Tag Archives: memoir short

Dark Knights and Double Dates

The Dark Night

by Hope Madden

So many superhero movies right now! They put me in a nostalgic mood for that time, somewhat awkwardly and utterly unintentionally, I was a part of my son’s first double date.

I review movies, and Riley always enjoyed seeing the new blockbusters before his friends got to, which is why I knew without asking that he would go with me to screen The Dark Knight.

As I left for work the morning of the screening, I was under the impression that Riley and his buddy Nate, as well as my husband George, would join me at the Rave movie theater in Polaris at 6:30 for the screening. Halfway through the day, though, George decided he couldn’t back out of a softball game, so he’d have Nate’s parents drop the boys off.

But later I learned that I was going to become the fifth wheel of a double date.

This was a first.

It’s not as if things always have gone well when Riley and Nate saw movies with me. Years ago, at the Christmas with the Kranks screening, I left to hit the concession stand, only to return to find that the boys had given away my seat.

At another screening, maybe the second X-Men movie, Nate, Riley and I sat in the old Arena Grand Movie Theatre and tried to answer all the trivia questions during the pre-show entertainment. Because the boys were about 9 years old, I was kicking their butts.

Then came a question about which X-rated films had been nominated for Oscars. I mentioned Last Tango in Paris and Nate asked me about the film.


“Well,” I said, “it’s about a lonely older widower who develops a relationship with a much younger woman.”

I thought I heard Nate say, “That sounds like porn.”

“Oh, no,” I told him. “It’s not porn.”

A perplexed Nate responded, “I said it sounds boring.”

Long, awkward pause.

Then he said, “What’s porn?”

“Who wants popcorn, kids?!”

I’ve made other poor decisions when it comes to bringing youngsters with me to the movies. I once took my son’s entire Little League baseball team to the remake of The Bad News Bears. The problem, of course, was that the kids loved it; many have never forgiven me for my scathing review.

But the point is, I was used to hosting Riley and any number of his little friends. On the car ride home, there was usually some debate over how many stars a film should receive, which X-Man would be the best to have on your team (Mystique, duh!), and how much more grating the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants is when you’re subjected to it for 90 straight minutes.

This screening of The Dark Knight, though, would be different.

This time, Riley and Nate brought girls.

Things went well enough. Mainly because of Riley’s one rule: I may never speak to a girl.

I did have to listen, though, and I noted that Nate’s date does not like mashed potatoes. Maybe that’s not a deal breaker, but come on. What kind of sociopath doesn’t like mashed potatoes?

To be honest, given that the boy was 15-years-old at the time, I was lucky he was willing to be seen in public with me at all—caped crusader or no. And by the time the Christmas blockbusters came out that same year, there would be at least one licensed driver in this foursome who could get them to and from the movies without me.

But they were always late, so luckily they still needed me to save their seats.

Space Race

by Hope Madden

About three days a week you can find my family glutting ourselves on beans and rice at the Chipotle on the corner of Northwest Boulevard and Fifth Avenue near Grandview, Ohio. Oh, how we love Chipotle. Well, I love it. George indulges me.

Though the food is great, the parking lot is a disaster. It’s like an experiment in Darwinism: kill or be killed. Once we make it through the carnage outside, we eat in—no takeout for us. If we’ve survived the parking lot conquest, we’re not about to turn right around and surrender our prize. And though we know as well as anyone that you take your life in your hands trying to find a space during busier hours, that’s really not an excuse to use one of their two handicap spaces.

Sometimes as we eat we watch out the window and marvel at the number of people who pull into the handicap spot closest to the door and walk in to order. It’s like a revolving door for parking law violators: The minute one pulls out, someone else pulls in.

And then one day we witnessed a magical event, a marvelous comeuppance. A driver with a handicap plate pulled in directly behind the illegally parked car, blocking its exit. Our new hero just shut off the engine and came in to order dinner.

We were hoping for a show. What would the first driver do? Come back in and ask, table by tale, who had illegally parked behind his car that was illegally parked? Or would he just sit and contemplate his actions while he waited for the other driver to leave?

We didn’t get to see the outcome, but the mom in me hoped for the latter.

I do have some empathy for those Chipotle lawbreakers, though. I’ve done it myself. Not intentionally, but, in retrospect, how did I not realize that the space at Metro Fitness was designed for handicap parking? Sure, the paint on the blacktop had faded, but how often is it just a coincidence that the spot closest to the door is always open?

At one point a patron asked me if I realized I was parked in a handicap spot. This was when the illogic of the situation hit me, and I moved my car—and haven’t made the mistake again.

But still, it can be a mistake—unless there’s a big metal sign advertising the handicap space. For instance, not long after the Chipotle incident, we pulled into a BP so George could get air in his tires. Our son Riley and I sat bored in the truck while George went into the convenience store to get the hose turned on.

As he walked past a car parked illegally, he made accusatory eye contact with the passenger.

These handicap-space thieves at BP are particularly objectionable because they can’t possibly be doing it by accident. A metal sign stares right into the windshield. There’s really no missing it. In fact, the sign is so obvious that George—subtle as ever—had no trouble finding it to smack it with his hand as he stared again into the illegally parked car on his way back to the air hose.

At this point, it was on. The passenger jumped out of the car and yelled, “What, because you’re a man you think you’re better than me?”

Yikes. Riley and I rolled the windows down so we wouldn’t miss anything.

“Not at all,” George called over his shoulder as he headed toward our car. “I think I’m better than you because I don’t take up handicapped spaces.”

The scene was awkward, which seemed to bother George and this parking violator not one iota. They traded jabs awhile longer and, eventually, the woman got into the driver’s seat and moved the car to a more appropriate space. Situation resolved, mercifully, until the driver came out.

She looked perplexed at her friend, who got out of the car and explained, “Captain Penis over there made me move the car.”

I swear to God, that’s what she said.

Maybe it was his cape.

They drove off in a peculiar huff, but I was just glad it didn’t come to blows. George would never hit a chick, which means it would have fallen on me to handle the situation. I may have principles, but no traffic issue means enough to me to take a punch.

The Plumber

by Christie Robb

It’s entirely possible that I should not be allowed to own a home.

Perhaps my husband and I should have purchased a relatively easy starter home in the suburbs—something built this century. Instead, we bought a house that is nearly 100 years old with all the associated wear and tear that comes with age, and with a few bonus quirks courtesy of previous owners that were into DIY projects.

One of these quirks is the bathroom floor. For some reason, it sits nearly two inches higher than every other floor on that story. The bathroom is located on the second floor, directly across from the stairs, making for the occasional moment of terror when you get up to pee in the middle of the night and exit the bathroom forgetting about the extra two inches, stumble, and nearly pitch yourself down the stairs.

The house is also located in an older neighborhood, which is great in terms of walking destinations: coffee shop, taco place, single-screen movie theatre/bar. But the neighborhood also experiences a little bit of petty crime.

My husband’s car, for example, has been broken into several times, despite the booty being limited to (at best) a window scraper and (at worst) his used, sweaty gym clothes. The least lucrative theft was our City of Columbus-provided trashcan. It was exactly the same as every other un-stolen trashcan on our block, except for the gaping hole in the lid.

Which made it the worst trashcan on the block.

I guess there is no accounting for the thought process of petty thieves.

Recently my mother noticed that the toilet in our one and only bathroom was a bit wobblier than normal. She began a campaign of nagging me to call a plumber lest the wax ring seal around the base degrade and a whole mess of sewage infiltrate the floor of the bathroom and become a shit fountain into the kitchen sink directly below.

She had a point.

I called Bob the plumber and asked if he could check out the wobbly toilet and also deal with a slow drain in the kitchen sink that had stopped responding to my liberal application of liquid drain un-clogger.

Bob agreed and provided a window of time during which he’d come over. Anytime from noon until five PM.

Sigh. Even the cable guy thought this was poor scheduling.

That day it was bitter cold and had started to snow in the early afternoon. As I was home waiting, I felt compelled to shovel the walkway. But I convinced myself that as soon as I started to do so, the plumber would call to give me the half-hour heads up that he was coming and in my bundled up state I’d miss the call.

I failed to shovel the snow. Instead, I puttered around cleaning up the house, figuring that if I seemed to respect and care for my home, the plumber invited into it would respect it as well.

Bob pursed his lips at the sight of the two-inch elevation of the bathroom floor.

“How long have you owned this house?” he asked.

I reassured him that, although I have had the house for eight years, most of its quirks were due to the previous owner. I just haven’t bothered to fix them.

He plunked some dye into the toilet tank and suggested we check out the kitchen sink to give the dye a chance to potentially bleed out all over the floor and alert us to a leaking sewage issue.

I uttered a brief internal prayer and led Bob downstairs.

Standing over the kitchen sink, Bob used his cell phone as a flashlight and looked down the drain. He asked me how I used the garbage disposal.

I blinked.

It’s a garbage disposal. I reassured him that I used it for the usual disposal of the stray kitchen scraps that aren’t easily scraped off a plate.

It’s not like I used it to get rid of the bodies or anything.

He looked at me with suspicion and launched into a lecture about how you should really never use your garbage disposal for anything and if you do to make sure you run hot water through it for like solid ten minutes after. Then he opened the cabinet door under the sink and showed me a rusty connection where the garbage disposal motor meets the drain pipe.

“Yeah, this is about to become shrapnel,” he said, poking at the rust. “One day you are going to turn this baby on and the coupling will break and fly out into the kitchen.”

“Oh good,” I mumbled, imagining rusted metal shearing into my toddler’s face. She’s basically the perfect height.

I directed the plumber to the other side of the sink. The one with the problem.

He turned on the water and waited for it to slowly drain, then peered at it with his flashlight to reveal some brownish sludge. Bob told me I could have just dealt with it myself with a five-dollar plastic thing they have at the hardware store.

I could feel myself turning red. As he poked around in the drain with the five-dollar plastic thing that he had taken out of his pocket, I tried to explain that the slow drain wasn’t something I normally would call a plumber about, but that since he was already coming out and as I have a toddler and wasn’t planning a trip to the hardware store anytime soon…

Bob interrupted. “Did you know this basket strainer isn’t right?”

I attempted to assess how important it was for me to know what a “basket strainer” is and what constitutes a correct one. I figured Bob was describing the plastic thing that sits in the drain on that side and attempts to prevent food from washing down the non-garbage disposal side of the sink.

“What, like the weave of the mesh is too large or something? The other day a chunk of potato fell down that side and I really don’t think that should have been able to—“

Bob interrupted and pointed at the strainer. “No. It’s for a completely different sink.”

I peered at it. Now that he mentioned it, the color of the sink and the color of the strainer didn’t exactly seem to match.

“Huh,” I muttered. “Previous owners, I guess.”

Bob launched into a series of stories about hapless homeowners of older houses. At first, this seemed designed to reassure me. Like, all older homes have their issues and it’s ok. Then Bob started telling me about a lady who never drained her water heater and ended up with it falling apart due to it being filled up with layers of sediment.

I, never having heard of draining one’s water heater, gulped. Bob read my face and said that after we were done with the toilet, he would check out my water heater. My heart rate accelerated as I pictured my basement. The place where we had shoved all the breakable lamps to baby proof the house and stashed all the furniture to make room for the baby accessories and dumped all the baby accessories to make room for the toddler kitchen sets and bookshelves.

Plus there’s all that cat shit on the floor.

We went upstairs to look at the toilet. Thankfully the floor wasn’t dyed blue, so it seemed the toilet hadn’t been leaking, at least not that badly. Bob leaned over the toilet, placed a hand on each side of the seat and jostled it back and forth.

“It shouldn’t move this much,” he said.


“Is this your master bathroom?” he asked.

I replied that it was the only bathroom. Bob looked at me. I think he was trying to mask his pity, but he wasn’t putting a lot of effort into it.

Bob told me that if he removed the toilet he might find something unpleasant, like rotten subflooring, that might require a lot of fixing. And he hit the tile with his foot, pointing out the series of cracks in it that have only gotten worse in the eight years since we’ve owned the house.

“And I don’t trust this floor.”

I reassured him that I didn’t either, that I had always wondered why it was two inches higher than all the other floor, but that I really wanted the toilet fixed to avoid a shit fountain.

“Try to fix the toilet,” I said. “We’ll deal with what we find.”

I began simultaneously brainstorming how to fashion a makeshift toilet out of an empty bucket of cat litter and furtively googling whether “draining the water heater” is actually a thing people do or something the plumber was trying to upsell me on.

I tried not to think about what would happen financially if my husband and I found out that we’d need to gut the bathroom immediately instead of in a few years when we’d saved up the money.

I’m too old and uncoordinated to earn extra money on the pole.

Bob removed the toilet. “Actually it’s not as bad as I thought,” Bob started.

“Oh, wait.”

Moving the toilet itself off to the side, he shined the cellphone flashlight into the hole over which the toilet once stood.

“Look at this,” he directed in a derisive tone.

I looked and narrowed my eyes in concern. I had no idea what I was looking at. I wished my husband was home. Not because he knows anything more about plumbing than I do, but just for moral support and an extra memory to recall what terms we need to google later.

I still don’t know what was actually wrong. Something about flanges, diameter of holes, plaster and screws that were supposed to secure things that ended up being purely decorative.

Bob tutted and suggested various creative solutions for dealing with whatever the problems were. For the next hour or so he walked back and forth to his van, getting parts, trying them out, failing, going to get a different part, repeat, leaving the front door open every time with just the screen door closed.

I’ve got the type of screen door that has a glass cover I can pull up over the screen in the winter. Except it’s a little bit broken and we can’t pull up the glass to cover the top two inches of screen. So every time Bob left, frigid air would blow into the house.

After about the seventh time he came in, Bob noticed and said, “Your screen door is broken.”

I bowed my head in shame.

“Oh, and I’ve nearly fallen down your front stairs every time I’ve gone out. You should probably shovel.”

Eventually, Bob decided that the best plan would be to replace the wax ring and glue the toilet directly to the floor. “This isn’t a permanent solution,” he hastened to inform.

“Do it.”

Bob started work and I retreated to the living room to send out texts to all my home-owning friends and family to ask if they’d ever had their hot water heater drained and to google what a “flange” and a “gasket” were.

Hours pass. The husband and daughter come home. We have dinner. The plumber goes on a shopping trip to the hardware store.

I’ve not had a lot of water to drink, but I’m at the point where I’m starting to consider crafting the makeshift toilet out of the cat litter bucket.

It’s almost the daughter’s bedtime and there are still drilling sounds from the bathroom. We throw on another episode of Curious George. Plumber asks for some extra towels and a box fan.

I throw on another episode of Curious George, pray that my tired daughter doesn’t have a meltdown, and cross my legs.

Another episode past bedtime, Bob says he’s done. He lurches down the stairs carrying a large trash bag and sets it on the floor.

I whip out the checkbook I use once every two years and ask for the damage report.

Bob says that since it’s so late he’s going to charge me just for the toilet job and write out an estimate for the other stuff, which is great as I never agreed to actually pay him to fix the other stuff. He mumbles about a new basket strainer and coupling for the garbage disposal.

I mention the water heater.

Bob’s face lit up.

“I forgot about that! Let’s go look at that now.”

And he immediately turned toward the basement door.

I followed behind muttering excuses about how messy it is. My heart sank when I reached the bottom of the stairs to see that the cat had, once again, pooped all over the floor.

I pointed, defeated, to the water heater.

Bob gracefully stepped over the poop and inspected the tank. I peered at the basement as if looking at it for the first time.

Hoarders, I thought to myself.

Bob turned and asked where the main shutoff for the house is located. I looked around my basement at various knobs. I knew this. At one point.

I remembered attending our home inspection, and the inspector making a big deal out of the main shutoff. Maybe it’s this one knob, I thought, looking at a blue one. But then, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a red knob. I recalled the red knob having some sort of significance. Maybe I was wrong about the blue knob.

It was something that in normal circumstances I would have likely confirmed, either by asking my husband if he remembered, or by looking up my notes from the home inspection. But at this point I was tired, wanted Bob out of my house, was and doing a pee dance, so I pointed at the red knob.

I chose poorly.

Bob informed me that the red knob was actually the shutoff for the exterior water. He twisted the knob and lectured me about how it was freezing outside and I really should turn the exterior water line off.

I squirmed, shifting my weight to the left and right.

Bob asked me if I knew where my water meter was. Now, this I do actually know, but by this point, the inside of my head was filled with static and a high-pitched whine and I was minutes from wetting myself. I just said it was outside in an attempt to lure Bob out of the house so I could go pee in my newly glued-to-the-floor toilet.

Bob turned around and pointed to the clearly visible, somewhat enormous water meter. “This is your water meter,” he said.

I nodded and wished I had done more Kegels.

Kicking the cat shit out of my way, I led Bob back upstairs. I filled out the check while hopping casually.

Bob picked up his trash bag and asked where the outside trash was. He’d just throw the bag away on his way out.

“Actually,” I said, clearing my throat and summoning the shreds of my dignity, “I don’t have a trashcan.”

I pointed at the corner of the kitchen where I’d stored several stinky bags containing kitchen scraps and disposable training pants.

Bob lowered his contractor bag to the top of the pile, releasing the smell of rotten chicken parts, and fled toward the un-shoveled front steps.

He only slipped a little bit.

The Gimpy Groupie

by Hope Madden

My husband George has lived through several Duran Duran concerts during our marriage—one in 2005 at Vets Memorial, the other a few years later at the Schott. In both cases, he made a valiant attempt to get me backstage to meet the objects of my absolutely rabid adolescent ardor.

George, who works in radio, culled favors from everywhere he could think of: other radio people, record reps, anyone. No dice. I know why he was unsuccessful. Every living female between the ages of 40 and 55 loves Duran Duran.

Seriously, it’s a documented fact.

Still, it was a failure that haunted him until he made good on his wish one weekend in Chicago at the House of Blues.

Having a gimp for a wife didn’t hurt.

Saddled with a walking boot from the foot surgery I’d had three weeks earlier, I approached the concert hall with crutches and a pin protruding from one toe.

It’s a great look.

The folks at the Houe of Blues couldn’t have been nicer, especially when their elevator broke down and I had to take three flights of steps to get to the standing room only concert. That was a lot of fun.

To make up for it, a security guard escorted George and me to a bar at the back of the room where a private party was happening.

Nearby, we saw a line of people making their way up a back staircase. George knows how to sniff out a meet-and-greet, so he began to investigate. He felt sure that, atop those stairs, we’d find Duran Duran.

But how to get there?

I was hardly in any condition to be stealthy or to outrun security.

George politely questioned several people as they made their way down the stairs. Some shunned him, but he persevered and determined that, yes, the line led to a backstage meeting. And I gleaned from conversations around me that some folks at the private party had paid $500 apiece for the honor of meeting the band.

It may sound excessive to you, but not to me. Or at least the part of me that still remembers being 13 years old and willing to sell a kidney—perhaps even my own—to meet Duran Duran.

Finally, George approached a woman who will forever be known as My New Best Friend. She saw my pitiful condition and lent George her pass to see the band.


I hobbled up the stairs. No one stopped me. Indeed, people felt merciful over my trudging around crippled and offered me a chair.

I could see Roger Taylor from where I sat in the hallway, injured foot tucked safely behind crutches.

For those of you outside the precious D2 demographic, Roger is the drummer and second cutest bandmate.

His spiky brunette locks and playful pout adorned my closet door.

It hung just below my most beloved John Taylor (bass player, born Nigel John Taylor, 6/20/60 to Jean and Jack Taylor in the Birmingham, England suburb of Hollywood).

I was the band’s last photo op, and I overheard their dismay when they learned the news, “Just one more.”

“One more,” Roger near-groaned as he walked toward the door. Then he eyeballed the gimp in the hall and realized the special circumstances of which I was so gleefully taking advantage.

“Oh, hon, what happened to you?” he asked me.

Mr. Roger Taylor just spoke to me. My brain began forming words. The 14-year-old Hope thought: My poster is talking right now. The fully grown adult brain began pulling together a response. My brain said, “I just had foot surgery.”

My mouth, on the other hand, let out a string of sounds bearing no relation whatsoever to the English language.

He winced in knowing embarrassment for me.

I assume I’m not the first female wearing a Duran Duran tee shirt who’s been unable to respond properly to a polite query from Roger Taylor.

Simon (singer) put his arm around me.

Nick (keyboardist with heavy lipstick) hoped I’d heal soon.

John steered clear, smiling from a safe distance.

Still: Best Day Ever.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put my arm in a sling and research some Cory Hart concert dates.

Never surrender!

A Ghost at My Sister’s House

The story of Miss Hanes begins when my sister Julie Anne and her young family moved from a small apartment above a Toledo wicker shop to a charming old house in the suburb of Point Place.

It was a very pretty first home for Julie Anne, her husband Brett, their toddler Brenna, and their sweet but excitable Dalmatian, Gonzo. It offered a homey neighborhood and plenty of room for the family to grow. But there was always something off about the place.

Immediately upon moving in, my sweet baby niece Brenna began to take on odd qualities.

Odd, even for my family.

Brenna’d always had an almost eerie calm about her, even as a toddler, quietly observing with the hint of judgment. But somehow, in the new house, she seemed almost otherworldly.

Need an example? One of Brenna’s more unsettling games during this particular period was called Magic Fingers. It was a game of her own creation, where she’d cast a spell by wiggling her fingers above her head, chanting. After calling on the power of the magic fingers, Brenna would utter a command.

“Magic Fingers, make Hope be dead,” for instance.

At that time, I didn’t know whether to fear that some demon intended to steal my beloved niece or take comfort in the more realistic notion that Brenna would be the child who could summon and command the spirit world.

It wasn’t just Brenna’s unusual playtime antics, though. Things moved around the house. Not before your eyes, but objects just didn’t remain in the spot you remembered putting them or seeing them last.

This was particularly problematic for Brett.

Not long after they’d taken residence, Brett’s wedding ring came up missing. After an exhaustive search and a little drama, they replaced it.

He lost that one, too.

It was an ugly time until Julie Anne – doing laundry down the basement – found both rings on the floor under a pile of clothes. She handed one to her husband, who promptly lost it again. Julie Anne returned to the basement to check and found the ring right where she had spied it the last time – in the center of the basement floor under a pile of dirty laundry.

Had it been only the ring, well that would have been weird enough, but it wasn’t.

Items moved around Brenna’s room as well, winding up on surfaces too high for her to reach. The front and back door would be standing open, even if you were certain you’d closed and locked them. And worst of all, the dog refused to go into the nursery.

That is never a good sign.

Fascinated, Julie Anne talked to neighbors, who spun a yarn about a tragedy in the Hanes family, who’d lived in Julie Anne’s house a few years before.

A story emerged. The teenage daughter babysat all around the neighborhood one summer. She was well-liked by the area kids and their parents. She had a nice enough family, herself, although maybe a little strict, overprotective.

That might be why she decided to sneak out her bedroom window, across the porch roof and down the tree one night to meet a boy at the little wooded patch beyond the cul de sac.

Neighbors couldn’t remember whether her father claimed to suspect an intruder, or if he thought he was catching that boyfriend sneaking into his daughter’s room.

Or if Mr. Hanes was just a psycho.

Whatever he was thinking, Mr. Hanes shot his daughter. She never left the house again.

Now the troubled, lovesick teen wandered Julie Anne’s halls, stealing wedding rings and hiding them where Brett would never find them – under a pile of work needing to be done.















Little evidences of Miss Hanes’s presence filled Julie Anne’s house, from the bedazzled basement floor to the little knickknacks that moved around Brenna’s room – all harmless enough reminders that we were not alone in Point Place.

And then one night I would have more of a one-on-one run in.

My twin sister Joy and I were sleeping over, sharing Julie Anne’s bed upstairs. Julie Anne was sleeping with Brenna, and Brett was working the night shift.

It was late and Joy and I were both long asleep when I was roused by a stomping sound.

It didn’t wake Joy up. I lay there a while in the dark. The house was quiet.

Then I heard it again – it sounded like footsteps from above, which was odd because I hadn’t even realized that Julie Anne had an attic. Certainly, no one was walking around in the attic at this hour, but by now I was absolutely awake and a clear footfall could be heard coming from beyond the ceiling above me.

What could it be? I considered.


Nope, squirrels scurry.


Now that’s just idiotic.

How would a deer get into Julie Anne’s attic? 

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Ooooooh. I did not care for this. I shook Joy.


“Joy! Joy!”

Nothing. A sound sleeper, that one.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

I decided to ignore it. Maybe block it out. I landed on the age-old, truly courageous plan to roll over and pull the covers over my head.

I rolled to my side, facing Joy, covers in hand.

I tugged.

The covers would not move.

I really yanked them toward my head, but they wouldn’t reach. They were held firmly in place.

I tugged and tugged, but it was as if someone was sitting on the bed with me, sitting on top of the blankets.

I imagined her there, right behind me. Her bloody nightgown, her mournful face…

I looked at the peacefully sleeping Joy, the sister I was about to abandon to a ghost.

Then, without a thought to her safety or so much as a peek over my shoulder at whatever was back there sitting on the bed with us, I hopped up, stood on the bed, stepped over Joy and toward the bedroom door, and fled to the TV room downstairs.

And, like big, dumb Gonzo, I never went back upstairs.

Listening for Banjos

When our son Riley was young, sometimes – well, often – my husband George and I were those parents who had no idea what was going on.

We never quite figured out how other parents always knew about picture day, field trips, permission slips and other school-related whatnot. I’d have found those in-the-know parents irritating if they weren’t so helpful.

Usually, we’d be made aware of some impending deadline or event when somebody else’s mom brought it up at a baseball game. Such was the case with 4th-grade camp.

It was little second baseman Joe Trapp’s mom who asked, “So, is Riley excited about camp?”

Ick. What?

“Camp. It’s coming up. Don’t you have your paperwork filled out?”

I believe my disgusted face said more than just, No, I haven’t seen any paperwork.

“Oh, it’s so fun. He’ll love it.”

I couldn’t imagine why that mattered.

As an unwritten, shameful rule, George and I never let Riley do anything that kept him away from home for more than a single night. It wasn’t an overprotective instinct, really. We were just kind of sad when he wasn’t around. Life beams brighter when he’s on hand.

My oldest sister had harassed me for years to let Riley stay with her for a few days each summer. Her house is six whole hours from mine.

Screw that!

We were to relent in our smothering territoriality for 4th-grade camp, though. It was a mandatory excursion.

Still, there was a hiccup. Because of our situational ignorance, we’d let Riley audition for a play that rehearsed right through the week of camp. He was the lead in James and the Giant Peach, and he was not going to be allowed to miss a full week’s rehearsals.

So, he’d go to camp for two days, come home overnight (allowing for two rehearsals), and then return.

I’d fetch him.

The camp was situated in Hocking Hills, Southern Ohio’s little patch of Appalachia. For an awful lot of Ohioans, the word “Appalachia” conjures images of serene rolling hills, green and peaceful valleys, a restful vacation spot. But for those of us who log too many hours watching horror films, it means something entirely different.

So it wasn’t visions of sugarplums filling my head as I took the Grandview School bus driver’s directions in hand and set off to fetch Riley in time for rehearsal.

As a rule, I dislike any road that lacks the common decency to bedeck itself with streetlights. Sure, this trip into the holler back in the pre-GPS days took place in broad daylight, but that matters not.

It’s not just the dark that I hate.

It’s this type of street – invariably flanked by fields or forest or some other overwhelming, claustrophobic presence of nature where anyone or anything can hide and watch and wait and play a banjo.

Little did I know as I started off that late spring morn that the bus driver who’d written my directions prefers a scenic route.

I would later learn that a good old, reliable highway runs directly from Columbus to Hocking Hills. But I didn’t know that yet, so I was stuck with Bussy’s rural landscape map.

I followed one country road after another rural route and then back across the sticks when, without warning, the road closed. There was no detour, nary a two-story building in the town where the thoroughfare ended, and I had very few bars left on my cell phone.

I pulled into an abandoned Blockbuster Video parking lot and called the school. Time and bars were wasted as the school secretary found me a phone number for the camp, which I dialed promptly. It rang and rang without end.

Why was no one answering?

I called George, who jumped online to google map me up a new route. I could have turned around and looked for the highway, but I was so far away from Columbus by this point that he thought we should try to find a detour that put me back on Bussy’s route.

George began directing, but my brain filled with flies and wax at all these unmarked turns being recommended.

I wrote down his directions, but I panicked.

I called the camp again. Ring, ring, ring, ring….

Panic, panic, panic, panic….

I tried to push the image of a 4th-grade camp overrun with bears or hillbillies or hillbilly bears out of my brain and decided to walk into the intersection to get some thoughts from the cop directing traffic.

“Ma’am, you can’t just walk out here.”

“Yes, I know. I’m lost.”

“I can’t help you right now,” he told me, arms waving rhythmically so this pick-up truck or that would know who had the right of way at the construction-handicapped intersection.

“Right. But here’s the thing. I have to pick my son up from camp, and the only directions I have say I need to stay on this closed road for another few miles, until it crosses 97. Do you know another route to 97?”

He did not know, but he guessed that if I took the next rural route and drove a while, I might be able to find a country road that cut back across to this closed road before it intersected with 97.

Guessing, meandering, wandering, and hoping are not things I am prepared to do on rural routes.

I would rather be eaten alive by sharks.

I called George back, who, taking my own crippling handicaps into consideration (it’s kind of surprising I am legally allowed on the road, really, given that most of Ohio is rural), said the best thing to do was just turn around, come almost all the way back to Columbus, and then take I71 to Athens county, where I could stop at a gas station to determine the whereabouts of the camp.

I felt sure I’d seen that movie, too, but I love me some highway, so I did it.

I won’t say things went smoothly once I hit Athens County, or that I was in my most sound and socially adjusted mind when I found the camp and collected my boy, but the mission was accomplished and James made it to his Giant Peach on time.

How I Invented Catfishing in 1991

When I was a kid in the ‘90s, we used to receive disks in the mail containing access to free hours of America Online. My father, an early adopter of the home PC would not, at first, commit to signing the family up for dial-up Internet service, but he’d gladly hand over the free disks and allow me to hole up on the living room couch with a laptop that had the approximate heft and thickness of the era’s yellow pages.

I’d slide the disk in, and after a series of clicks and high-pitched whines, be connected to a world wide web of shit I did not understand. At least until someone called the land line and I got kicked off.

Dungeon and Dragons-based chatrooms with a degree of etiquette and formatting requirement that baffled me. Rooms of people complaining about their children. And a seemingly infinite amount of rooms where people introduced themselves with details about the size and appearance of their own personal genitals (or at least what they pretended were their own personal genitals).

I’d gamely try to play along, typing by hunting and pecking, misspelling almost every word and failing to keep up with the rapid-fire conversation of experienced typists all trying to find someone to bone or to at least facilitate some sort of masturbatory fantasy.

That is, until I was banned from the Internet.

When I was in the fifth grade, my mom decided to go back to school to get her teaching degree. As part of the curriculum, she had to take a class on educational technology.

Back in the ‘90s, I guess it wasn’t common for folks to have their own computer or access to the Internet, so the good folks at the education department of Northern Kentucky University gave all the students in the class their own Macintosh Classic IIs and access to Tristate Online—a local mini version of the Web provided by the area telephone company that consisted mainly of a series of bulletin boards on various topics.

As my parents were aware of my desperation to immerse myself in cyberspace, my mom granted me permission to use her computer and access Tristate Online, provided I waited until she was done with her homework.

Big mistake.

I invented myself a new persona. I’d be 25, since that was the oldest age at which a person could still claim to be somewhat cool. I would be the older sister and roommate of the person the computer had been loaned to. I’d be lonely (this part was true) and looking for love.

And I put myself out there. I found a guy (at least I assumed it was a guy) who was in college (at least he claimed to be in college) who was also looking for someone. And we fell into a fraught series of chats conducted asynchronously via a bulletin board.

He liked me and seemed to buy into the persona I had created despite the rather glaring evidence that I was a child, or at least someone who lacked basic spelling skills. (This was before spell check and I honestly believed that the word sugar had an h in it.)

Meanwhile, at my day job, I was an elementary school student at a Catholic school so cliquish that my only friend had been lured away from me with the promise of joining the popular girl’s group…if she was willing to hold one of the scrawny and unpopular boys down on the playground and bite his ear until it bled.

Much to my horror, she went for it, leaving me with a chip on my shoulder and a tendency to take my lunch in the nurse’s office rather than sit at a table alone.

I wanted revenge against these chicks, and the sad boy on the bulletin board seemed like the best way to do it.

I was in the middle of arranging our first date when my mom had to turn the computer back in. But I’d given out “my” address, or rather the address of the head popular girl. And “my” name, or rather, her name, and set the date for our first rendezvous.

And I went to school, eagerly awaiting the gossip of how her parents reacted to the grown man showing up at their house to pick up their fifth-grade daughter.

I was unprepared for the fact that I was going to be the kid getting in trouble.

One afternoon my mom stormed into my room and slammed the door behind her, her eyes already watering from a barely repressed desire to rage-cry.

“What did you do?” she seethed.

My eyes slanted toward the cushion under which I tended to stash bits of candy for later consumption under the covers after bedtime while reading illicit Stephen King novels.

“What?” I asked, all innocence.

“I got a call from my professor today.”

I may have quirked an eyebrow here. I can’t be sure. I don’t exactly remember at what point I developed the talent of the one raised eyebrow although I do know it was something I consciously worked at for hours in front of the bathroom mirror. Anyhow, I’m sure there was some sort of quizzical look shot in her direction.

“Some man contacted her trying to find my,” big pause here, “sister.”

“That’s weird,” I squeaked.

“As you know, I don’t have a sister.”

“Maybe they mean Kathleen?” I offered, her childhood friend.

“Apparently I have a 25-year old sister who is my roommate. This, this man was trying to find her. To. Go. On. A. Date. I had to tell my professor that the only other person who has access to my school computer is my 11-year-old.”

There was a lot of screaming and crying after this.

The downside was that I was banned from the Internet for approximately five years.

The upside was that I invented Internet catfishing in 1991.

Thanks to Rory Sheridan for the kick-ass illustration.

It’s Not a Vibrator

My First B&E

by Hope Madden

When my sister Joy and I were about eight, our next door neighbors, the Manns, went on vacation. (I’ve changed their names in case the statute of limitation on breaking and entering is longer than I realize.)

They unwisely entrusted another neighbor up the block, Vickie Carmen (also a totally fake and not entirely convincing name), with the key to the house.

Vickie was to pick up the mail and feed the cats. Instead, she chose to bring her older sister Heather, as well as Joy and me, into the house for snooping, eating, and the stealing of coins from a giant container on the washing machine.

Heather was two years older than Vickie, Joy and myself, and we considered it a terrifying honor that she played with us. She also smacked and bullied us, bossed us around, mocked us without pity, and tricked us into doing dangerous and idiotic things that would land us in hot water.

But it was Vickie you had to look out for.

Together one afternoon, we four wandered through the neighbors’ home as some might an archeological find, examining everything. We ate their chips. We thumbed through their records. We opened cabinets. We stole Corey Mann’s Barbie clothes.

We went into the basement.

It was with starry eyes that we spied that jug o’coins, and promptly filled our pockets, fantasizing about the booty we’d buy at Cook’s Food Store down the block.

I looked forward to Caramel Creams or a Milky Way bar – or both! – since I was now a professional larcenist and could live it up bigger than I ever had.

Vickie would undoubtedly begin by hiding beyond the freezers eating baby food with her fingers, as was her Cook’s food-shopping tradition. Then, who knows what that freak would buy.

I once caught her eating the skin she’d peeled from a sunburn. I swear to God.

Before plunging headfirst into our illegally appropriated candy binge, we eyeballed the rest of the basement. Eager as we were for a sugar rush, we nearly overlooked an antique piece of exercise equipment.

Unfortunately, I did notice it. Indeed, it took my fancy and I recommended that we investigate.

Connie Mann was the youngest mom in the neighborhood and she insisted on being called by her first name. She was different. She was better. Not unlike Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls, but I can’t remember whether she had the same affinity for velour.

Connie had one of those weight-loss machines you’d see in old sit-coms. It was the kind of thing that resembles a doctor’s office scale, but at the top is a big, white belt that loops around your middle and vibrates away the fat.

I don’t know what you call this piece of equipment.

I’m sure you don’t call it a vibrator.

Whatever you call it, we turned it on.

Heather took the first tour. The knobs rotated furiously back and forth, back and forth, causing the movement in the belt that would make you sound like you were talking through the blades of a fan but would not, I felt sure, whittle away belly fat. Only a proper diet and sensible exercise regimen can do that.

The mistake I made – I mean, beside the mistake of breaking into a neighbor’s house and wandering around the dark and potentially dangerous basement of a home that would remain vacant for another week at least – was in examining the knobs too closely.

As I looked down, one tenaciously rotating gear grabbed the tips of my waist-length hair, yanked, and almost immediately my scalp was pressing cold metal.

“Turn it off! Turn if off! TURN IF OFF!”

They turned it off. My hair was already knotted around the knob, my head tugged so tight against the machine I thought the scalp would tear away from my skull. I was trapped.

My friends’ faces were ashen.

There was a long silence, and then Vickie, inching up the basement steps, whispered, “Let’s go. Come on. Let’s just go.”

Attached by the head to a machine at least twice my weight, stooped to one side and crying, I couldn’t even clearly conceive of my plight. My mind swam in terror.

And they did leave.

I didn’t scream or even slump to my knees looking for a more comfortable way to situate myself around my new anchor. I stared at the concrete block wall and did nothing at all. My brain ceased to function.

I know me, and I am terrified of everything. It’s hard to imagine that I didn’t stare into some dark corner, sure I’d seen movement or heard growls – human growls – coming from the darkness behind me.

It’s hard to believe I didn’t tear myself free, running bloody and half-hairless back to my house.

I honestly believe I was more afraid of my mom’s reaction to my breaking and entering than I was to dying alone in a basement.

Lucky for me, though the Carmens may have been the kind of bitches who’d abandon you to rot in the basement of your neighbor’s temporarily unoccupied home, my sister isn’t.

She strode somberly up to my father – likely relaxing with a cup of coffee and an episode of M*A*S*H – and told him, “Come with me. Bring your tools.”

Simple as that. My hero.

Dad dismantled the machine and freed my head. The hair on the left side tangled to about 1/3 its natural length, and the scalp remained raised and bumpy for months. To this day my hair does not lay flat on the left side. But we never told my mom, never narced on the Carmens, never fixed the machine.

Maybe the mysteriously broken equipment drew the Manns’ attention away from all that missing change.

Magic Mushrooms

by Hope Madden

There was a time when, for at least a second or two, my boss thought I might have a severed human appendage in a filthy Kroger bag under my desk.

How did get myself into this mess?

I blame the mushrooms.

Each fall and spring I look into my yard to find that everything’s coming up fungi. During the moist, temperate seasons my lawn becomes home to the most heinous mushrooms you have ever seen. Their white 5 – 6 inch shafts end with a helmet-like, purplish brown tip.

Sound like anything to you?

Picture it, if you will.

Yes, it’s that bad.

And then picture a few dozen standing at attention throughout my lawn.

I never have seen this particular brand of fungus anywhere else on earth but in my yard. Lucky me.

They are upsetting to look at. Their unseemly appearance drives my neighbor kids crazy. One boy – normally sweet and smiley – cannot abide them. The minute he sees a bloom he gives it a swift kick.

Do you know what looks worse than a yard full of erect mushrooms?

A lawn littered with amputees.

I’m surprised the mailman will even deliver to our house.

I’ve tried to find out what type of mushroom they might be, hoping in vain to eliminate the fungus without killing my lawn. But they’re hard to describe if you’re looking for a serious answer.

The internet is no help at all. Type “mushrooms” into Google and you’ll come up with 15.1 million possible links. Narrow the search terms and you’ll likely get descriptions like “sexy science,” which, at first blush, looks like it actually might have the information you seek, until you realize the mushroom they’re talking about is only two inches long.

My mushroom is bigger than your mushroom.

Meanwhile, my husband, George, was doing his own sleuthing. He works for a radio station and, at that time, the station ran a gardening show on Saturday mornings. George emailed a picture of the plant to the show’s host for an explanation.

The host sternly responded, “I do not do that type of counseling. Try Dr. Ruth.”

I once had a colleague who believed, sight unseen, that these were the pre-bloom stage of a spectacular orchid. She advised me to dig them up and keep them in clear glass jars in my basement.

I appreciated the suggestion, but I feared what would happen on the holidays when all our nieces and nephews go downstairs to play ping pong and find a large collection of these severed appendages on my cellar shelves.

Merry Christmas, kids!

I’m creepy enough as it is.

Another colleague had run a landscaping business years ago and offered to take a look. She thought she’d dealt with the same lawn care menace once in a Dublin neighborhood. I bet it went over really well there.

So I dug up a sample and put it in a plastic bag to bring to work. But the stench! I hadn’t known about the odor – this is not the kind of plant you bend down to sniff – until I had one in hand.

It smelled exactly as I would imagine a severed body part left too long in a filthy plastic bag might.

My colleague was late to work and I simply couldn’t tolerate the odor, so I grabbed the bag to take it to the restroom garbage. Unfortunately, I ran into my boss.

“What have you got there?”

I wasn’t sure what would be more jarring and inappropriate, describing it or showing it to him.

I decided the least suspicious thing I could do was dash past him to flee to the ladies’ room, leaving behind a hideous stench. His horrified expression suggested that he got a glimpse of the package.

So that happened.