Rumi

Milk Flower

Among the earliest spring bulbs to bloom, the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) dazzles in large drifts, especially when planted beneath deciduous tree canopies.

A birth flower of January, the snowdrop’s Latin name translates as “milk flower.” Emerging from a cold and sleeping Earth, the delicate flowers are, in fact, sustenance for the winter-weary, symbolizing purity, hope and new beginnings.

Reaching a height of just 3 to 6 inches, the dainty white blossoms of this hardy perennial resemble tiny teardrop chandeliers. German folklore tells that, before snow had a color, it asked the flowers of the Earth if it could borrow one of their radiant shades. When all the other blossoms denied the snow’s request, the humble snowdrop offered its white hue to the snow. Grateful for this kindly gesture, the snow vowed to protect the snowdrop from the icy grip of winter. Thus, snow and snowdrop remain true and lasting friends.

Stone Soup

You’ve heard the old folk story: Everybody gives, everybody wins.

Soup Swap Day is celebrated on the third Saturday of January. Launched in Seattle in the early 2000s, this unofficial holiday has inspired soup enthusiasts across the globe to gather their tribes — and their Tupperware — and get to simmering.

It’s simple.

Pick a soup, any soup:

Vegetable stew served with homemade bread.

Cream of mushroom topped with cracked pepper and fresh thyme.

Roasted cauliflower brightened with a squeeze of lemon.

The possibilities are endless.

Cook a king-size batch, ladle into containers, then distribute to your broth-loving friends. Leave the party with as much soup as you doled out. Everybody gives, everybody wins.  OH