Home Grown

Home Grown

You Can Lead a Horse to TV . . .

The Captain, Trigger and me

By Cynthia Adams

Watching my father lead Trigger into the den one sunny morning to watch Captain Kangaroo, he proves a point. The pony is as gentle as my horse-loving Dad claims. And Trigger’s taste in TV is spot-on.

This is a moment of undiluted magic.

Because I am every bit the scaredy cat my sister insisted I was, Trigger terrifies me,  though Dad argued he’s a fantastic pony. My puny 5-year-old self is certain that, like other horses in Westerns, he cunningly waits to rear up and buck me off. 

Dad, laughs, knowing Trigger isn’t itching to buck me; Trigger simply has an itch. 

“He didn’t buck you, Cindy girl,” he insists. “Trigger is just twitching at a fly.”

But I grow ever more anxious about riding.

So one Saturday, inspiration strikes Dad. His right brow rises up, a tell-tale sign when he has such moments, and he heads to the barn. With a few clicks of the tongue and some sugar cubes, he returns, leading the pony through the back door straight into the den where I sit munching Alpha-Bits. He recruits my older sister, Sharon, to keep lookout for Mama.

It is so masterful, Trigger doesn’t even jostle the Progressive Farmer magazines on the coffee table as my father leads him. 

Stopping before the boxy RCA television, he commands Trigger to lie down on the braided rug. I giggle excitedly as Trigger obeys. 

After a few giddy moments watching the Captain, Grandfather Clock and Mr. Green Jeans with Trigger, my sister hisses a warning. Pulling on my Keds, I hastily follow them outside. 

Dad saddles Trigger and hauls me up. Then Trigger flicks at a fly.

I fall right off. 

I lack something essential in the horsewoman department. Pluck? Certainly. Assurance? That, too. Also, weight and balance.

Dad swears me and my sister to secrecy about the TV session, and Mama is none the wiser. 

But the episode has done its work, solidifying my desire to somehow become a cowgirl like Sharon. I dream of becoming bigger and sturdier. One worthy of such an erudite pony as Trigger, a superior pony who appreciates the Captain like I do. Unlike my sister and dad, I remain wary of life on the range. 

Sharon, with her sassy cowgirl outfit, hat, red boots and holster, fears nothing. Maybe she’s not a gun slinger, but she does break her shoulder blade defending me from the neighborhood bully. 

So I study cowgirl arts, like fire-making, perfected in my bedroom closet, where I strike match after match. Though I never catch my clothes ablaze I am successful in building a roaring campfire — directly outside our front door. 

After serious punishments are meted, I abandon fire making and attempt to make a name for myself as a magician, ordering a magic set from Bazooka bubble gum. I envision entertaining cowgirls and cowboys exhausted from fending off desperados on the range. 

The main component in the minuscule magic set — lifeless Mexican jumping beans that looked suspiciously like dried black beans — are a huge disappointment. 

Even Trigger looks puzzled by the inert beans.

Ditto for the desiccated sea monkeys I order. Magician David Copperfield reports he was similarly inspired by the Captain, too. But the magic act never materializes. Despite my best efforts, the only thing I am able to vanish is my dream of being a magician.

Trigger proves a fine listener as my ambitions unspool and die. The Captain teaches patience, so feeding my confessor carrots and apples, I cluck my tongue like my dad when visiting him in the pasture and barn. Trigger regards me with softly nonjudgmental eyes. 

Still, when he flicks, I bail.

Slowly understanding it is neither his fault nor mine, I scramble up to try again. He becomes a good friend to have, despite all the past and future falls. 

So, we brace for them together, Trigger and me, waiting for the day I grow bigger, stronger. Worthy of my own cowgirl suit.  OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

And Just Like That…

I learned sologamy is a thing

Kicker: Marrying yourself is called sologamy. Self-marriage is legal in all 50 states. Yet it took a 5-year-old to tip me off.

By Cynthia Adams

While hacking at a tangle of ivy and Virginia creeper, our neighbor, Warren, approached the fence. He swung a toy sword while wearing the expression of someone who wanted to unburden himself.

When I complimented his red kicks, he solemnly nodded, his blonde curls bouncing, and studied his feet as if surprised to find them there.

His small fingers reached through the chain link fence to pet Patch, our Schnauzer. Generally friendly, Patch responded with a small growl, even as his tail wagged happily.

Like kids, dogs are unpredictable.

“Sorry, Warren,” I apologized. “He’s grouchy today.” 

“So is Baxter,” he pointed out, nodding. Baxter, a wire-haired rescue, is mercurial. We worked hard to end incessant fence fighting between Bax and Warren’s two dachshunds.

“How’s preschool going?” I asked, still weeding. Wrong topic.

He muttered something unintelligible. His frown deepened. Muddling along, I gathered the little guy was interested in planting vegetables. “Plant some popcorn,” I suggested, trying to elicit a laugh.

“You can’t grow popcorn!” Warren replied. But, after thinking, he changed his mind and his face brightened. “It’s corn!” 

So, I suggested he grow popsicles.

“You can’t grow those!” he protested, spluttering. Warren was a tough audience. “You have to go to the South Pole to get popsicles!” Nonetheless, he agreed to include me in his next polar order.

Garden and snacks exhausted, I again broached the subject of school. One girl in particular seemed to dominate Warren’s thoughts, but he struggled to explain how. I’ll call her Julia.

I gathered that Julia perplexed him — naturally, irritation can mask fascination between the sexes.

“You know what she said?” he asked, frowning and walloping a magnolia with his sword, venting his frustration. 

What might a precocious girl say? I couldn’t guess.

“She said Obama married himself.” He gave the tree trunk another hearty stab before fixing me with a long look. Waiting.

I mumbled, “Is that right?” 

Warren muttered something to the intractable magnolia, not bending to his will, and lashed it once again. 

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” I said, trying to read Warren’s reactions. “You can’t marry yourself.”

This was comic fodder. My mind flashed to a TV show from the 1960s, The Linkletter Show. It was the sort of comment Art Linkletter drew when interviewing kids ages 5–10 for a popular segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” 

But Warren had me thinking. 

Beyonce’s song, “All the Single Ladies,” pointed to a clue: Single women have long outnumbered married ones in the U.S. and in the U.K. 

Seems that sologamy, self-marriage, self-partnering had many names, and was legal and well documented.

When and where it began is unclear, but, in a 2003 episode of the dramedy Sex and the City, the main character, Carrie Bradshaw, declared she would just marry herself. Ostensibly to fight the unmarried woman stigma. Of course, that was fictional. Real life examples weren’t hard to find and include:

Supermodel Adriana Lima said “I do to me” in Monaco in 2017.

Actress Emma Watson “self-partnered” in 2019. 

Also, closer to home, American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino (from High Point) embraced sologamy by putting a ring on her own finger. Barrino later married Kendall Taylor — which self-marrieds can do — in 2015.

Bigamy? No. The self-married can legally other-marry.   

Singletons going the self-marriage route may or may not wear a wedding gown, may or may not buy themselves a nice ring, and may or may not have a wedding cake for their big day. But they report feeling affirmed, ready to vow eternal love henceforth. 

To themselves. 

“This is not a Bridget Jones-like tragic story,” wrote Ariane Sherine in a Spectator piece entitled “Marriage for One” four years ago. “If we can’t find a knight in shining armor, we make alternative arrangements.” 

Warren, abandoning his sword, was now on his trampoline, whooping and hollering. I mopped my brow, observing his spring-loaded joy, which didn’t require another to be complete.   

Perhaps young Julia’s wouldn’t either.

It was a new time.

Knight be damned.  OH

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

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.

Home Grown

Home Grown

Confessions of a Biscuit Eater

A hair-raising adventure with Mama

By Cynthia Adams

My Mama sprang immediately to mind as a friend described a Triad maven he met while doing work for designer Otto Zenke. “She was always dressed bridge-ready. And she was so rich she had a hairdresser do her hair daily!” 

Hairdressers everywhere should observe November 5 — the day she died — National Hair Day, versus October 1. (As hair care company NuMe declared in 2017, according to my editor.)

No matter the fluctuating fortunes, calamities or dramadies within our family, a few things were certain: The sun would rise right alongside a pan of Mama’s biscuits, and so would her closer-to-God hair.

Thy will and Mama’s hair would be done. Weekly. (Southerners know what “done” means . . . and in this case, it has nothing to do with biscuits.)

Her biscuit making, however, was instinctual after years of practice. Mama practically made them in her sleep, wearing a negligee, satin mules and a cocktail ring, which grew lumpy with dough as she kneaded. She slapped the pan in the oven, sipping a cup of black coffee before cracking eggs as the grits burbled on the stove.

Every day.

I lost my appetite for those pillows of Crisco, flour and milk in my early youth after learning from my new friend, Rocky, that toast was much cooler up north. 

Rocky also touted frozen pies — anathema to my kin. When Judy, the daughter of our (adored) bookmobile driver, echoed Rocky’s preferences, I swore off biscuits, too.

Mama was fit to be tied when my 11-year-old self requested toast following our no-biscuit pact. 

When Rocky moved away, I ate my words and rejoined the legion of biscuit eaters. 

Mama’s passion for biscuits eventually waned, but hairdos were sacrosanct.

Her salon was called “Barbara’s.” Envision the salon in Steel Magnolias — except Barbara’s was actually at Barbara’s house. It was obvious when Barbara was working because the carport sheltered her patrons’ land yachts — Lincolns, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. 

For hair to be considered truly “done,” it had to be impervious to wind, rain or natural disaster — minus wildfires — while made highly flammable with a shellacking of hairspray. Once done, women marched out of Barbara’s with helmet-like coiffures, teased and steeled. Fortified.

When older, her children grown, Mama wanted more. By her 70s, her salon visits were a twice-a-week habit.

Then Mama left my dad, Barbara and Hell’s Half-Acre behind, establishing a tight-as-ticks bond with a hairdressing duo in Norwood, NC — which even involved trips together. 

Mama achieved Nirvana vacationing with her hairdressers. (“Perry and Terry freshened my hair up every day when we were in Disney World!” she said blissfully.)

When she eventually remarried and moved to Greensboro, Mama struggled to find the level of style — teased high and hardened off — she demanded.

She tried salon after salon, eventually discovering Wayne. It became a happy pairing. When I needed to find her, I could go straight to his salon, spot her Lincoln outside and find Wayne spraying with zeal, a plastic shield at her face.

“He knows what my hair needs,” she would explain. “So many hairdressers do not.”

She also grasped what Jim, her husband, needed. Given his thing for blondes, Mama’s dark tresses grew steadily lighter. 

After Jim’s death, she moved nearer to my older sister.

The hairdresser hunt was on once more.

This proved more stressful than my (pragmatic) sister anticipated. They cycled through scores of beauticians as Mama’s health declined. Now using a cane, and soon, a walker, she began having falls, yet determinedly kept appointments. 

When Mama fell completely out of the Lincoln at the curb in front of her newest salon, the kindly hairdresser was recruited to visit her twice weekly.

This, too, grew challenging as Mama grew unable to stand at a basin long enough for shampooing.

Only in recent months of no bleaching had I discovered what her natural color actually was — still dark at the back though gray at the front. Shampooing Mama’s hair in the shower one day, I announced I’d “do” her hair. 

Glancing at mine — merely blown dry — she raggedly exhaled.

“Well . . .” Her hands fluttered in surrender. Attempting to twine her gray hair around a curling iron, I burned both her neck and my hand, and cussed. Mama looked exasperated as I held a cold cloth to her neck.

And started laughing.

“I’m having trouble, but it’s all because of your cowlick,” I lied sweatily.

“You don’t know diddly squat about hair or curling irons. Get that hairspray,” she giggled, indicating a large can of Big Sexy Hair. I sprayed her recalcitrant curls till wet, shakily trying to coax them into Modestly Compliant Hair.

When I burned us both again, Mama retorted, “Well, you’re no Wayne! Just get me my lipstick.” Big Sexy Hair couldn’t save me.

She pursed her lips as I swiped them with red — her perennial favorite — and reached for blusher, dusting her porcelain-pale face before swiping her lashes with globs of mascara, lending a jolting Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane effect. Mama was unrecognizable.

With a very light squirt of her cologne — Angel — I hurriedly wheeled her away from the mirror.

“Mama, why don’t I follow up that success by making a pan of biscuits?”

“Huh! Good thing I’m wearing my Depends,” she retorted drily. We giggled together; Mom, tremulous but plucky. “We can work on the hair later,” she added, and my heart dropped to my kneecaps.  OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

Mama’s International Cuisine

Taste buds awaken outside of her kitchen

By Cynthia Adams

Ours was an international kitchen . . . if you accept that the fare at IHOP is international.

Mama made gravy, but not the Italian red sauce certain New York Italians confusingly call gravy.   

True, she made red-eye gravy, milk gravy and brown sausage gravy, which she spooned over biscuits. As for red sauce, Mama went rogue. If she ran short on Hunt’s tomato sauce, she substituted catsup. She used ground beef in her spaghetti sauce, but to a difficult-to-digest extent. Slicks of oil glazed the surface as she ladled it over the pasta, completely unfazed.

Mama’s version of Chow Mein came from a can of Chun King bamboo shoots. As she hotly argued, it had to be authentic or else Chun King would never have put it on the can in the first place.

The menfolk loved Mama’s Hungarian goulash, a substantial dish that came from The Progressive Farmer or Betty Crocker’s cookbook. It had little to do with Hungarians or actual goulash, but Mama, a born improviser, was no stickler. The sheer weight of the dish — leaning heavily on a base suspiciously like her brown breakfast gravy — featured ground beef, cooking oil, powdered onion, celery salt, canned mushrooms and a pint of sour cream. So substantial, in fact, it could sustain a famished Hungarian ditch digger.

When I experienced authentic foreign food as a student studying abroad, my reality was rattled. Nothing I’d eaten in Hell’s Half Acre, as locals called our community, had prepared me. 

Italian fare — from a slice on the street to pasta — delighted yet bewildered. The simplicity and lightness of fresh ingredients — and lack of reliance upon Hunt’s tomato products — shocked my system.

Once back in Cabarrus County, I never told Mama how unlike Italian gravy it was. Besides, my father and brothers were enthusiastic about Mama’s hearty cooking, leaving no room for self-doubt. He would push back from the table, happily groaning, “Jonni, I’m stuffed!”

She was a get-er-done woman, uninterested in the fuss and bother of Julia Child. Jonni and Julia? Never. True, Mama was expeditious, but not so much as Mama June of Here Come’s Honey Boo Boo, who prepared on camera a two-ingredient “sketti” with catsup and butter. I figured most home cooks were equally steadfast in their reliance upon recipes found on can labels and cake boxes.

That was, until I met Peggy, whose son I later married. As a young woman invited to her table, I fell under her spell, already intoxicated by her fragrant kitchen — where fresh herbs and spices, olive oil, and generously sized Italian meatballs and sausage simmered.

I inhaled, and the aromas of Italy filled my senses. Although of Irish stock, Peggy was a native New Yorker steeped in Italian fare. 

Chianti was on the table — I’d noted Peggy enjoying a glass as she cooked. These were habits I vowed to adopt as soon as I had a kitchen of my own. Only an M.F.K. Fisher or a Ruth Reichl could express Peggy’s carefree alchemy, meshing ordinary ingredients into an exceptional whole as she sometimes sang along to a Frank Sinatra tune.

As dishes were passed, I watched, enraptured as Peggy served. The sauce lightly covered slightly toothy pasta. Over that went hand-rolled meatballs, fragrant of fresh parsley, basil and garlic. Then the Italian sausages. Grated parmesan (fresh!) was passed around, along with garlic bread for sopping all that deliciousness.

I carefully avoided telling Mama about the ecstasies of authentic home-cooked Italian for obvious reasons. Mama would have been mortally wounded; she fancied herself to be a fine cook. (And I never told Mama how Peggy also created a culinary masterpiece out of a Thanksgiving turkey, too — pushing herbs beneath the skin before dousing it with a good olive oil. And cooking it until done, which Mama seldom bothered with.)

When my marriage to Peggy’s son ended, my relationship with her endured. Years later, Peggy and I were having drinks with her daughter, Gale. Peggy was especially fond of a good Manhattan, and, as we sipped, I wistfully reminisced. 

Did she still make her spaghetti, I ventured, hopeful of wangling an invitation to her table?

Peggy giggled her signature, girl-like trill. “Oh, I don’t cook anymore,” she said, waving her hand. “Those days are behind me.” 

This news was tantamount to learning that Michelangelo retired early and no longer carved marble. 

“B-but . . . ” I spluttered, at a complete loss. I turned away before she could see my despair.

New World Italians have a charming expression for a meat sauce like Peggy’s: Sugo Della Domenica or “Sunday’s sauce.” It is never difficult, they observe, to get people to the table for Sunday’s sauce.

Indeed.

Sometimes in my dreams, I sip chianti in Peggy’s kitchen. The sauce simmers; bits of fresh basil dance to the surface. The growl of my impatient stomach. And then, sigh: that first al dente bite in the mouth. 

My sweet Mama, I vowed long ago, could never know.  OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

Mama and the Limousine

Joy-riding with millionaires

By Cynthia Adams

We strolled to our neighborhood haunt, an Italian restaurant attached to a downtown hotel near our Mendenhall money pit. It was far easier to walk than deal with the hassle of parking — a perpetual problem for our historic Westerwood neighborhood.

The joint offered decent fare and prices that fit our always-tight budget. Given it was furniture market time, too, better known places were packed.

Out front, a white stretch limo awaited. A curious thing — until I remembered market. “Some big deal furniture people,” I guessed. 

After spaghetti and generous pours of the house red, we left contentedly full, noting the limo and driver still outside. 

“Hey, I’m going to ask who the heck they’re waiting on,” I announced, emboldened by the Chianti. I tapped on the window glass. 

Then something (perhaps the wine again?) made me open the rear door behind him. The driver responded with a decidedly friendly Southern accent: “Hey!”

“Hey! I’ve always wanted to see the interior of one of these,” I lied, and slid inside as my husband stood, arms dangling, looking appalled. He frowned at me, shaking his head.

“It’s just some furniture people’s rent-a-limo,” I shushed him. Limos were commonplace during two times: prom night and the biannual furniture markets.

The driver explained that his name was Richard and that, actually, I was wrong. He drove full time for the limousine’s owners, who were having dinner.

The owners?

At the neighborhood joint?

He asked if I’d noticed the tag on the front: “Driving Miss Hazel,” a nod to the film Driving Miss Daisy. No, I mumbled.

As I silently explored the posh interior and full bar, Richard suddenly coughed and pointed at two figures leaving the restaurant. “See? There they are now! I’ll introduce you.”

My widening eyes followed his pointing finger; then my torso more or less froze along with the rest of my body.   

As Richard leaped out to open the passenger side rear door, I hurled myself across the seat, jumping out the opposite side. Busted! As the smiling owners settled in, I stood outside with the door still ajar, blathering praise about the limo and apologizing.

“Let us give you a ride,” insisted the owners, Dolen and Hazel Bowers. In for a dime, in for a dollar, what could I say? I stepped back inside, but I could feel the reluctant energy teeming off my husband as he slid in beside me. I knew without turning my head to glance at him that his face was red with embarrassment.

Two blocks later, Richard dropped us outside our house. Given the scale of the limo, it seemed very small.

“We’re having a neighborhood party next weekend,” I blurted out, desperately embarrassed. “Saturday at 7. Please come.”

“We’d like that,” the Bowers replied.

Friends of ours, we learned, lived on the same golf course near their befittingly unusual stucco home. Built in a semi-circular design, it was rumored to have an equally unusual interior — notable given its place alongside traditional Southern mansions. 

It turned out the couple had made a serious fortune in real estate holdings and development. They were known as personable and extravagant, if eccentric. 

The limo and driver, with its own custom garage, underscored the rumors.

I promptly forgot the exchange until Saturday evening, with the party in full swing. My mother was in town to celebrate reaching a cancer-free landmark and things were hopping.

Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which was odd, as everyone else came right in, following the music and party chatter. I answered the door and a uniformed man appeared into view.

Richard.

Richard sort of goose-stepped into the living room, stopping abruptly. Then, five words: “Announcing Mr. and Mrs. Bowers.”

Doffing his cap, he retreated with a flourish. 

“Heddo,” said Hazel, adorably, her accent slightly unusual despite her being a local. She wore high heels and tottered into the room. Dolen followed.

The raucous party grew absolutely silent. 

Richard insisted that he’d wait in the drive with the limo. When we explained we shared a driveway with our (intractable) neighbors, he decided to simply circle around the block. There was nowhere in a neighborhood that was planned during a time of horse and buggies for a stretch limo, as I imagined what a scene endlessly circling presented. 

Mom, guest of honor (dressed in a suede midi-skirt and looking like a westernized Joan Collins), was enraptured and breathed she’d never been in a limo. Clapping, Hazel insisted she deserved a cruise in the limo. Delighted, Mama left in the limo to go God-knows-where.  Richard took guests on limo rides as the night wore on, with the Bowers happily mingling. Everybody was happy.

I’d concocted a menu that was a nod to an English high tea. We served little sandwiches, savories, cheeses and sweets — including biscuits and an English trifle. And, naturally, tea. 

The spirits were more popular by far.

Dolen enthusiastically sampled everything, including some moonshine a guest brought.

Praising the moonshine, he soon put the high in our high tea.

Weeks passed, and my husband was working in a building mostly occupied by lawyers when he discovered that Dolen was there closing on a major business deal. You might guess the titan would have been wearing some Succession-worthy brand like Zegna. But no. Dolen had worn his favorite bib overalls.

“I guess the man had nothing to prove to anyone,” my husband speculated. Serious wealth conferred a unique social passport; the Bowers traveled through life exactly as they wished with Richard at the wheel.

Not long after that, Dolen died.

Party particulars fade away in time, apart from how you felt. We felt especially fine that night, our guests chattering throughout the house, many settled on the staircase, laughing, sipping drinks.

Hazel, who remained in the Triad, survived until last year.

Mama, too, slipped away three years ago, yet she often remembered the  Bowers, Richard and her thrilling ride to nowhere beneath a starry, clear sky. OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

Age is Just a Number

And fate sure has mine

By Cynthia Adams

After my birthday came and went, my nephew rang me up. One never to mince words, he asks, “How does it feel to be as old as you?” 

He reads Hunter S. Thompson and Cormac McCarthy, drinks truth serum for breakfast and avoids platitudes like, “Gee, you don’t seem old.” Only my nieces are that merciful.

After that sobering call, I’ve gone all in on scientific reading. I scrutinize claims that cold showers burn brown fat (that spongy glob rolling around our midsections). I stumble across MIT’s David Sinclair, who swallows a teaspoon of olive oil and youth-enhancing supplements for meals and looks about 30. I note how tech giants chill out in walk-in freezers, emerging fighting-weight-fit. All of them are arm wrestling with Father Time.

Meanwhile, I’ve been lolling in hot showers, ladling extra dressing on everything, kicking back with a Pinot and Camembert — when cold, sober and spartan were the HOV lane to youth.

What I want to know is how to look younger without actually having to do anything. Certainly not planking for core strength or training for 10Ks and half marathons, a thing I used to do. Or drinking mocktails.

What passive anti-aging opportunities had been overlooked?

One springs to mind following the shock of seeing myself in recent family photos: Avoid standing next to the very young in photographs.

Also, time to banish grandmacore from my wardrobe. Toss pantyhose — as not only a sign of the elderly but aggravating. Hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. And that droopy crotch!?

Henceforward, in future, avoid certain references. Like pay phones. And don’t mention when there used to be pay phones citywide, or how single girls never went on dates without a dime in case a handsy date made unwanted advances (outmoded term).

Note: Appear baffled by terms like “landline” or “collect call” or “long distance” or “person-to-person.” (When was a call ever anything but person-to-person?)

No “remember whens,” either, as in, “Remember when I got my first cell phone?” The Motorola 2900 was a costly monster, large enough to be mistaken for a military field phone. A few minutes’ usage was outrageously costly. 

Its replacement had the size and heft of a brick with a fixed antenna.

Also, no future mention of carbon paper (for my trusty IBM Selectric typewriter) —  or bottles of correction fluids like Wite-Out — shall cross my lips.

Even the stodgy Atlantic, whose readership is at least 50 years old, said this about Wite-Out: “The sticky, white fluid and its chief rival, Liquid Paper, are peculiar anachronisms, throwbacks to the era of big hair, big cars and big office stationery budgets.”

Crumbs dropped on the anti-aging trail: Tamp down that hair, drive an EV and text like it’s 2023!

So never shall I share raunchy stories like how during office parties someone inevitably went to the mail room to drop their pants and copy their naked bottom on a Xerox machine, back when they were common (and so was actually going to the office).

Because The Atlantic points out even printers themselves are in danger of being anachronistic in this digital age. Seems printer sales are steadily slipping down because little that we write is ever even printed. Welcome to the regular life of a writer, printers.

So, in the interest of anti-aging, I will not muse mindlessly, reminiscing about Tupperware parties (remember “burping” Tupperware?) Also, Avon, Mary Kay or other multilevel marketing companies. Mary who??

But where do I stop?

My nephew actually chides me for mailing him a Hallmark birthday card. “It wasn’t even personalized!” he adds. “And do you realize the carbon imprint of sending that single letter across the country?”

Just as I am about to whimper about how hard it’s gotten to find those delicious potato sticks anymore. The ones in a can. Drenched in palm oil. Which makes my arteries slam shut. And the pucker lines around my lips dig in deeper. And let’s not even mention the plight of orangutans.

Honestly, I’m growing cautious to the point of paranoia about what I can share with him anyway, given he’s this ripped fit, white-water rafting, carbon-counting hipster living in Denver. 

While I’m me. Living here.

Getting older — and more obsolete —  by the d#@! second. OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

My Greek Tragedy

In which a hero rises from Athens’ ashes

By Cynthia Adams

Seeking a geographic cure after my father’s sudden death, my husband and I booked tickets to Greece during spring break in graduate school. So what if we lacked money, plans and a command of Greek?

The wheels had fallen off our family wagon with Pop’s death soon after my parents’ divorce.

Pop had died of a heart attack while he and a new, visiting girlfriend (nicknamed Lucy Locket) were enjoying an energetic getting-to-know-you session. After his funeral, my brother lured her from our family home with offers of a truck — then cash as a consolation for the diamond she insisted Pop promised her. His risk tolerance left behind unpaid taxes and mortgaged properties — in short, a mess. 

We found in Greece an echoing of my internal chaos. Strolling in an Athens square, we heard a bomb explode nearby. Hotel clerks quoted rates sky high and we felt increasingly stupid and helpless. We ended up in a room with no tub and a shower with a spout at shin-height. At least our feet were immaculate.

Off on a bus to wondrous Delphi and Corinth, we were issued tickets for different rows. On return, a woman with Tourette’s shouted at her seatmate. Mentioning Oliver Sack’s book on the subject, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a young, English-speaking passenger interrupted a conversation with me, saying, “Look, I’ve dealt with all the crazy ladies I can handle in one day.” 

(This tickled me so much I later wrote Sacks, who kindly replied.)

Booking tickets to the nearby island of Paros, we narrowly avoided being shoved off the gangplank by passengers who suddenly arrived like a Zombie horde. 

As the sea heaved that night, passengers heaved, too.

We reached Paros in gale-force winds and staggered on foot to the only open outpost. 

We booked into a convent-bare room with little heat or hot water, no blanket, no radio nor TV, only The Handmaid’s Tale to read. Downstairs we joined rowdy fishermen drinking ouzo while waiting out the storm. There was no menu and few dishes on offer. We ate (excellent, thankfully) spaghetti lunches and dinners on repeat and shivered. 

We rented a car at absurd cost just to see what else was on the island. Nothing but an abandoned marble mine. It shone in the sunlight, blinding us as we wobbled in the wind. We drove back, laughing at the instruction in the car’s dash to “return all ruined rubbers to the trunk.” (Rubbers, it happened, was their translation for tires.)

After five days in Paros, the winds calmed. As soon as we spotted the ferry approaching, we sprinted to pack our things.

But, back in Athens, peril awaited. On the way to the airport, a shrimp dinner literally left us broke after we were charged a usurious price (by the gram) for them.

How would we get to the airport?

Standing on a sidewalk with our bags, trembling with stress, I jumped when someone tapped my shoulder. A smiling woman asked in perfect English if she could help us.

We had been drained of our last cash at the restaurant, I nearly wept. Could she persuade the driver to accept our credit card — our last hope?

“Allow me to get a taxi for you,” the stranger nodded. 

When the taxi appeared, she spoke with the driver. Her voice was firm. She turned to us. “He will take you there. Do not worry.” Would he accept our credit card, I pleaded, my voice shaky.

“It is taken care of,” she said. “Do not worry.” 

We protested — how to repay her? Could we have her address? 

Shaking her head, she shooed us into the taxi.

“I don’t want your last memory of Greece to be a bad one,” she said. “So, think of me.” Flashing a brilliant smile, our benefactor turned, vanishing into the crowds.  OH

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

Home Grown

Home Grown

Travels with Mama

A daughter unpacks her mother’s baggage

By Cynthia Adams

Mama never traveled light. She traveled with intentions. Those encapsulated champagne-and-caviar dreams and included sequins, suits, wraps, strappy heels, scarves, earrings, necklaces, belts, handbags, daywear, nightwear and leisure wear for God knows where.

Working at a consignment shop meant Mama apparently bought just about everything that happened to be in her size. 

Travel light? Mama traveled heavy, whether visiting friends in Spartanburg or family in Switzerland. Regardless, she packed foam curlers, curling iron, enough hairspray to asphyxiate a ballroom full of people and a complete palette of makeup.

Taking Mama on a lark to L.A., something negotiated while she recovered from heart surgery, I learned a thing or two. 

Never rent an economy-sized car when shuttling Mama.

Her suitcase — nicknamed “the coffin”— fit into the land yacht, her lumbering Lincoln — but was way too big to fit into the rental car I picked up at LAX.

The coffin could only fit through the rear doors when turned sideways and hefted across the rear seat. Mama patted her hair, commenting on the traffic, while I shoved her other bags and my single one into said trunk. And the West Coast traffic?

It is possible to be both sweaty and cold when terrified

Flop sweat trailed from my temples as we merged onto the freeway. Then Mama began musing about a good comb-out. 

A comb-out? She had gotten her hair done the previous day. But Mama had standards, which weren’t going to slip here in the land of “swimmin’ pools and movie stars.”

Passing a billboard, she visibly brightened, wondering about getting into a Wheel of Fortune taping.

I reminded Mama that my realm of influence was, well, nonexistent. The only two people I knew in Hollywood, Suzy Turcot and Sherwood Jones, were not lolling around swimmin’ pools. Suzy worked in lighting (on a hit sitcom and films) and Sherwood had edited the Olsen twin videos when they were kids, plus some feature films. 

Barely aware of palm trees and iconic scenery, I glumly realized Mama wouldn’t be pacified with Gray Line star tours and museums. She wanted hair, makeup, action!

Prompted by her screaming “Stop,” we pulled into a Beverly Hills inn with Mama’s carry-on bag at her feet, a huge purse in her lap and the coffin filling the back seat.

Mama adored the spacious Italianate, frond-filled lobby. On a sideboard awaited freshly squeezed juice and stage-perfect fruit. 

The lobby bore little semblance to our bargain-rate Lilliputian room. The coffin sprawled once it was inside, consuming the floor space. It would only fit beside my twin bed. Opened, it belched finery.

The first night I stepped right inside it while fumbling to the loo, entangled in Mama’s diaphanous garb. 

She also brought court-worthy ensembles. Mama adored true crime, once accompanying me to Union, S.C., as I attempted to sniff out a story about a murdering mother. (She disarmed the lock-lipped townspeople with grandmotherly inquiries — Mama knew more about the murders than Nancy Grace.)

Which is why, on day two in L.A., donning a pantsuit, Mama mentioned Brentwood. After studiously following O.J. Simpson’s trial, Mama pointed out gory details as I clenched the steering wheel.

Mama Macabre.

Days in L.A. became a whirl of celebrity crimes and my traffic misdemeanors — when I found the police department to protest a whopping parking ticket, I pointed out it was featured in Beverly Hills Cop.

On a subsequent trip with a small entourage including my sister, our first to Vegas, we unwittingly booked a tattered hotel slated for demolition. And yet, Mama had filled the coffin with clothes suitable for Monte Carlo. 

Her sparkly garb would have thrilled Raymond in Rain Man, but was overkill at the slots. If Mama noticed fellow gamblers in sweatshirts and worse, she didn’t comment.

Here I learned something new: Beware of a casino’s largesse.

Slurping down free cocktails, we shrieked with jubilation as the slot machine began screeching and flashing like a fire siren. Jackpot! 

“How much did you win?” Mama gasped, adjusting her sequined top. 

“I can’t count that high,” I shouted. Gawkers gawked. The machine spit coin after coin. “Forty quarters!” 

I ordered another Bloody Muddy, weighing an upgrade to the Wynn with my winnings. 

Ten dollars.

Regret, I realized by daybreak, thy name is stupid drunkenness.

It wasn’t even enough to buy Mama another glitzy consignment shop top.

The next day, chastened by my wanton ways, I reconnoitered and visited the Guggenheim Hermitage in the Venetian hotel. It was a “jewel box” tucked into the Venetian’s lobby, featuring works from both Russia’s State Hermitage Museum and the Guggenheim, which was as jarring a fish-out-of-water Vegas experience one might have. It echoed with my footsteps as only one other person — a guard — was inside.  It soon closed due to lack of attendance. 

Imagine. 

Meanwhile, Mama rejoined my sister in the casino, inspired, rather than dissuaded, by my “windfall.” 

While walking along the strip back to our dumpy hotel, I noticed a wrecking ball had been indiscreetly moved into place. It seemed a metaphor straight out of a Wes Anderson flick. Then a stranger handed me a yellow flier advertising cheap flights over the Grand Canyon

I squinted in the overwhelmingly stark sunlight in amazement at this, the perfect antidote to the artifice of Vegas: A natural wonder.   

On approach, the other passengers and I donned headphones playing the musical theme to Grand Canyon to fine effect. Better than the Guggenheim — a natural work in a staggering landscape. 

As I stood on the precipice of this magnificent hole, my eyes welled. Meantime, back at the casino, Mama’s eyes shown with joy, too, when the one-armed bandit dispensed a bounty of coins. Enough winnings for a new pair of pantyhose. 

We both won, Mama breathed out that night, dressed in a splendid cocktail frock. Her very best.  OH

Home Grown

Home Grown

Zany or Zen:  Me and the Chelsea

Lodging complaints

By Cynthia Adams

It was my father’s idea to book me into the Hotel Chelsea. Yes, that Chelsea — Manhattan’s confounding hotel.

I was 15, en route to meet fellow high schoolers and our chaperones, young art teachers, for studies abroad. This trip, plan B, arose when my mother nixed my being in Ecuador as an exchange student.

“I won’t have it,” Mama insisted. “Something terrible will happen.”

My travel-happy Dad, heavily influenced by a strong dollar and the hope that I would score him a bargain Rolex while we were in Lucerne, suggested Europe.

You may be thinking, the Chelsea! How very cool. But, no. 

The seedy Chelsea was cheap. And so was my dad. Once, on a family trip to Nova Scotia, Dad tried to negotiate with an innkeeper on rates by offering his daughters’ help with housekeeping. Travel on the cheap with a large family reminded me of humorist David Sedaris’ accounts of his father, Lou Sedaris. My Dad, Warren, seemed to be Lou’s brother from another mother.

Rufus Wainwright wrote music at the Chelsea, even naming songs after it, telling Vanity Fair “there was no better address to have in terms of communicating decadent, sad ’20s esprit.”

Dad didn’t know the Chelsea had domiciled the likes of O. Henry, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe (who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again there), Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg plus Arthurs Clarke and Miller. No, he knew none of that. Nor that it was infamous for murders, suicides and misadventure — before Sid Vicious lived down to his moniker, killing Nancy Spungen.

The mood setter for my Chelsea experience was the taxi ride into the city. A grubby driver with two-day stubble on his double chin grinned as I gave the address: “222 West 23rd Street.”

“First time in New York?” he asked. “Southern gal,” he burped out, leering in the rearview mirror, careening wildly. Was he drunk?

The oppressive taxi stank of body odor.

“Welllll…” he drawled, like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear. “Whar in Dixie? I’m Southern, too.”

I didn’t want to answer, but, well, Southern manners required it — so I mumbled, “Near Charlotte.” He followed up with, “Ever heard of a rapist, little girl?” 

His gray teeth showed as he grinned. “I got charged with rape down in South Kerlina and left.” 

Left? As in escaped? And I was in the rapist’s car.

Staring out the window, determinedly silent, I reviewed my helplessness. What to do? To my infinite relief, he pulled up at the Chelsea, chuckling.

I paid and fled with my bags into the then-seedy hotel, faced with a new dilemma. The Chelsea looked like what my elders called “a flophouse.”

Having escaped abduction or worse, I planned to hunker down in a dodgy room till morning. Before, gulp, taking another taxi ride to JFK. 

I was famished, but not hungry enough to venture next door to El Quijote, which has since been restored, by the way.

Just as well, it happens. Lola Schnabel, daughter of artist Julian, told Vanity Fair about a finding a human tooth lodged in a croquette while living at the Chelsea. 

At sunrise, jumping out of bed, I tugged opened the curtains. 

And froze.

Mere yards away, a slender man on the rooftop was performing a sun salutation. In the nude.

I dragged the tatty curtains closed. As quickly as I could dress, I asked the Chelsea desk clerk for help with a taxi, one driven by a non-rapist. He kindly obliged.

Weeks later in Lucerne, a Rolex saleswoman pulled trays of watches for my (uninformed) inspection, but my budget was $300. She gently suggested Bucherer instead and gave me a tiny Rolex spoon. Dad wore the Bucherer for decades, as if it was the watch he coveted. I kept the spoon.

(Years later, I gasped when actor Keanu Reeves sported a Bucherer.)

I never mentioned the taxi driver, the pre-renovation Chelsea, nor the birthday-suit sun salutation to Dad — who died long before Reeves proved the Swiss saleswoman, bless her heart, had been right all along.  OH

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