Authors: Cinthia Ritchie
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For my sisters, Christine, Cathie, and Candace,
and for Gramma Lucas
Thanks to the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Council on the Arts for the financial boost, and Hedgebrook and Hidden
River Arts writing residencies for providing a quiet writing space.
Special thanks to Tony Hall, for not firing my sorry ass when I missed work deadlines; Rich Chiappone, for always answering
my frantic and obsessive e-mails; Ronald Spatz, for helping me get started; Sherry Simpson, whom I can never thank enough;
Jo-Ann Mapson, for reading a shorter draft of this story and saying, “This sounds like a book”; Nikki Jefford, for her dedication
and writing support; Kathleen McCoy, for teaching me to edit my own work; Mike Dunham, for the gift of paper; Jeanne and Mark
Haas, for the house-sitting gig; Michael Fierro and Cissy, for food, comfort, and the “dungeon” desk; David and Jonnie Mengel,
for the doggie babysitting, the meals, and the fresh produce; my Alaska Newspapers work buds Van Williams, Victoria Barber,
Rose Cox, Tammy Judd, Alex DeMarban, and Roy Corral, who kept me sane during insane times; Dawnell Smith, for the runs and
great talks; Sarana Schell, for the great hugs; Susan Morgan, for the everlasting friendship; John Edmonds, for loving me
even when I was unlovable; Candace Ritchie, for being the best sister in the world; my son, for being who he is; my mom; The
Beebs, for being my own personal Killer Bee; and Mike Mitchell, for the runs, the camping, and the delicious hugs.
And lastly, thanks to my agent, Elizabeth Wales, who never lost faith in me, even when I lost faith in myself; my editor,
Beth de Guzman, who totally “got” my book; and my old high school English teacher, Clare Blakeslee, whose enthusiastic literary
rants gave me the courage to buck convention and write.
Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005
THIS IS MY DIARY
, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything.
Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of
It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively,
in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.
I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.
I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over
streets littered with moose poop.
I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when
I tried to eat them.
I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such
a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart)
I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.
Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under
the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t
really in it, so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa, and plopped down to watch Oprah.
What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church
music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat
stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.
Most of what she said was New Age mumbo jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel
around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed
She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook,
she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself
to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought provoking actually happens.
“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”
I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come
to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we
were there in that tent, we did too.
This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.
Sunday, Sept. 18
Already I’m slacking. Writing is like working out. If you miss one day, it’s easy to convince yourself to miss another.
I’m an artist. I write this rather shamefully, as if admitting to an embarrassing medical problem that I have no right to
be embarrassed about since I clearly brought it on myself.
“She’s obviously talented,” the art teacher informed Mother during my fourth-grade teacher conference, and Mother hung her
head, her white-gloved hand tightening around the Ivory soap sculpture I had fashioned into a Campbell’s soup can. By the
time we walked out to the car, my sculpture had melted under the wrath of Mother’s grasp.
Growing up in Dowser, a little southwestern Michigan town whose only distinction was an award-winning badminton team, I took
every art class the high school offered. I even managed to win a few “prestigious” awards: the Dorothy Maloney Fellowship
for Duck Drawings; the Hardings Grocery Store Cuts of Meat Award; and the Southwestern Michigan Lookalike Contest, where I
painted the assemblymen in drag and almost got Mother kicked out of the Women’s League.
All this might sound heady and exciting, except that in our stuffy little farming community, the liberal arts were looked
upon as a minor sin. Mother squirmed each time I brought home another award, while my older sister, Laurel, sighed and squared
her shoulders, knowing it was up to her to do something with her life, since I was so obviously throwing mine away.
I slid through my senior year with Cs and Ds, skipped graduation, and hitchhiked down to the Greyhound station, where I made
a one-way reservation to Farmington, New Mexico, the farthest my money would take me. I wore my lucky peasant blouse and carried
my new Kmart suitcase, stuffed with art supplies, stray earrings, photocopies of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and a brand-new
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Trying to make it in the art world is like trying to have an orgasm when you’re not
in the mood: You strain and struggle and twist yourself into impossible positions until you almost, almost (oh god, oh yes,
oh plllleeeassee) get there. But you never quite manage, and instead of being blissed-out on pleasure, you find yourself attending
other people’s shows and pretending to be happy for them when all you want to do is give them a swift kick in the ass.
That’s what happened to me. I lost my orgasm. My resolve followed shortly afterward, along with my standards. I started settling
for a little less here, a lot less there, and before I knew it, I found myself living in Alaska, a state so far removed it’s
not even included on national weather maps.
Then I met Barry and
lost my steam. Years passed in a blur and the minute Jay-Jay popped his head from between my legs, it was sore nipples, sleepless
nights, and Barry and me arguing about whose turn it was to buy diapers. Our arguments quickly escalated until he moved into
a shabby apartment in Spenard, a down-on-your-luck neighborhood famous for its cheap hookers and even cheaper drugs, and I
bought a shabby trailer less than a mile away. This is typical of Barry and me. We’ve been divorced almost three years yet
neither one of us has the gumption to move on. We claim that this is so Jay-Jay can move back and forth between us but really
it’s because we don’t know how to let go. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, we still…
Whew, there’s the groan of the school bus grinding its way up the hill by Westchester Lagoon. In a minute Jay-Jay will charge
through the door. “Mom,” he’ll scream, demanding food and attention, love and understanding. And I’ll give it to him, messily,
badly, my hair falling down, my armpits reeking because I forgot to put on deodorant this morning. Jay-Jay is tall and blond,
his legs starting to thin, poor kid. He’s caught in that awkward stumble of pulling away from the cute-little-boy stage. He’s
choosy about food and movies, and so good-natured it’s easy to forget how smart he really is. He’s just Jay-Jay, a skinny
kid with freckles who picks his nose when he thinks no one’s looking. He smells of milk and grass. What I like is the smell
of his feet. Embarrassing, but while he sleeps I sometimes sneak into his room, lift his foot to my face, close my eyes, and
inhale: subtle and slightly sweet, not yet sour, a bit musky.
Soon he’ll wear huge sneakers and clomp around the house. He’ll smell of sweat and get pimples and hard-ons. He’ll jack off
in the bathroom and borrow the car without asking, while I sit home reading trashy magazines, hoping and praying that he doesn’t
turn out to be as big an asshole as his father.
Alaska Airlines Visa bill: OVERDUE!
JCPenney credit card bill: PAST DUE!
Anchorage Pet Emergency bill: DELINQUENT!
Ken doll, with the head cut off
Sex and the City
DVD covered in ketchup
Wednesday, Sept. 21
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a sunny autumn day, and I’m sitting at a cleared space on the kitchen table, munching on Chex Mix and watching
the dog dig holes in Mr. and Mrs. Nice’s yard. It’s almost time to pull on my wrinkled blouse and stained apron and head out
My food service career began over fifteen years ago at a truck stop in Camp Verde, Arizona.
I thought, and a perfect way to supplement my art, which I was sure was about to take off.
When it didn’t, I hit the road and spent the next three years following the festival circuit in the summer and waitressing
during the winters. I spent my days out in the desert sketching naked men I picked up in bars, transforming their tired bodies
into paintings of cowboy butts floating in the air like helium balloons and penises shaped like the arms of saguaro cacti.
I hadn’t snared a gallery show, but I was getting by. I had my own business cards (my name misspelled, but you can’t have
everything) and a faithful following of women in Birkenstock sandals.
One night, camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, red sandstone smeared across my face and arms, I dreamed
that Gramma was standing in front of me, a white egg in each palm. I woke up sweating and irritable. Gramma, my father’s mother,
was Polish and fat and smelled of onions and garlic. We had always been close. We were the messy ones, the stumbling ones,
the ones who goofed up and knocked things over. Mostly, though, our relationship went like this: She cooked and I ate. She
talked and I listened. She made messes and I played happily in their wake. Just thinking of Gramma made me so lonely that
I broke down and called her from Holbrook the next morning.
“Yah,” she answered in her heavy Polish accent. “That you, Pushski?”
I asked her what it meant to dream of an egg. “Raw,” I told her. “In a shell. In someone’s hand. And white, almost luminous.”
“It mean,” she said slowly, “that you is
“That’s ridiculous,” I shouted.
“You sure?” she asked. “You got the blood?”
“Yes,” I lied. After I hung up, I sat on the wilted ground outside the phone booth. I knew Gramma was right. I was pregnant
and I had no idea who the father might be: That cowboy from Winslow who never wore underwear? That cowboy I picked up outside
of Flagstaff who had a belt buckle larger than my head? That older cowboy who walked with a limp and lost three fingers off
his left hand to a horse bite?
To make a long story short (and the less I talk about this phase of my life, the better), I had an abortion at the clinic
down in Tucson. As soon as I was declared “normal” at my six-week checkup, I walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and
waited for a ride. I left everything behind, even my car. It was the price I had to pay, was still paying, since as soon as
it was gone that child connected to me tighter and firmer than if I had birthed it myself. I learned too late that some things
can’t be left behind, that they seek you out, show up at your doorstep late at night.
“Sins make you fat,” Gramma used to say. I thought she meant it literally, that sins would cause weight to form on your body.
But after the abortion I understood what she was really saying: sins bring you down, make you heavy. That they make you fat
with your own misgivings.
I eventually reached Alaska, met and married Barry, and worked and quit and worked and was fired from a variety of waitressing
jobs. We had Jay-Jay and our own house and a golden retriever named Almond Joy. I stayed home most of the first year, stumbling
around in a sleep-deprived haze while Barry stormed off to work every day. As soon as I put Jay-Jay down for his midmorning
nap I’d hurriedly pull my art supplies from the closet (I was down to two colors by then, phthalo green and cadmium orange,
which sucked since everything came out a grainy, brownish mess). I was halfway finished with an Alaska nude
, but I was having trouble with the toes, which resembled slugs. Jesus’ thighs looked especially nice, though, very strong
and competent and tinted an almond shade I was particularly proud of (I had mixed in a small bit of Jay-Jay’s infant formula
to lighten the paint colors). Right when I hit on the brilliant idea of covering the apostles’ feet with bunny boots, Barry
up and quit his job. I tried to keep painting but it was impossible. I threw my supplies back in the closet (just the phthalo
green—the cadmium orange had given out the week before) and joined my husband on the couch for morning marathons of PBS shows:
. I ate too many bowls of cereal, lulled into a sugary stupor so that I would often look at us all curled up in our pajamas
at one o’clock in the afternoon and think,
Isn’t this cozy?
The day I pinned a dish towel around Jay-Jay’s squirming butt because we had run out of diapers was the day I shook off my
inertia, pulled on the only skirt that still fit, and marched around the restaurant circuit. I hit all the places that frequently
hired but rarely advertised: Sea Galley, Sourdough Mining Company, Peanut Farm.
“I’ll call you,” everyone said. But no one did. It wasn’t my spit-stained shirts or lackluster hair that turned them off as
much as my desperation, which emitted from my skin like a nasty odor.
One night in the Safeway, as I hurriedly wrote out a check I couldn’t cover for milk and crackers, the scrappy manager from
the Denny’s accidently rammed my shopping cart. He remembered me right away—I had worked for him a few years before, quitting
to hike the Resurrection Pass Trail, only to be hired back again, only to quit to kayak Prince William Sound. He eyed my meager
purchases and slyly mentioned a day shift opening. Would I be interested? I swallowed my pride, added three Mounds bars to
my order, and said I would. Then I drove home to share the good news with my soon-to-be ex-husband.
“I got a job,” I yelled. Barry grunted from the couch.
“Cool,” he said with disinterest. “Where?”