Mrs. Ajemian

Mrs Ajemian lived in a giant old house across the street from the apartment building where my mom and I lived in our decayed beach town. Through my nine-year-old eyes, she looked not just old, but ancient, like something out of a history book; this was possibly because she dressed like a character out of a Dickens novel. I went over there quite a bit until we moved because I didn’t have any friends— I had what my mother called fair-weather friends. My mother would say “why don’t you go over and help Mrs. Ajemian.”

She’d open her big wooden door and I could never tell if she was happy to see me or annoyed that I was there again. She wore slippers with big socks that sunk down around her ankles. Her legs had lots of brown spots on them. She had on a dress with small flowers all over it; I don’t remember her wearing anything else. On top of that was a sweater and on top of that was an apron with ruffled sleeves and a pocket that didn’t match. She had her glasses around her neck, but when they were on her nose, they sat there crookedly because she had what looked like bits of tissue wrapped around the nose pads. Everything in her house was worn-out and threadbare: paint worn off every corner, a bare path through every carpet.

Some days she would be sewing. Most of this was really mending now, but she told me she used to sew all her clothes. I can’t even imagine this. She had this kind of round muslin ball thing that she would use to mend socks. If she would have used the same thread color, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the sock had ever had a hole in it, but she had a whole shoe box full of odd threads and when she found one long enough, whatever color it was, that was the one. When something was finally too worn out, the buttons where put into a jar and everything else into a basket— these were ‘spare parts.’ If it was too worn out to be a spare, the last stop was a cleaning rag. Once, we cleaned windows with newspaper and vinegar. I tried this one time when I was all grown up, but all I got were two extremely black hands. Newspapers must have been different then.

The most amazing thing was how she could turn one chicken into a week’s worth of food. First, she would roast it in a pan with carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, and some other stuff that I didn’t recognize. Turnips, maybe? She would cover it with foil that she had washed and saved. She never threw out foil until it completely fell apart. Dinner would be the roast chicken with the vegetables. Then she would take almost all meat off. This would become chicken salad. She made a chicken salad sandwich for me once, but I didn’t like it at all— the bread was slathered with butter and the salad had raisins in it which I thought was super weird. I told her I was full, so she packed up what I hadn’t eaten in one of the bread bags with twisty ties she saved. She probably never had to buy a plastic bag. The rest of the chicken carcass went back into a big pot with some more stuff and boiled away until it became soup. She even rolled out her own soup noodles and cut them haphazardly; these would be rustic artisanal noodles now.

The only beautiful thing she had was a lace tablecloth. It had a few stains on it and some tears, but I remember it because she said her mother had made it and I couldn’t believe that someone could make something so intricate. She came from Armenia, and, as my mother pointed out, she and her husband arrived in America at the worst possible time: the dawn of the Great Depression. All she would say was “hard times, hard times.” I asked her about Armenia all the time. I probably don’t remember everything she told me, but I do remember three things: she didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they had to fetch water and use an outhouse, they didn’t have electricity, and their ‘car’ was a donkey and a cart. I didn’t realize until I grew up how ingenious (and of course eco-friendly) a life of scarcity had made her.

Everyone I have ever told this story to says they wish they could be like her but she was shaped by experiences I hope I’ll never have.

Copyright © 2017 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Oh, Christmas Tree

When I was little, I thought our Christmas tree was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I would just gaze at the shimmer and light. It had garlands of silver and gold tinsel, lights that looked like icicles, metal flowers, snowflakes, little churches, musical instruments… and a lighted tinsel star on the top. I never thought about it being fake; it was way too exciting. When my Nana got a tree made entirely of silver tinsel, I thought it looked so pretty at night with its blinking multi-colored lights. It was so futuristic looking.

When I got older, we stopped putting it up and I didn’t bother until I had kids. I don’t know if they were as besotted as I was, our tree wasn’t quite as over the top as the one I had as a kid. I had more of a woodland theme. But we had a train to go around ours, an O gauge version of the Polar Express.

That’s when the thinking started. The supposed reason for never having a real tree had been my allergies. A lot of inconvenient things got pinned on that. But every year I would look at it and my inner voice would always say, “why do you have that plastic thing that looks like a tree with stuff stuck all over it in your living room?” Sometimes I would imagine explaining the whole thing to a visiting alien and realizing none of it made sense. “Yeah, well, it represents a tree.” The solution, I was sure, was a real tree. To be really real you would have to chop it down on Christmas Eve and decorate it with real candles, but that seemed like a fire hazard even I wasn’t willing to go for. And we don’t live in a forest. So there it was, the real tree. It took a few days for my inner voice to gather its wits. “Why did you allow a perfectly happy tree, living its perfectly happy tree life in the forest where it belongs, to be cut down, put up in your living room and covered in all this ridiculous ornamentation so that it can slowly die before being tossed to the curb.” What? The voice worked this point until the whole thing was over. Fine, I’ll get a potted pine and then plant it after Christmas where it can grow and be admired for years to come. It took the Voice a little longer this time. I thought Ha! Never mock the Voice. “So you’ve brought this dear tree into your home and hung ornaments all over it? Yes, it’s true you are feeding it and using spring water, but how would you feel if I put you outside for a month and stuck stuff all over you? Hmmm? You no more belong outside than this poor tree belongs inside.” Do you have nothing positive to say? She hasn’t said anything about the snow globes or the nutcrackers yet. Maybe they’re safe. A German feather tree maybe? A fallen branch?

Copyright © 2016 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

The Rolex

When I was in my early twenties and working in New York, a friend was promoted, after reading a million scripts and fetching a million cups of coffee, to producer. Her reaction was the sudden urge for pearl earrings—real pearl earrings—and so she invited me to come with her to pick them out. I said, “Sure, why not.” We went to what was the hugest jewelry store I had ever seen somewhere in midtown. It was like Aphrodite’s temple with marble columns and chandeliers and everyone speaking in hushed tones one usually associates with something illegal. Way too much padding in the carpets.

We found the pearl area and help arrived instantaneously. We sat down on the plush chairs and the salesperson began to ask her questions about what kind of pearls she wanted; she explained that she wanted ‘classic’ pearl earrings. “Ahhh, I see,” he nodded his head. He then opened up some sort of suede folio and began speaking, slowly and softly to her like she was made of the same glass those bastard Christmas balls are made from. Did she want Japanese pearls or Indian pearls or Tahitian, and going into detail about the different origins, the latinate names of the oysters, the tragic stories of divers who lost their lives seeking their beauty… I’m starting to glaze over, so I get up and wander around; she is so hypnotized she doesn’t even notice. Anyways, I see they have a room that has a plaque with ‘Estate Collections’ engraved in gold curlicue lettering. I didn’t know this meant ‘used,’ but I started to kind of figure that out because everything was mixed together. I saw this watch and I thought it looked really—I don’t know, sturdy maybe—and it wasn’t flashy; flashier than my Timex to be sure, but not blinding like some of them. Bling wasn’t a yet word. Magically, a salesperson appeared before me. Is there a secret door in the floor? Where did he come from? “Yes, isn’t that a classic watch? We just got that one in yesterday, let me show it to you.” If your gaze falls on something for even a small fraction of a second they see it. They also make you feel like it would be really rude if you said, “No thanks, I’m just looking around.”

So he takes it out and he asks me if I’ve ever owned a Rolex before. I said no. I didn’t even know what a Rolex was. His eyes widen. “This watch is a tremendous value, the previous owners took great care of it; we have all of the papers concerning its authenticity from Rolex and if you purchase the watch the registration will of course be transferred to your name.” I was going to ask why it needed to be registered, but I didn’t want to sound, you know, ignorant. Shit. I’m trapped. “Can we see what it looks like on your wrist?” he said optimistically. “No, I’m fine, I’m just here with a friend who’s getting earrings and I was just wandering around, just looking, you know, around.” Will you shut up. “Oh that is perfectly fine, there is nothing wrong with looking but you are also perfectly welcome to try it on, there is no charge for dreaming.” Did he just tell me I can’t afford it?

When he puts it on my wrist, I catch a quick look at the price: $2,100. Dollars. I feel slightly faint. I didn’t pay that much for my car, plus the insurance, plus gas, plus a year of food. I have a car on my wrist. What could they possibly put in a watch that would make it more expensive than a car, a used car to be sure, but a whole car! The watch is heavy. He starts telling me the legend of Rolex, he explains that it is the Lady Datejust and, yes, that it is stainless steel and 18k gold and the lens is sapphire and it is kept in perpetual motion by the movement of my body. I really wanted to say, “Are you insane? There’s no fucking way I’m spending $2,100 dollars on a watch,” but then I remember he’s just trying to do his job, he probably has a family to support and a timeshare somewhere so I say, “Thank you so much for showing me the watch, but I’ll have to think about it.” With a teasing smile he replies: “Very well, my name is Lucien and it has been a pleasure talking with you today and if you have any interest in anything, I would be more than happy to show you, even if you are just looking.” He had a slight accent of some kind and he drew out every syllable. I thanked him again and said I needed to get back to my friend since I promised to help her. I backed out of the room.

She, meanwhile, had narrowed it down to two choices: “Should I go with the 4 millimeter or the 5?” I’m looking back and forth at them and for the life of me I couldn’t tell them apart, so I said the five. “That’s what I thought too!” While she’s in the throes of affirmation, out of the corner of my eye, I see Lucian coming towards me, he has the manager with him. Don’t ask me how I knew it was the manager. Lucian introduces the manager to me and tells him how the watch is perfect for me. Oy. And he, the manager, proceeds to tell me that they just got the watch in, it’s in excellent condition and they would like to extend a very special offer to me since I have never owned a Rolex before. It would be $1800 and they would pay for any servicing it would need for a year and this would be Rolex factory servicing, just in case I had any idea what they were talking about. They form a triangle with me. Why can’t I just say that it is an absolutely outrageous amount of money to spend when you can buy a Timex for ten dollars that does the same thing? And then Lucian hits the mark: “This timepiece will last you a lifetime.” He must have caught some micro expression on my face because he looked like he took a hit. So that is how I got my Rolex. Plus, I got another $100 dollars off for being a loyal customer.

 

Copyright © 2016 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

The Great Tidal Wave of 1974 (revised)

When I woke up I knew something was horribly wrong. I was in my bed looking at the yellowed plastic window shade flapping and making a thwacking sound; then it would get sucked onto the screen, then it was flapping again. I ran out onto the porch and saw the sky covered with grey clouds, completely covered. They were thick like the cotton padding in the first aid kit and they were rolling super fast across the sky. I looked out to the ocean; it was dark grey, but not the metal or the flannel kind of grey— more like grey mud. There were no waves; the sea was just kind of undulating up and down and it was up way higher than it usually is. That’s when I knew a tidal wave was going to hit really soon and wash everything away. I had just watched a TV show about tidal waves, so I felt pretty sure I knew what to look for; I vividly remember the promo for the documentary showed a ship being swallowed by the wave and then some big city being flooded. I ran to tell my mom—she was still sleeping— but she said we were not going to be hit with a tidal wave because we don’t have tidal waves here. She’s really gonna be sorry.

I ran downstairs to my friend Sheila’s apartment to warn her since they are on the first floor of our apartment building and they are sure to be in much more danger, but she wasn’t home. Maybe they already knew and left for higher ground, so I ran back upstairs. I decided I really needed to get ready for this. I searched the whole apartment before I saw my pink plastic bathtub from when I was a baby. It was filled with toys which I quickly dumped out. I could still fit in it—with some room for supplies—if I sat with my legs tucked up. I decided I would put it on the porch so that when the wave came, I could float out on it; I didn’t want to get stuck and drown in the apartment. Now I had to get what I needed in my boat quickly. I decided to pack a change of clothes, underwear, and an undershirt. I could wear my raincoat and boots and hold the see-through bubble umbrella Aunt Jean got me that was my favorite thing next to my Barbie Dream House. I decided on some band aids, since they don’t take up much room, one row of Ritz crackers, a grape drink, a can of tuna, and a fruit pie— which I didn’t really like because it had fruit in it. I also took one Barbie doll— which took me forever to decide on and then which outfit she should wear. I didn’t have a raincoat for her, but I had a kind of short shiny pink jacket and some little white boots. This was about all I could fit with me in my boat. I was ready.

I sat in my boat and waited; I put it so I could see the ocean through the rails on the porch. I waited a really long time, so I ate some of the crackers and drank a little bit of my juice. Then it started to rain; the wind was blowing the rain onto the porch and all my stuff was getting wet. I decided to bring the boat inside but keep it really close to the porch door so I could get out quickly. I stood there for a while, but I got kind of tired, so I decided to sit on the sofa and draw for a bit. I could still kind of see the ocean and keep an eye on it. My mom came out from the kitchen to tell me that she heard on the weather report that we weren’t going to have a tidal wave today, just rain and wind. I didn’t believe her; grown-ups always lie, always— and she would never tell me if something like this was going to happen anyways. Why would she? I waited and waited. I got so tired that I had to go to sleep. I tried to see if I could sleep in the boat, but my legs fell asleep first and I got pins and needles. Then I decided to lay on a blanket next to the boat, but the floor was super hard so I got in my bed. I decided to keep my boat next to my bed just in case. When I woke up it was almost dark. I was hungry, so I ate the rest of the Ritz crackers and finished the grape juice. Thank god I didn’t have to eat that pie. My mom came in and fished out the tuna. “How were you gonna open this?”

Even though this was a long time ago and I’m all grown up now, a small part of me always feels like some tidal wave is still coming. And I need to make sure I always have a can opener.

Copyright © 2016 MRStrauss • All rights reserved