Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory


A tale of rescue

By Cassie Bustamante

Before we had kids, I’d stop for any stray dog I saw. Once, with a friend, I rescued a flea-covered female dog who’d clearly had puppies and been left to fend for herself in a field. That dog, Gracie, went on to become my friend’s most loyal pal, seeing her through moves and devastating breakups. The last time I brought home a stray dog, my husband, Chris, looked out the window at the unfamiliar animal, then pointedly at me, my pregnant belly carrying our first child protruding, and said, “You’ve got to stop bringing home strays.”

And while I did, I still do what I can when I see an animal, especially a domestic one that’s possibly someone’s beloved pet, in need.

So one Sunday morning in June, the spring sun already shining through the green grass, turning its blades a glowing shade of chartreuse, I’m out for a leisurely stroll with my two rescue dogs, Catcher and Snowball. The neighborhood is quiet outside, but the smell of bacon wafts through the air. Almost home, where my own breakfast and French press await, I spy something unusual.

In the front yard of a stately brick house in Wedgewood, a neighborhood that runs adjacent to my own, Starmount Forest, an orange fox, shoulders hunched, and a fluffy black cat are having a standoff. The fox bares its teeth and stares, eyes narrowed, at the feline, whose back is arched.

I watch as they continue to hold eye contact. This is someone’s beloved pet, I think. My wild imagination takes off and I picture a family with small children, dressed in their Sunday best on their way to church, opening their front door to find their precious kitty mangled and left for dead.

My thoughts break when suddenly the cat lunges for the fox. For a moment my worries subside. I should’ve known a cat would be able to fend for itself. After all, are they not domesticated relatives of the king of the jungle, the lion?

The fox backs far enough off that the cat turns to walk away victoriously. And that’s when the fox makes his move. But he isn’t the only one to make a move.

“Hey!” I shout from about 40 feet away. “Leave the cat alone!” As if the fox, is going to say, “Oh, sorry! Right, I don’t know what I was thinking. Toodles.” Instead, the fox shifts its head in the direction of me and my entourage of dogs. Uh-oh.

And yes, I should’ve thought, This animal is a rabid beast — just get you and your dogs home safely. But, nope, I couldn’t get the image of a heartbroken family mourning their beloved cat out of my mind.

My dogs, who’ve been by my side, watching all of this unfold, peer up at me with worried eyes as I yank their leashes and hustle-walk toward home, still a quarter of a mile away.

I pick up my pace, the sound of my sneakers slapping the pavement almost matching my racing heart. Glancing over my shoulder, I keep an eye on the fox’s proximity. He seems cocky but intent, skulking behind us in a quick, yet not rushed, trot. All he has to do is sprint and we’ll become his Sunday breakfast.

Just then, a white pickup truck appears around the bend in the road. Oh, thank God! I think. But the truck passes me. However, when I look behind me, I see that the driver has parked between me and the fox, creating a literal roadblock for the wild animal.

This time, I don’t stick around to see what happens next. Catcher, Snowball and I take our chance to hightail it home to safety. To my hero on a white horse — or, rather, in a white armored pickup truck — whoever you are and wherever you are, thank you. Sometimes, as it turns out, the rescuer needs a bit of rescuing, too.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Curb Alert

Freedom, fear and fahrvergnügen

By Cassie Bustamante

The first car I ever bought myself — with funds matched by my parents — was a brand-new 1997 little black Jetta, purchased right after I finished my freshman year at Wake Forest. One of my close friends, Krista, had a similar car she called LBJ; so I dubbed mine LBJ Jr.

“Junior” was my ticket to freedom. Far from my Massachusetts home, that car and I made many scenic drives to Pilot Mountain, an area that reminded me of the rolling New England countryside. Cruising, windows open and mix CD blasting, was all the escape I needed when undergrad life felt overwhelming.

Over 20 years later, with kids who are just shy of my age then, it’s time to pass my current car, a 13-year-old cherry-red Ford Flex, aka station wagon on steroids, onto my son, Sawyer, and get myself a new ride. Neither of my eligible children has a license yet, but both Sawyer and his younger sister, Emmy, are permitted.

Fondly recalling my travels with Junior, I book an appointment at the Flow VW dealership. My only rule? No bold colors. I’ve had enough of people telling me they spotted me in my bright-red bus. Let that be Sawyer’s problem soon, God willing.

Behind the wheel of a dark gray 2021 Touareg, I’m smitten. It seems — at least compared to the 2011 clunker I’ve been schlepping around in — to have all the bells and whistles. Seat warmers and steering wheel warmer? It might be June, but my cold winter hands will thank me in December. But practical Chris, along for this car-shopping ride, wants to visit another dealership before going home to confer.

“What’s there to discuss?” I ask in our kitchen that evening. “I liked the first one. Sold!”

“This is a big decision,” he replies, hoping I’ll put a little more thought into my choice. Where he likes to take time to assess all angles, I go with my gut.

“The moment I sat in it, I knew. It’s got everything — even a sun roof!” I exclaim. “Plus, loads of people drive gray cars — no one will know it’s me!”

Later that week, we sign on the many dotted lines and make it official. In the parking lot, keys in hand, my heart races, giddy with excitement. Chris zips off, homebound, while I take time to adjust mirrors and seats.

I start the ignition, open the sun roof and cruise home, wind whipping strands of silver hair every which way. I pull into the driveway behind Chris’ car and open the door to the anxious faces of my three children and Chris all asking, “How was it?”


Fourteen hours after completing our purchase, Chris offers to take 16-year-old Emmy on a driving lesson. My recommendation? Grimsley parking lot, perfect for pulling into and backing out of spaces, a skill she needs to practice.

“Do you wand to play car Tetris, or do you think it’s safe parking in the street?” I ask, apprehensive about passing drivers accidentally scraping it.

“It’ll be OK for a little while,” Chris assures me, knowing I am headed to the office shortly.

Brand-new car now nestled into the side of the street, I turn my attention back to my open laptop, waving as Emmy and Chris exit.

A moment later, I hear it. A light thud. Not a crash, but strange and alarming. My gaze follows the sound to outside, where Chris’ small white SUV is angled directly into the left rear of my VW.

“Are you even kidding right now!” I shout to no one. Breathe. Maybe they’ve just hit the bumper.

Chris marches from the passenger to the driver side. Even from my vantage point, I can see Chris’ clenched jaw, fighting back a stream of frustration. Red-faced, Emmy bolts inside in a blur. Her bedroom door slams, followed by the click of her lock.

Meanwhile, Chris reverses his car, and my own drops about a foot back down to the ground. Nope, definitely not just a little love tap.

I feel the rage bubbling up and there’s no shoving it back down as Chris walks in the front door. “What were you thinking?!” I scream. “She’s not ready to back out of our driveway! And my car, my new car, was right there!!!!”

Chris does not rise to meet my level of emotions and calmly says, “She did great backing up. She put it into drive and then saw a car coming behind her and panicked.” Like a deer in headlights, she froze, foot off the brake, and rolled right into my car.

Exasperated, I leave him to deal with the insurance filing for not one, but two cars — his is in even worse shape than mine — and turn my focus to the real damage control.

I stand outside Emmy’s door. “Can I come in?”

“No!” she says between sobs.

“I’m not mad, Emmy. I just want to talk.”

A click. I’ve been granted entrance.

“I told Dad I wasn’t ready,” she hiccups. “I didn’t want to pull out of the driveway!”

“I know,” I reply, rubbing her back. “Look, you’re OK. The car will be OK. And on the bright side, you — and my car — have had your first fender bender. It has to happen at some point and why leave home to do it!”

She’s calming down. “I’m just really sorry.”

“This is not your fault, Emmy. They’re called accidents for a reason,” I say calmly. Then, with fire behind my voice, “It’s 100 percent Dad’s fault!”

That coaxes a laugh out of her. And I know in time, we’ll all be laughing about it.

A year later, we all see the humor in it. A core family memory for sure. We’re still slowly chipping away at having two more licensed drivers in our household, but, one day, we’ll get there. And those new-driver nerves? They’ll be replaced by the exhilarating thrill that comes with facing the open road, outstretched before you, beckoning you to enjoy the ride.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

A Souvenir

The best thing we brought back from Mexico didn’t come home in our suitcase

By Cassie Bustamante

The year I became pregnant with my second child, 2006, I wasn’t quite ready. My husband, Chris, and I knew we wanted two kids, a boy first and a girl second, as I’d always envisioned. But we’d just had our first baby — yes, a boy — in the summer of 2005. We were going to start trying again in the fall of 2006 so our kiddos could be almost exactly two years apart, just like my older brother and me.

Before we added another babe to our brood, just like Conrad Birdie, we had a lot of living to do. In April, we dropped off our infant son, Sawyer, with my parents and snuck in a Great Apple getaway, exploring landmarks, strolling Central Park and savoring the city’s finest cuisine — street-side pizza, slices so humongous and dripping with mozzarella that they had to be folded to be eaten.

Then, in May, came Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, thanks to Chris being a top performer at work. Again, Sawyer stayed with grandparents while Chris and I — with a group of his coworkers, bosses and plus ones — sipped Piña coladas and sangrias, complete with cocktail umbrellas, next to a glimmering turquoise ocean. Chris and I took an excursion into the city to savor authentic local fare, but also took part in resort activities with his work pals. 

A group of his coworkers wanted to hit up karaoke night and asked us to join them. When we got there, it was clear that no one in our group was actually willing to sing. Hold my margarita, I said.

Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they’re OK, I began Madonna’s “Material Girl” nervously. But, after a beat, I was feeling it. What I lacked in singing chops I made up for in dramatic flair, sauntering around the room and gesticulating in a flirty manner. I didn’t win the night’s competition, but I did come in second, losing to a resort-goer who could actually carry a tune. Plus, I won the respect of Chris’ cohorts, who thought I was brave.

And I caught someone’s eye that night — my own husband’s.

A few weeks after landing back on U.S. soil, I discovered we’d brought home an unanticipated souvenir. Feeling a little funny, I purchased a pregnancy test kit, complete with three tests, just in case. I took the first one. No, this can’t be.

I guzzled a bottle of water so that I could try this again. Surely, it was a false positive. I took the second. Then the third. Positive, positive.

That evening, Chris sat at the computer desk in our home office, the beeping of dial-up connection sounding through the room as he prepared to email the latest photos of 9-month-old Sawyer to his parents. I paced the house, reluctant to spill the beans. Building up my nerve, I’d walk into the room, ready to burst, but instead hesitate and mutter something like, “What do you think about trying this new recipe tomorrow?”

Finally, my nervous energy got to him. “Is there something you want to say, Cassie?”

“OK, yes,” I said. The rest of the words tumbled out hurriedly. “I’ve been feeling a little off, so I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. Actually, I took all three tests and, well —”

I fanned them out in my hand, six pink lines glaring back.

“Are you upset?” I asked sheepishly.

“Upset?” Chris burst into laughter. “Why would I be upset? We’re having a baby — again!”

“Well, it’s a little earlier than we planned,” I sputtered. “I just thought maybe you’d be mad because this is not exactly on our timeline.”

His blue eyes twinkled as he got up and pulled me into a hug. “You never have to worry that I’d be mad about you getting pregnant, ever. Unless, of course, it’s not mine,” he deadpanned.

I wiped away tears, “Oh, it’s yours.”

Eleven months later, we left our 21-month-old and 4-month-old babies with my parents and jetted off to Puerto Vallarta again, and again it was on account of Chris’ job performance. As the president of his company spoke, he commended Chris, saying “And now Chris is going for a third!”

“Oh, no, he’s not!” I blurted out loudly. The crowd of colleagues erupted into laughter as I realized my blunder — his superior had meant a third year of top-notch numbers.

We never got that third trip. But, as it turns out, we changed our minds about that third child many years later and welcomed our incredible, “not-an-oops” caboose, Wilder. Still, there is one thing I know for certain: Any future vacation souvenir must come home in our luggage.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Dirty Laundry

It’s all about knowing when to fold and when to hold

By Cassie Bustamante

I recently came across a meme that depicted the sign for infinity, a sideways figure eight. Above it read: “The symbol for laundry.” Accurate, I thought. With three kids, it’s never-ending.

But I can’t complain because before we were even married — when we were living in sin in the nation’s seat of sin, New Orleans — my husband, Chris, and I set up a system that has worked well now for over 20 years.

Of course, “set up” is a bit of a stretch. We didn’t exactly thoughtfully lay out a plan. It went more like this:

Freshly laundered clothing strewn on the bed in front of me, I begin folding a pair of Chris’ jeans in half the long way and then into thirds. My hands, well-manicured and soft, no visible signs of aging (Hey, this is my memory, OK?), maneuver while my Sony CD player shuffles through discs. Absentmindedly singing along to Frou Frou’s “Let Go,” I’m in the sort of meditative trance only a tedious task can produce.

Suddenly, Chris’ judging eyes bore into me and pull me right back into my body. I can see him biting his lip, trying to hold in whatever it is he’s thinking. After a beat, he says, “Can you pass me those jeans?” And he proceeds to shake them out and meticulously refold them, seams aligned exactingly.

Frankly, I should have seen this coming. Our relationship began — brace yourself — when Chris was my boss and I was his intern at the Hanes Mall Abercrombie & Fitch kids’ store back in 1999, just a few years after the most infamous intern scandal of our time. He was the one who taught me how to fold the perfect denim wall. There was a science — an art form, really — to lining those pairs of jeans up just so. When stacked in the wall together, they were the perfect height, filling the space between shelves, each pair a uniform thickness.

“What’s wrong with how I did it?” I ask. Though, honestly, I know I’ve never quite mastered the art of folding clothes with that crisp prêt-à-porter look he’s capable of achieving. (Don’t tell him that. We don’t need any gloating around here.)

“I just like them, um, a certain way,” he says, clearly choosing his critiquing words carefully to maintain unwedded domestic bliss.

“Then why don’t you fold the laundry?” I sputter, not really a question, mind you.

“OK,” he answers and, surprising me, immediately takes over.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I stifle any witty retort — a real challenge for me — and simply say, “OK, then. All yours.”

From that moment on, Chris has been designated laundry-folder in our house. It’s a role that fits his very particular Virgo personality to a tee, a perfect use of his skills.

And, in the end, we both win. He gets his denim folded just the way his heart desires. And I get out of untangling and sorting endless piles of laundry. Well, mostly. I do have to refold my T-shirts because I have learned that Marie Kondo’s method really does make it easier to find clothing in a stuffed drawer. But I’ll never whisper a word about it. He can keep his job.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

The Road Not Taken

A thank you to a strong woman who made a strong impression

By Cassie Bustamante

“What do you mean you’re going to work at Abercrombie & Fitch? You need to go to grad school,” my college advisor, Dr. Meg Zulick, says to me when I tell her my plans for after graduation. “You’ll be wasting your talents there.”

I’d been working part-time at the mall-based retailer and saw what seemed like an easy upward path. After four years of college, the last thing I wanted was more college. Admittedly, my boyfriend at the time (and future husband), Chris, who knew how to rock that A&F visor, just so happened to work there as a manager. It was a job and I needed one. I more than liked my boss and it paid decent wages. To be fair, it’s a career path that worked out well for Chris. Twenty-four years later, he’s gone from store manager to district management and is now a senior area leader for the restaurant chain Cava, a role in people development that he finds challenging and rewarding.

But me? No, I’d completely lost my footing and was unsure of who I was or who I could be in this world. But Dr. Zulick knew better. She’d been my advisor since I declared my double major in English and communications at Wake Forest University. And she was not having it.

Since she’d been assigned as my advisor, I’d opted to take her class, American Rhetoric, followed by American Rhetoric II. In both, we studied speeches and songs that influenced historic movements. As a fan of strong female artists — the Indigo Girls, Patti Griffin and Tori Amos ranked in my top five — I thought I knew a thing or two about music that mattered. But before stepping foot into Dr. Zulick’s classroom in Carswell Hall, the brick building that was home to the communications department, I’d never once listened to gospel music.

In her classroom, my eyes — and ears — were opened. Here, the powerful voice of Mahalia Jackson, whose music was central to the Civil Rights Movement, echoed throughout. “This Land is Your Land,” a beloved Woody Guthrie song, took on new meaning once I learned more about the man behind the lyrics. Later, his son, Arlo, penned the song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” a tune my family listened to every Thanksgiving on our drive to our gathering, just outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Growing up, I’d had no idea that the seemingly silly diner ditty I loved to sing along to was a protest anthem.

During many of Dr. Zulick’s sessions, a TV set would be wheeled in and we’d watch black-and-white footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches, such as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” For speeches that preceded the age of radio and television, we read manuscripts, including the words of famed abolitionist, civil rights and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

I consumed and dissected every piece of rhetoric she fed us — and I loved it. There’s nothing I like more than discovering meaning behind lyrics and writings. During classroom discussions, my hand flew up. I poured myself into the papers I turned in to Dr. Zulick. I trusted her implicitly with my thoughts, through which she came to understand what lit me up. And, folks, I would discover fairly quickly that it wasn’t retail.

So, it’s no surprise that I find myself sitting across from her, red-faced and exasperated, as she says, “You’re making a mistake.”

And yet, I walked away — leaving college and Dr. Zulick behind me. I didn’t ask for a letter of recommendation so I could go on to grad school. Instead, I took the quick and easy route, thinking retail management might be just right for me. I married Chris and had a few kids. But — through a series of steps and missteps that led me along a path of finding out not only who I was, but what I could be — I found my way to O.Henry, where my love for rhetoric has found a home.

A year ago, I reached out to Dr. Zulick, still a Wake Forest professor. She agreed to meet me for lunch and suggested her favorite dive, Winston-Salem’s West End Café, a restaurant I remembered well from my undergrad years.

Across from Dr. Zulick — who insisted I call her Meg — in a booth, I replayed the last conversation we’d had. “I know I didn’t listen to you, but I wanted the opportunity to say to you in person how much impact you had on me. Your classes opened my eyes, but do you want to know what really stuck with me?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“You believed in me. And your faith in me has stayed with me for more than 20 years.”

Over sandwiches, we talked about the past — her Pennsylvania-Dutch upbringing and her small local Quaker community — and the future, her retirement creeping around the corner. We chatted about my plans for O.Henry and she offered up some story ideas.

“Well,” I said, “maybe you could write them for us?”

“You know,” she said, “I just might take you up on that.”  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory


A surprising engagement

By Cassie Bustamante

I don’t like surprises — unless I suspect they’re coming — in which case, it’s no longer actually a surprise, eh? I am 100 percent that person who will go snooping in my husband’s side of the closet, riffling through his drawers as a stratagem to keep myself totally unsurprised. Chris has known this from early on in our relationship and has mastered the workaround.

So let’s rewind to Christmas, 2002, when we’d been together for almost three years — three years that involve me hopping from North Carolina to Tennessee, from Texas to Louisiana, following him around while living in sin. After dropping hints for almost two years, I decide it’s time to put a ring on it. When you know, you know.

But Chris, ever the practical Virgo, likes to have things clearly mapped before making big moves. Me? Once I’ve made up my mind, I leap and figure out the rest on the way.

When he asks me for Christmas gift ideas that year, I hand-write an elaborate list that reads something like this: “waffle iron, The Nanny Diaries, ring, bread machine, In Her Shoes, ring, J. Crew top, ring. . . ” On it goes, an exhaustive list of things he knows are marginal — kitchen appliances, books I can buy myself, random items of clothing — and the thing I really want repeated so many times it can’t be missed.

We’re spending our first Christmas alone, just the two of us and our beagle, Charlie. Chris is working and can’t get away to visit the parents and I’ve opted to stay with him in our New Orleans apartment. But I am OK with it because I know my ring is coming and, while I’m certainly not getting a Lexus, it’s going to be “a December to remember.”

In fact, a mysterious package — with “Do not open until Christmas” in his mom’s handwriting — arrives earlier in the month for Chris. I think I know what’s inside, but there’s no way to stealthily open and reseal it. Trust me, I would if I could.

On Christmas Eve, we share a romantic meal I’ve prepared of duck à l’orange, whipped rosemary mashed potatoes, a simple tossed salad and warm, crusty rolls. We pair it with a chilled pinot grigio. For dessert, a decadent apple pie. The apartment smells of citrus and cinnamon, just as it should at the holidays.

Christmas morning comes and I drag Chris out of bed, anticipating the diamond awaiting me. Instead, I unwrap every single book, sweater and kitchen gadget from my list. What’s not there? A ring.

Disappointed, I distract myself by breaking in the brand-new waffle iron, a top-notch Williams-Sonoma one at that, but this meal is not like the night before. I’m quietly fuming, the air of romance evaporated.

“Everything OK?” Chris asks.

“Fine,” I offer. It’s the answer I give when everything is, in fact, anything but.

He looks at me, but I avoid eye contact. “Anything I can do?”


We clean up in silence and Chris tells me he’s going to shower.

“Fine,” I mutter again and slink to the sofa to pout while sappy Christmas movies featuring happily married couples play on the TV.

Fifteen minutes later, I hear Chris enter the room, but don’t look up.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to make you feel better?” he asks.

“Nope,” I repeat. “Nothing.”

He approaches the couch and stands over me. “How about this?” In his hand he holds a small black box. Inside is a simple gold band with a single diamond. His great-grandmother’s, he tells me.

Holding back tears, I punch him in the arm, saying, “You’re such a jerk, but I love you.” He smirks, pleased with himself that he’s managed to surprise me after all.

As I write this story, I have to laugh at myself. I wouldn’t marry me — I was the jerk. But, 22 years later, we’re still going strong. So is our waffle iron. Some things were just made to last.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of 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.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Breaking the Friendship (Blow) Mold

A tacky piece of nostalgia glows in remembrance

By Cassie Bustamante

As a former vintage home store owner, I love all things vintage Christmas. Atomic-era tinsel trees? Yes, please! Shiny Bright ornaments? My attic screams, “Got those!” Bottlebrush trees? I have as many as Ariel has thingamabobs: 20. Actually, probably more. But one quintessential decoration that dominated the ’50s and ’60s holiday scene I’ve never been terribly fond of: blow molds. That is, until recently. As it turns out, the tackiest tchotchke can light up the temporal lobe of your brain, where the fondest memories live, long after a loss.

What are blow molds, you ask? The tawdriest of yuletide kitsch, they are generally large, hollow, plastic figurines, designed to be used outside on lawns, porches or rooftops, in the shape of snowmen, Santa, angels, candy canes, you name it. And, you guessed it, they’re illuminated from within, like glowworms.

Sarah, my shop co-owner, and I agreed on most things. In fact, in our almost five-year partnership, we never had a real dispute and we understood the rarity of that. What we did have was a mutual sarcastic, dark sense of humor. We shared snarky inside jokes that only we understood; 10-hour road trips to the beach, just the two of us and our combined lot of four kids; a love for ’80s songs. Without fail, every time she walked in the shop’s front door, I’d serenade her with Jefferson Starship’s “Sara.”

We were not exactly twins. Physically, Sarah, whose sandy-brown hair cascaded in natural waves, was much shorter. When we’d try to move furniture around the shop together, she’d remind me that she had “T-rex arms” and couldn’t wrap herself around long dressers like I could with my own, which are unusually long. While we both valued fitness, she was devoted to her gym routine and lifted weights, and I relished in long, solo runs.

And Christmas? We both whole-heartedly loved the season — the music, the vintage decor, the cozy wool sweaters. We ran full-speed-ahead when it came to decorating our shop for the holidays. Bowls were filled with shimmering ornaments. Lights were strung throughout, draping over gilded gesso mirrors and winding around vintage flocked trees. And every year in the late summer and early fall, we’d roll up in our SUVs, trunks full of holiday finds to sprinkle throughout. Much to my dismay — Sarah’s truck would always haul in a stash of blow molds.

Sarah would walk in and sheepishly grin at me, knowing the disdain I held for their cheap, plastic aura. But, I knew, this store was not mine — it was ours. And while nothing, of course, comes to mind, I probably brought in some dreck Sarah wasn’t especially fond of. Maybe.

In 2016, both of us ready to move on, we made the tough decision to sell our store. She wanted to get back to the career she’d abandoned when she’d had her kids. And I wanted to add another babe to my own brood. With gratitude for what we’d built together, we let it go, selling it to a pair of sisters who’ve taken it farther than we’d ever hoped.

Of course, we stayed in touch and got together when her work schedule allowed. She came to my shower when I did, indeed, carry another baby, Wilder, in my belly and she gave me some of my favorite onesies, complete with humorous wordplay: “gangsta napper,” for example. Shortly after he was born, we moved to Greensboro. Again, Sarah and I kept in touch as time allowed, often via texts laced with those jokes that only we would understand.

Then, in October of 2021, Sarah died suddenly. And though my iPhone incessantly tells me I need to clean out or upgrade my storage, I keep our text chain. One message, in particular, stands out.

Me: “Just wanted to say hi and I miss you — I think of you more than I make the effort to message you. Sweet Clover [our shop] feels like another lifetime.”

Sarah: “I could have written this text, too. Think of you all the time and our hijinks.”

As Christmas approaches this year, I spend many evenings cruising my Starmount neighborhood with my family, admiring the blinking and glittering lights and yard decorations throughout. And every time we pass a vintage blow mold, its warm glow of red, white and green mocks me with the playful sarcasm of a close friend.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Cold Turkey

A first-time Thanksgiving cook’s frozen failure

By Cassie Bustamante

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big family affair. Dad’s dad had six siblings and they’d all be there with their kids, who also had kids. My older brother, Dana, and I were the eldest of our generation, and we had to sit at the dreaded kids table, where we made sure none of our little cousins shoved peas up their noses.

During high school, Dana and I graduated from the kids table, but it was a decade later when I hosted my first Thanksgiving in New Orleans that I finally felt like an adult.

Because Chris works in retail management and will be schlepping it to the mall on Black Friday, dreams of the classic Thanksgiving return “home” — to either my or his parents — are dashed. Dana, who lives in Los Angeles, decides to visit our little family so he can spend time with his 1-year-old nephew, Sawyer.

While I am sure Mom and Dad will miss seeing their first grandchild, they’re glad we’re spending the holiday together. And I know we will miss them — and Mom’s pecan rolls. One thing I won’t miss? Having to stare at one of Dad’s favorite sides on the table: the jiggling, can-shaped, gelatinous cranberry sauce, ribs still visible.

Since I am the chef de cuisine, I delight in crafting my own menu: a cooked-to-nut-brown-perfection turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, haricot vert spiked with lemon and garlic, glazed maple carrots, a simple salad — always a great palate cleanser between bites — and pillowy, golden rolls. And no canned cranberry sauce. For dessert, rich, silky pumpkin cheesecake.

We hit the grocery store the weekend before, like every other bayou shopper and purchase a sensibly small bird in advance, which goes into the freezer for safekeeping.

The day before Turkey Day, Chris plays on the floor with Sawyer while I follow the steps of a Food Network pumpkin cheesecake recipe. I pop it in oven to bake and lick the spatula.

“Do we even need anything else?” I ask no one in particular. “Can’t we just sit around the table with cheesecake? I mean, that’s what the Golden Girls always do.” Lost in the delight of the batter and the excitement of my big brother arriving that evening, I take my eye off the ball. The ball being the ice-bound Butterball.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I wake from a dead sleep at 6 a.m., fully aware of what I’ve done — or, more accurately, not done. “Oh, no!” I yell. “We forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer!”

I rush to the kitchen in my pajamas as Chris groggily drags behind me. I yank the bird from the freezer, slamming it on the counter with a rock-solid thud and look exasperatedly at him. “Now what? Thanksgiving is ruined!!!”

“Let’s just give it a water bath,” Chris answers calmly, adept at handling my (over)reactions. “Fill the sink and we’ll put it in there and just keep changing the water. It will thaw more quickly that way.”

Fill, drain, repeat — every 15 minutes. After the first hour, the turkey is frighteningly firm. When the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begins to roll, I can just about poke a finger into it. I imagine my parents, the smell of turkey wafting through their home, while, down in New Orleans, their daughter spends the day giving a turkey a bath.

But Chris and Dana assure me they’ll be happy to eat whenever the turkey is ready. “I hope you like a big meal for breakfast then, because it’s looking like tomorrow morning,” I lament.

To my surprise, our diligence pays off. Hours later, around 4 p.m., our bird is oven-ready and, because it’s small, cooks quickly. The four of us finally gather around the table. I pour us each — except for the baby, of course — a large glass of pinot grigio. “Cheers,” I say. “I’m grateful for so much — your visit, for one, Dana — but mostly that we’re eating at 7:30 p.m., a very respectable mealtime.

I look around the table at our little crew. With Dana and Chris across from me, and Sawyer in his high chair beside me, it’s a far cry from those big family gatherings of my youth. But, even with my frozen faux-pas — maybe especially because of it — I know that we’re creating new memories.

After putting Sawyer to bed, Dana, Chris and I gather ’round one more time for a 10 p.m. cheesecake session. I don’t care how stuffed I still am. Sweatpants were made for this.

“Mmmmm . . . ,” we all groan contentedly.

Since then, I’ve not once forgotten to thaw the turkey. Of course, that’s probably because I no longer eat — or cook — it. Too traumatic. But pumpkin cheesecake? There’s always room for that.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Through the Wringer

Laughter, rinse, repeat

By Cassie Bustamante

Questionable choices? I’ve made a few. After all, I’ve been known to snip my own bangs when I get bored, despite the fact that my husband, Chris, thinks they’re “awkward”. I’ve attempted to pop deep pimples even though the results are always the same — a bigger blemish with a scab on top. The last time I did that, I even pointed to it as I said to Chris, “I will learn nothing from this.”

But I’ve been known to make good decisions, too — like when I walked down the aisle — bangless, mind you — to marry Chris 20 years ago in late September, 2003. I know this to be true, because I’ve put him through the wringer in the two decades since saying “I do.” In fact, just a month or so after our nuptials, I tested the waters, accidentally, and discovered just how my new husband would handle a costly slip-up.

That fall, I was employed as a personal trainer at Cross Gates Athletic Club, a family-friendly gym in Slidell, Louisiana. As is often the case in that profession, I worked split shifts, training in the early- to mid-morning hours and again in the evening.

On one particular morning, my stomach churns, a cacophony of gurgling, rumbling sounds. You know the ones. I rush home for my midday break, parking my car in the driveway, certain I’ll pop some Pepto and be back on my feet. But things get progressively worse and the realization strikes: I’ve been hit with food poisoning.

I call into the gym to cancel any remaining appointments and decide to move my car, a standard transmission VW Jetta, into the garage since I won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Once in the driver’s seat, I turn the key in the ignition, catching a blur of activity in the corner of my eye. In my unwell haze, I’ve not fully closed the door from the kitchen to the garage, and Charlie, our Houdini-like beagle, has spied his opportunity for freedom, shoving the door fully open with his snout.

In my panic, I drop the clutch and the Jetta jolts forward, crashing right into our washing machine. Stunned, I glance back at the kitchen door, but Charlie is nowhere to be found.

After turning the car off, I dash inside and find him trembling under our bed on the complete opposite end of the house. He’s petrified, but at least he’s safe.

Back in the garage, I stare at the washing machine in disbelief. Nervously, I dial Chris.

“Hey, so . . . um . . . I kind of ran my car into the washing machine,” I tell him, explaining the events that led to the collision.

There’s a pregnant pause as I prepare for his wrath. Instead, he explodes in laughter. Once he’s able to speak again, he asks, “OK, well, does it still work?”

“Lemme check. Oooooh, yes! Water is running!” I pause. “Scratch that, all the water is coming out at the bottom.”

“OK, well, it’s no big deal,” he says. “We’ll go get a new washing machine this weekend,” he continues. “You’re all right and so is Charlie.” Another giggle escapes his lips and I picture him on the other end of the line, shaking his head.

A week later, as Sears delivers our brand-new machine with the bonus free haul-away service for the old appliance, the driver says, “I’m not even going to ask what happened.”

But I’ll tell you what happened. I discovered that I’d married a man who would help me find the lightness in tough situations and be by my side “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” with bangs or without. And while appliances can come with a high price tag, knowing I’ve chosen a great partner is priceless.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.