The License Plate

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As Louis and I drove our 1993 Toyota 4Runner to the DMV, sadness tugged at my mind. 

“Do we really have to get California plates?” I asked. 

“Not if we don’t mind getting a huge fine for still having Montana plates after we’ve lived here this long,” Louis said. 

I knew that would be the answer, but I had to ask it one last time. I love the new home that we have recently moved into—a little gray house in a small city, within walking distance of Louis’s school, with a yard and a garage and a porch and room for Bella. I am happy here. But the Montana plates belonged on the 4Runner. They had graced the old car for thirteen years.

We made the mistake of not booking an appointment at the DMV, so we were there for hours. And at each station we visited within the DMV, we were told we’d have to turn in the Montana plates. 

“But why?” I asked Louis.

“I don’t know. I got to keep my Montana plates when I switched the Civic’s. I guess they changed the rules.”

One of the women at one of the myriad desks gave us a tool with which to unscrew the old plates and attach the new, and I lagged behind Louis as we walked into the parking lot and toward the old 4Runner. He bent to the back of the car and began to remove the rusted screws.

I was wholly unprepared for the tears that rose in my throat and dropped onto my face, and suddenly I was eight again. 

We got the new license plate for the cars. It isn’t that pretty. It is blue and white and has a skull on it. And snowflakes at the top, just three. The Montana on it is in big letters. Montana, The Treasure State, it says on my postcards. I am always looking for the treasures in the treasure state. And one of my postcards says Big Sky, just like it says by the skull. Big Sky Country. I think I like this cold scary license plate. It matches what’s happening right now: snow, lots of it. Dad parked the 4Runner on a snowbank in our yard and that’s crazy cool. I’ve heard it snows here in July some years. I love this place already, even though on my first day here I ran into a birdhouse and had to get two stitches. There’s a creek behind the house, and a field with a horse and donkey in it. I live in the country now. I am a country girl, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

And all those thoughts swallowed me. I knew that I could not give the plates to the DMV people, which were cold and scary in a completely different way than the license plate was to me when I was eight. 

“Geez! The screws are so old that they just broke in half.” Louis held the ancient screw so I could see it. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’m crying about this. But I can’t give the plates to the DMV.”

Louis looked down at the plate, and I noticed that the three snowflakes were not snowflakes at all. They were three 0s, for the year 2000. “We can ask them if it’s really necessary. I need a smaller tool for this, so let’s go in there and ask before we take the front plate off.”

Louis asked the woman what he had told me he would ask.

“You need to turn them in,” she said, her voice bored, a hint of annoyance slipping into it.

“But why? I’ve kept old license plates before,” I asked, angry now and trying not to show it.

“They changed the rules. You need to give them to me.”

Who are ‘they’? I thought, giving the woman my best I’m-trying-not-to-yell-at-you glare. I was afraid I’d cry again if I didn’t.

“Well, we can’t get the front one off. We need a smaller tool. Do you have one?” Louis asked. 

“We only have the ones we gave you.” The woman snatched the Montana license plate from Louis’s hand and let it fall to the floor like she was throwing a bag full of dog poop into a dumpster. It gave a sharp metal scream as it hit the concrete ground. “Don’t worry about the other one,” she said, so gruffly I thought at first that she was telling me snap my sentimental ties to the Montana plates. 

Louis and I walked outside once more. “What did she say about the front one?” I asked.

“That we can keep it. Let’s go—we have to find a shop. Half of the screw is in the hole and it won’t come out.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sorry for being all crazy about this. I just didn’t want to give up my last piece of tangible Montananess forever.” I had loved letting people think I was still attached to Montana in some way, loved smiling at other Montana-plate people on the freeway. That was over, now, but I had one plate to keep.

Louis looked at me and took my hand. “You don’t know that it’s forever. You might get a Montana plate again someday.”

He smiled, and so did I, and our common dream danced in our imaginations.

He gave me the license plate a few minutes later, a piece of metal rippled and cracked by blizzards and hail and sun and rain, by eleven years of fickle, beautiful Montana. And I hung it on the wall in our office a few days later, that I may never forget the eight-year-old girl and the eleven years that formed her into present-day me, that I may never forget our dream.

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Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant and the Not So (Small) Stories community! This week’s prompt is ‘memory’ or ‘dream’. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/27/small-stories-tenth-edition/  

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The Grapes of Wrath and Little House

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I strutted into my dad’s elementary school classroom in my blue calico Laura Ingalls Wilder dress with its matching red calico bonnet and apron with a Boxcar Children book clutched in my hand.

“How cute!” said a girl who looked a year or two older than I was.

“Is this your daughter, Mr. O?” another asked.

“Look at her clothes!”

I grinned, unable to keep my outgoing nature tucked behind my lips.

“Yes, this is my daughter, Laura. She’s here to read you part of a Boxcar Children book. Ready, Laura?” my Dad showed me to a plastic chair and I smoothed my petticoats and dress and sat.

“How old are you?” someone asked.

“Five…or six…or seven,” I answered. (Actually, I don’t remember which of the three ages is correct.) I opened the book to the first page and began to read aloud the Aldens’ latest mystery adventure.

*

I have loved to read ever since I learned how at four or five years old, and though the Boxcar Children books were high on my list of favorites, the dress I wore that day told the world what books had lodged themselves in the top spot of my soul: all nine Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I told people I was named for Laura. I wore that dress as much as I could—to church, to birthday parties, to my dad’s school, to my ‘log cabin’ (the underneath area of a bush-like tree in the backyard).

Though I have long outgrown the dress, which my mom sewed for me as a Christmas gift, those books are still my favorites, ever. I re-read them every year, from Little House in the Big Woods to The First Four Years, and my favorite book within this favorite series changes with my age. As a child, the first three books inspired me the most. As an older girl, On The Banks of Plum Creek. As a teenager, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie. As a young adult, These Happy Golden Years.

I picked up The Grapes of Wrath almost a month ago and trudged through the first fifty pages with low spirits. The book did not grip me immediately as East of Eden did, and I was worried that I would take forever to read it. But once Tom Joad found his family and discovered they wanted to leave Oklahoma and head to paradise California, where they could live in a white house with plenty of land and fruit trees in the yard, my mind became glued to the narrative. As the Joads purchased a jalopy and loaded it with all their belongings, much like the Ingalls family does with a covered wagon throughout the Little House series, I was hopeful for them, hopeful that they’d find something good in California, even if it wasn’t a white house.

But I didn’t know the extent to which they would suffer until I started down Route 66 with them and ached for each one of their losses and deflated dreams. The Ingalls children faced teasing for being ‘country people,’ and so did the Joads—but they were more than country people. They were Okies. Completely unwanted people not only in the land that held their blood and sweat in its red dirt but also in the land where they sought freedom from the tractors and corporate farmers and the poverty that gnawed the flesh from their children’s bones.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was that, once I got used to reading the Oklahoma dialect, I connected with the Joads and the other migrant people, and though much of their story is sad, the people find comfort in one another, “And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (203). The humanity that comes from the migrants’ realized fears and minuscule joys is the most powerful aspect of this book.

It was my first time reading The Grapes of Wraththough I stared at the original cover as framed in my local Barnes & Noble store each time I went to read books there as a kid. The image of the man looking out over a line of loaded jalopies, his wife and child by his side, stayed with me and contributed to my interest in this book.

And I loved it the entire time I was reading it (aside from the slow first fifty pages). I love it more than East of Eden. I am not sure why that is, but it is. I’ve heard people say they hate it, or were bored by it, but it pulled me to its people the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books did when I was young and still do today. I even think the book’s ending is hugely powerful, if strange. Those who read the book before me might understand that, might understand what the ending says about Rose of Sharon and about the Joads as a family.

I could have a discussion on this book all day long, but I’ll stop here and let you read it for yourself, maybe for the first time, maybe to see if it’s any good since you detested your first reading of it. Let me know what you think, even if you don’t agree with me.

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Laura

I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not So (Small) Stories this week. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/12/small-stories-eighth-edition/ I still haven’t figured out the pretty button picture…oh well.

Vienna Waited

I couldn't find a picture of me in Vienna in my iPhoto (I switched laptops since then so they're on a hard drive somewhere), so this is me near Salzburg. Still Austria!

I couldn’t find a picture of me in Vienna in my iPhoto (I switched laptops since then so they’re on a hard drive somewhere), so this is me near Salzburg. Still Austria!

When Billy Joel’s “Vienna” started to play on my square blue iPod nano, the mountains in front of me blurred. I was riding my mother’s road bike to my summer job at Burger King, and the air in the seven-mile stretch of Frontage Road I had to conquer before arriving on Bozeman’s main street brimmed with loneliness.

I faced eight hours of nodding as customers said with smug, clipped voices, “I need two Mocha Joes, three Whoppers, six large french fries…and I need a vanilla shake, as well. Oh, and I’m going to need six Cokes…” (Who really needs any of those things?) and eight hours of “Stop roaring into the drive-thru microphone. The manager’s going to catch you one of these times,” and eight hours of “Time to stock sauces, guys. And clean bathrooms. And wipe tables and sweep lobbies and sponge trays.”

I hated all of it, except roaring at innocent burger-buyers who came through the drive thru, listening to their bewildered reactions, and acting like I had no idea what “that weird sound was.” But my job wasn’t what made tears leak from my eyes.

I was in love with a boy who did not love me back. And I was fifteen years old. As Frontage Road dashed under the bike’s skinny tires, I began to sing with Billy Joel.

“Slow down, you crazy child. You’re so ambitious for a juvenile. But if you’re so smart, tell me–why are you still so afraid?”

The tears rolled faster now.

“Slow down, you’re doing fine. You can’t be everything you want to be before your time, although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight, tonight.”

A great bubbling gurgle rolled from my wounded soul to my throat.

“You got your passion, you got your pride. But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true. When will you realize…Vienna waits for you?”

A bellow split the birdsong as the tears became sobs. So alone in my world of woe was I that I cared not whether people heard me. “Vienna will never wait for me,” I whispered after the song ended.

_____

Four years later, I stood in the middle of a street in Vienna, Austria, and watched a string quintet play a thrumming classical song whose name I do not know. My traveling group and I had just enjoyed sachertorte (chocolate sponge cake, apricot jam, and chocolate icing) and coffee at an old Vienna coffee house. We were spending the evening wandering the streets, gazing at cathedrals and darting into glass shops and souvenir spots. As the cello and violin music gripped me and spun me about, I thought about Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” and, without embarrassment now that I was far from fifteen years old, remembered my weepy bike ride to Burger King.

The real Vienna had waited, after all. And though I was finally in Europe for the first time and had realized many dreams since that day on the road bike, I didn’t know what the rest of my dreams were, or if they would ever happen once I figured them out. I did not feel like Vienna had waited.

_____

Two years later, I sat at my computer and talked to a customer service agent from the Edison electrical company. I’d spent my morning calling the city to transfer water, sewer, and trash services from our landlady’s name to mine and my husband’s, figuring out how to get our dog, Bella, licensed to live in the town, arranging for a plumber to come unclog the sink, and learning how to get street parking permits for our cars.

The lady put me on hold, and I sat in the mess of paperwork and thought about how life had changed in the past year. I got married to that boy who had once not loved me back, finished school, got accepted to a school I hadn’t known was my dream school until I was rejected by what I thought were my dream schools, a school that would give me the community, environment, and instruction necessary for me to live my dream.

I—we—moved to a home with a yard, a home where our neighbors stop to chat with us, welcome us to the neighborhood, comment on Bella’s calmness and beauty. I thought about the support we had from our parents and was thankful mine had come for a writer’s retreat in a town an hour away only to do both that AND help us move all our furniture and unpack most of our boxes.

And gratitude rolled from my soul to my throat the way the tears of sorrow and anger had six years before.

“Vienna waited,” I said as the lady’s voice came back on the line.

 

Laura

 

 

A Rambling Recap of the Last Week and a Half

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Two Fridays ago, Nickel Creek’s music soared through my ear buds’ wires as I knelt on the carpet to polish the small wood table perched in between our recliners. I tried not to think about my hazy future, about the way neither Louis nor I knew if we’d been accepted to grad school and it was already almost May. And then my iPhone stopped playing Nickel Creek and started jangling its regular ringtone. Montpelier, Vermont, read the screen. Ice trickled into my legs. I frantically clicked the answer button and fumbled with the earphones.

“Hello? Hello? I’m sorry, I was cleaning my house and I have earphones in because I was listening to music…can you hear me?”

A woman’s voice. “Yes, I can hear you, that’s fine.”

“Okay. Hi, this is Laura,” I said, my heart galloping against my ribs.

“Hi Laura, this is the program director from the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.”

 

MFA programs don’t call a person to tell them they’ve been rejected. When the program director told me the faculty enjoyed my manuscript and essays and that they were pleased to accept me into the program, I very unsophisticatedly squealed into the phone. I had applied to the program, a low-residency MFA, on a last-minute intuition two days before the deadline, which meant I’d had to write a personal essay and a critical essay in one weekend—and I rarely do things last-minute, so I did my best and hoped it would be enough but knew it probably wouldn’t be. I was rejected to six programs in creative writing MFAs, which I now see I should not have applied to anyway. I write fiction middle grade and young adult literature, though I love penning nonfiction essays as well. The program at VCFA fits me perfectly, and my first residency is in July.

That same day, my husband and I learned we needed to move to Loma Linda, California, and that we’d be living there for at least two years, if not longer. Thus began the search for somewhere to live, and we had specifications: reasonable rent, a yard for my German Shepherd dog, Bella, who has lived with my parents since I left for college, and, if we could make it happen, a few more square feet of space. For three days, we found nothing. Condos and apartment complexes and mobile homes and regular home rentals are afraid of dogs who don’t spend their days yapping through houses, riding in handbags, or licking their owners’ faces. They are afraid, especially, of German Shepherds. Bella is calm, well trained, and good with people, but she is also cautious and protective.

Just when I lost hope of ever getting to have my own dog live with us and be our first baby, I found a landlord who loved German Shepherds and whose home had a gated yard. The rent was reasonable, there was a one-car garage, two bathrooms and bedrooms, and…glory of glories…a dishwasher. And this sweet woman offered to install a washer and dryer in the laundry room for us. We jumped on this God-sent opportunity and packed our things the next day (Wednesday of last week). We moved all of the packed boxes on Thursday, and my parents arrived on Thursday night because, a few months ago, my mom and I signed up for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) SoCal Chapter Retreat at a vineyard resort in Temecula, and it happened this weekend.

On Friday, my mom and I unpacked boxes and shopped for house decorations. My mom has the perfect eye for tasteful decorations, and we found this wonderful shelf at Target to make up for the kitchen’s lack of storage space.

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My dad and Louis took a U-Haul to the cottage and loaded our furniture and brought it to our new home, and after helping them arrange most of it my mom and I took quick showers and headed to the first day of our writer’s retreat, during which we got to eat refreshments and chat with editors from Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Farrar Straus Giroux. The next day we participated in roundtable sessions with the editors (editors from Henry Holt and Greenwillow HarperCollins also came to the event), listened to Lin Oliver (SCBWI’s co-founder and executive director) share her wisdom on writing for middle grade readers, had a lovely mother-daughter lunch at the Vineyard Rose Restaurant, absorbed editor talks on how to improve our work, and so much more.

We commuted an hour from Loma Linda to Temecula for each day of the retreat, and shortly after we returned home from the second day, our kitchen sink clogged and Bella got herself sprayed by a skunk. These two events happened almost simultaneously. And since it was dark and the skunk smell smelled really weird and un-skunky for a little while, I put my hand right on Bella’s damp face and smelled my hand, which smelled like mashed vegetation mixed with skunk. I probably held skunk liquid right in my own face, because today we’re pretty sure it was a skunk. We had no hydrogen peroxide and were ready for bed, so I rinsed her with baking soda and shampoo and water and hoped for the best.

The next day my mom and I attended the retreat’s last day, and we arrived at the vineyards early enough to stroll, enjoy the hot air balloons hovering over the rows of vines, and take a ‘vineyard selfie.’

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We said goodbye to the wonderful writers and editors and event hosts at noon and promised ourselves we would return next year, and then we met our men at an Indian restaurant for lunch. Now my mom’s on her way to pick up my Chinese sister Wendy from the airport (she was a foreign-exchange student a few years ago, but she’s family to us), and my dad’s staying here until Tuesday. He and Louis are getting Louis’s new lawn-care equipment set up, and other things are falling into place: the washer and dryer come next week, the Internet people arrive on Tuesday, the landlady’s calling the plumber about the sink tomorrow, and I bought hydrogen peroxide and washed my stinker with it, baking soda, and dish soap. I pretended we were just playing with the hose, but she thinks I spent too much time just scrubbing her skin. She’s ignoring me in this picture and pining for the world beyond the little black barrier (a.k.a. skunkland).

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My life has become busy again, a different, delightfully tiring busy. I go to Arizona this week to see Wendy and more of my mom (yay!) and get to hang out with my dad on the drive there. I’m glad I came to accept the slow, unsure pace of life that came before this, because now the madness is marching right along with me on its back, and I love it. I love it. I’m grateful for my husband and parents, because together the four of us have made moving quick and almost easy. I’m thankful everything has fallen into place—it won’t always be this way, and I am going to enjoy every moment.

 

Laura