The Flower Pot

 

Miguel never participated in my high school Child Development class, and he never turned in an assignment. He missed more classes than he attended. On the rare occasions I saw him in the hall during passing period, he walked alone, his eyes slightly downcast, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Tall and lanky, his thin rounded shoulders seemed to strain under an enormous weight.

Miguel’s background was typical of my rural New Mexico students. Of predominantly Hispanic and Native American origins, the majority lived at some level of poverty. Many lived in what can only be described as utter poverty.

This was not the kind of poverty that merely restricts its victims to boxed macaroni and cheese or ramen for dinner every night. This was the mind-deadening, soul-shriveling poverty that means going home to an apartment or trailer house in which there is nothing to fill a growling, perpetually empty teenage stomach. It is the kind of poverty that means not enough money to pay the water bill, so there is no running water to drink or in which to bathe. The kind of poverty that compels a family to live in a car until Mom gets the first paycheck from her new job.

Unlike the middle-class students I taught in other states, my Los Lunas students rarely had adequate school supplies. Many regularly had to borrow pencils and paper from me or their classmates.

Two girls in one class wore fuzzy pink and blue house slippers of the type I had seen in the local dollar store. They wore them every day – even in frigid winter weather. In several of my classes, I had at least one student required to wear the ankle bracelet that came with being caught up in the juvenile justice system. Each semester at least one or two of my students were pregnant.

In December, I typically taught a unit on positive reinforcement. I set up a token economy wherein students received one play money Buck every day they came to class on time. Extra Bucks were given for completed assignments and for good classroom behavior. The students’ goal was to accumulate as many Bucks as possible by the last day of class before Winter Break, when they would be allowed to spend their savings at my Bazaar – an auction held in my classroom.

A few items to be auctioned, such as candy bars, would have been donated by one or two parents, but I purchased most of them in volume from local dollar stores. Pop tarts, microwave popcorn, and macaroni and cheese were the most popular items, followed by star-shaped sunglasses, stretchy bracelets made of plastic beads, glitter-laden lotions, and assorted party favors.

As usual, tardiness and absenteeism lessened during this unit. But I was surprised and inordinately pleased when Miguel not only began showing up to class but was on time.

Every day for those two weeks Miguel walked through the door just before the tardy bell rang. He would catch my eye, nod once, and then make his way to his desk. There he sat with his head bowed, his clasped hands resting on the desk throughout the forty-five-minute class.

As was my custom, I handed out the day’s attendance Bucks at the beginning of each class. Miguel would take the Buck from my hand, say “Thank you, Miss,” and stuff the play money into the pocket of his too-large jacket.

Before class on the day of the auction, students could view the items I placed on a long table at the front of the classroom. The excitement always ran high. Kids stood around the table chattering with one another about which things caught their fancy. They pointed at the trinkets on which they wanted to bid. Some would playfully threaten anyone who might decide to overbid them. Others would count their Bucks and compare their pretend wealth with that of their friends. I overheard one student proudly tell another that this would be his Christmas shopping for his younger siblings.

As usual, I began the auction by first offering the smaller pieces then moving on to the larger items. I held up each article as students began their frenzied bidding.

A few of the students, especially those who had accumulated thick wads of Bucks, quickly jumped in with high bids. Others waited patiently for a specific item to be offered. Still others hooted and egged the bidders on to get them to spend all their money before the more desirable items were offered.

Miguel sat quietly at his desk. He wore the same faded blue workout pants and hooded jacket he had worn for the past several days, the stretched-out cuffs frayed and stained. His hair hung in greasy ropes around his thin face, and his ragged fingernails were rimed in black.

At some point during the auction, Miguel took his wadded-up Bucks out of his jacket. He carefully straightened the bills on his desk, then sat with his head bent slightly forward and eyes downcast as item after item went up for bid. He did not bid, even though I had seen him looking over the auction table before class.

The final item up for bid was a small terra cotta flowerpot, the packaging of which proclaimed it to contain soil and the seeds of a lavender plant. I mentally prepared myself for the bidding frenzy that always took place when those who had inexplicably held onto their Bucks realized they would soon become worthless squares of colored paper.

“What am I bid for—” I held up the flowerpot.

“Five Bucks,” Miguel said in a soft voice before anyone else could speak.

A couple of students murmured things like, “Go for it, Miguel,” and “All right Miguel.”

Then the rowdy, boisterous chatter fell silent.

“Five Bucks going once,” I said. The wall clock behind my desk ticked off its second-to-second cadence.

“Going twice.” I moved my gaze around the silent room.

“Going three times, and sold to Miguel for five Bucks.”

Pandemonium broke out as Miguel walked to the front of the room to claim his prize. Students hooted their congratulations and support.

I struggled to maintain what my Marine Corps son calls bearing as my chest filled with awe and pride at what these young people had just done.

Tonight, a much-loved mother, sister, aunt, grandma, or maybe even sweetheart, would be the recipient of a very special gift…and after today, Miguel would never again be so completely alone.

 

Field Trip!

Having completed my third suspense novel, I email the manuscript to my publisher and immediately dive into another. Protagonist and Antagonist are identified; storyboard template is filled out; character arcs are described; beginning and end are imagined. Now to the sizzling dialogue…

“Where are you taking me?” Protagonist says.
“To the dessert.” Antagonist smiles gleefully. “I’m going to leave you for the coyotes and scorpions.”

“Cliché,” I tell myself. Right up there with the villain chaining the swooning heroine to a train track.
I hit backspace then begin again.

“I’m going to haul your sorry ass to the local gravel pit and leave you tied to a backhoe—”

“Wait,” I interrupt. “Where is the gravel pit? And is it even possible to tie someone to a backhoe?”

Trouble is, I wouldn’t know a backhoe if it ran over my foot. Besides, what time of day – or night – must my bad guy take his captive to the gravel pit without risking discovery? What if the gravel pit has a night watchman?

Frustrated, I again jab my index finger onto the backspace key and hold it down.

“So,” my Internal Writerly-Parent says, “…if you’re supposed to write about stuff you know, and you don’t know anything about gravel pits or backhoes, maybe you should, oh I don’t know, LEARN?”

“Why the sarcasm?” I whine.

“Because sure as the Creator made green onions, you’ll say stupid stuff about gravel pits and backhoes out of ignorance. Remember how disgusted Pop was when that old television series Rawhide portrayed cattle drives in which Hollywood’s version of cowboys drove the cattle at a run, whipping them into a frenzy? Born in 1919, and a veteran of a couple of cattle drives himself, Pop said by the time those cattle got to market, all the fat would be run right off them; they’d not bring nearly as much money as their heftier, slower brethren and sister-en. The point wasn’t to get to market as fast as possible, but to get there with the fattest cattle possible. A real cattle drive would cover only about eight miles per day. While Readers might ignore one small gaffe, they won’t tolerate—”

“Field trip,” I yelp as enlightenment dawns.

“Great idea,” Snarky Internal Writerly-Parent says. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Ever-obliging, Google gives me directions to a local gravel pit, along with hours of operation and a phone number. A young woman answers on the third ring.

“Sure,” she says, “…come on out. We’re open until five.”

By the time the day ends, I not only know where the gravel pit is located and what it looks like, I have answers to important questions such as how many entrances there are; if the front gate’s locked after hours; if anyone is there at night; what security measures are in place; how much area it covers, and how many people it employs. I’ll even be given an up-close look at a backhoe.

I enthusiastically thank the young female employee, hustle home, plop myself into my office chair, and boot up my laptop.

“I’m going to haul your sorry ass to the gravel pit and chain you to a backhoe’s steering wheel. Tomorrow’s a holiday and the place is closed on weekends. It’s so isolated, you can scream your head off; it’ll be days before you’re found. By then, I’ll be sipping Mojitos in the Caribbean.”

That’s more like it.

Interview with a Villain

Grinning as if I’d just won something, which I never do, I push my office chair back from the desk and toss another ball of wadded paper toward the trash can. Whoosh, it falls through the opening without touching the sides. A good omen; one which cannot be ignored.

“Woo-hoo!” I pump my fist up and down. My pulse quickens, and I glance at my watch.

Today’s the day. In precisely six minutes, I will interview a murderer.

I couldn’t do such a thing on just any day, you understand. It must be a day filled with good omens, a day in which I feel physically energized and psychologically pumped.

A day like today.

In preparation for the interview, I drag a woven cane-bottomed dining room chair into my office and situate it directly across from my seat. The straight, ladder back should prove uncomfortable enough to keep my guest off balance, thereby ensuring more spontaneous responses to my questions. The distance of five feet between chairs, give or take a few inches, will allow unimpeded eye contact.

I take a deep breath and blow it out through puckered lips then drop into my chair. With less than two minutes to go I peer at the screen of my laptop.
My mouth goes dry as I consider the questions that seemed insightful minutes earlier but now appear insipid and pointless. Do they zero in on the villain’s motivation like a professor’s laser pointer, or are they so ambiguous as to allow room for sloppy evasions? Are any of them redundant? Will they elicit responses that help my Readers understand human nature while chilling their bones?

I chew my thumbnail and shoot a look toward the office door. A shadowy figure stands in the opening, back-lit by the hallway light.

“You’re early,” I say.

“Insightful,” the murderer says. “Anything else, or is that it?”

“Thanks for showing up.” I point to the chair opposite me. “Have a seat.”

The villain saunters to the rattan chair. She stares down at it, snorts then grins and shakes her head. “Such an obvious ploy. Contrived. Best be careful or I’ll disappear before you have what you need.”

“Sorry.” I hold my hand up, palm out as if to stop a charging rhino. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

“No, no, no.” My murderer moves her index finger back and forth imitating a clock’s pendulum. “That’s not how this works. While allowing me freedom of expression is important, it’s up to you to ask the right questions. Otherwise, you risk making me predictable, or worse, cliché. When I have something unexpected to say, as I most assuredly will if you do this right, I’ll jump in and it’ll be up to you to keep up.”

“Okay.” I take a deep breath.

For the next hour or so, I shoot questions at my murderer, furiously typing her responses into my laptop. I’ve just finished memorializing her umpteenth impromptu stream-of-consciousness monologue when she falls silent. I glance in her direction just as her shadowy form retreats through the office door.

“Thanks,” I call out.

Wordlessly, she waves an arm over her head then is gone.

My pulse pumps like a race car piston as I review the transcribed pages that will set the stage for my suspense novel.

“Not at all what I expected,” I murmur.

The fragrance of lilacs suddenly fills the room. I breathe deeply, sensing another presence.

“My turn,” says my Protagonist.

“So it is,” I say. “Please, have a seat.”

From the Gouge-ee to the Gouge-er

A few days ago the electricity went out in part of our city. A friend called to let me know that the Allsup’s 7-11 hiked their gas up nearly forty cents per gallon during the next several hours, just on the off-chance folks would panic.

Price gouging. I’ve been wondering what went through the management’s mind before making that decision. Did it even occur to them that people would see through their greed and hold them accountable by going somewhere else?

As for me, I’ll walk ten miles to a non-Allsup’s station if I ever run out of gas. I won’t even stop there for a soda or gum. I’m not a consistent customer, but other folks in the area are – and they’re just as angry about this blatant rip-off as I am.

Although humans have used catastrophes to make money off their brothers and sisters since the beginning of time, it still doesn’t smell good. Do the Allsup’s Decision-Makers believe the few extra bucks they made from their blood-sucking practices will make any difference to their bottom line in the long run? Do they really think people don’t pay attention?

I’m no New-Ager, but common sense tells me that kind of greed is toxic. The persons responsible for taking advantage of others’ misery pay a price, not only in their reputations and their relationships, but in their physical bodies.

And bummer of all bummers, they can’t take money into the next realm with them. Are you listening Lonnie Allsup?

It’s a Matter of Ego

A recent conversation with a writer friend acted as a catalyst to some thoughtful introspection on my part. My friend said that somewhere along her path she’s developed the idea that her worth is contingent upon what she does – on her achievements. If she submits something to a writing contest but doesn’t win, her sense of self-worth decreases correspondingly. Yet if she writes something that garners kudos, those feelings are eased, but never quite eradicated. She wondered where that whole second-best-is-not-good-enough dynamic came from. Was she born with the need to achieve?  Is this an actual drive – a part of our human condition? Or is it something she learned from her parents, from school, or from society?

We humans begin life as tiny balls of egotism. This is, of course, a result of our instinctual drive to survive. The infant’s universe consists solely of himself and his needs. He’s hungry, so he cries until someone feeds him. He’s lonely, so he cries until someone holds him.

But as we mature, and as we receive glowing praise for everything from going potty like the big people do, to making A’s in math, we begin to crave those signs of acceptance, first by our care-givers and then by our peers. It seems the better we perform, the more we are loved. As a result, our subconscious mind links the ideas that the more we are loved, the better our chances of surviving in a world filled with uncertainty and cruelty. It all boils down to survival.

So I say to my friend, embrace your ambition. Make it work for you. It’s okay to feel insecure – it sharpens your axe. And it’s okay to mess up. Everyone loves someone who never gives up. And besides, it ain’t over til it’s over.