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HPIM1667.JPGThe Dying of the Cotton

“Dude, I think that you need a cat.”

Those fateful words were uttered in the middle of another sleep-deprived Colorado night back in the year of Ought-Four. My redheaded lady friend at the time – now my sweet wife – was the utterer. The ancient timber walls of the rancher’s cabin that I lived in were alive with mysterious activities. Every night, the dance of the deer mice began somewhere in the vicinity of the headboard of my double bed, then ran a hidden course that looped all the way around the small cabin in a loud circuit. Small shadows darted about the pine floors. Food supplies, both human and canine, were regularly attacked. The constant scurrying had my old dog Bear in a frenzy of frustrated patrols.

The last straw came when, lost in a pre-dawn codeine stupor while fighting the lingering Crud, I awoke to the tapping of a clammy nose upon my feverish cheek. Cracking one bloodshot eye, I made out the hazy image of a ragged-looking mouse sitting up on my chest. He was holding the keys to my truck in his outstretched hand. “We’re gonna take the Ford for a spin up to the Cardamone place. There’s a mouse party goin’ down up yonder…Cheese, milk, cereal by the barrel…the whole nine centimeters,” the rodent said nonchalantly. “Thought that you might want to know that you’ll probably be late for work today. We’ll be back around 11… Ish…” it added.

“Ohhh. OK. Thanks…I guess. But hey…can you put some fuel in the truck? I’m almost out,” I replied. My head was woozy. The room was spinning. “Sure, sure, bub. We’ll “put some fuel in it” the mouse retorted with a sarcastic wink and the flicking of his rubbery paws in the universal sign of mocked quotation.

When I emerged from my narcotic slumber it was past noon. I looked out of the window and saw that my truck was parked halfway into Miss Carolyn’s prized azaleas. I looked down at the kitchen floor and was not surprised by what I saw. At least a baker’s dozen mice were passed out haphazardly on the linoleum, smiles cast on their milk-stained faces, yellow curds clutched greedily in their awful paws. “Bear! Get em!” I shrieked. The half-Shepherd, half-Chow, half-human leapt into action from his nap at the foot of the bed. The mice all sat up slowly, watching his progress across the 10 feet that separated them with bemused looks, not unlike Monty Python’s French castle guards. Bear growled fiercely as he narrowed the gap, and was about to tear into the mess of them with a year’s worth of pent up, stolen-Alpo doggie fury when the entire stoned colony of mice bolted in every direction at once. All of them, that is, but one.

The Bear stood above him snarling like I had never seen him snarl before – well, other than every day the UPS man comes by that is. But rather than cower at the sight of the relatively enormous monster before it, the mouse produced a tiny white glove from beneath it, methodically straightened out each of its fingers, and then rudely slapped the menacing dog once each way across the nose in rapid succession before hopping off towards a large hole underneath the sink cabinets. Just before it vanished into its hole, the mouse looked back at the two of us, both frozen in stunned silence, and flipped us an exaggerated, arched back double bird, then wheeled and slipped into the darkness. We were still stilling there in frozen astonishment when we saw a creepy ribbed tail emerge backwards from the hole, followed by a hairy rat’s ass. Then, preceded by a discernibly gross, cheesy fart, and there before Jah Rastafari, Bear Anderson, and a shelve full of shocked-looking antique action figures, the Francophile mouse shat a row of shining black poo pebbles onto the kitchen floor. Prior to that moment, I did not think it possible for a dog to wince, but it became clear to me then by looking at the pained look on Bear’s face told me that it was indeed Time To Get A Cat.

Two weeks later, almost as if on cue, a mixed litter of black, white, and grey barn kittens were born in a loft of the ranch where I lived. My girlfriend (and now my wife) had by then moved into the 500 square foot cabin, along with her three beloved ferrets, and was insistent that we claim one of the litter when they were old enough to leave their mother, Muffin.

I had never owned a cat. Never really been around cats other than one that my roommates had in college – an orange tabby named Goat who mostly lived outside with the chickens and the couches. My parents had never had a cat, and I am fairly certain that their parents hadn’t either. I generally mocked those friends of mine that had cats as being soft. The concept was totally foreign to me. But Sharon had grown up with cats and after her own run-in’s with the mousey mafia that ruled our roost, I was assigned, literally, a tiny, bright-eyed white kitten with snappy black patches on its face and one paw and a long grey-stripped raccoon tail.

We brought him into the cabin and Sharon, her ferrets, Bear and I all watched in awe as this little furbearing rocket flew around our house, leaping from dresser to the bed, from the bed to the door sill, performing consistent acts of gravity defiance. Our neighbors Adrian and Susan came over to check on the brother of their two kittens, Pancho and Lefty. We all sat in a circle watching the kitten frolic, drinking Tullamore Dew scotch whiskey from the bottle, and pitching names for the thing. It was Adrian, a native North Carolinian like myself with deep roots across the south, who came up with the name that stuck: Cotton. I would later add an unofficial prefix to the name – Rotten.

Days turned into months and Cotton steadily grew from his initial miniscularity into a fine looking full sized cat. Within weeks of his arrival into our little cabin world, our mouse problem had ebbed into just an occasional brave (or stupid) loner who hadn’t heard the news: There was a new sheriff in town, and he wasn’t taking any prisoners. I have never seen Bear more happy. Finally we could all sleep in peace, except for the occasional sudden midnight flurry, usually followed by a contented sounding CRUNCH CRUNCH from somewhere in the kitchen area. One morning I awoke to find the cat in his customary place –lodged like a shiv, forming a perfect dividing line with the Bear dog between Sharon and I. I was stroking the soft fur on his head when my hand coursed over his face, where something tangibly out of place found my touch. Bleary eyed, I sat up and peered over at him. Sticking out of his smiling mouth was a tiny white glove. Cotton had found his true calling at a very young age. We should all be so lucky.

II.

Cotton lived what I imagine to be the most happy and fulfilling life a cat can hope for on the Shipp Ranch for several years prior to our 2005 move to the clean (but busy) streets of Carbondale, Colorado.  In the winters, he curled up and lounged with us in the cozy cabins. When the snow melted enough that his paws would tolerate the frigidity of the earth, he booked it for the pasture fences, where he would stalk the rails in a low crouch, feeding on a veritable Arc of wildlife – field mice, rabbits, birds of a hundred feathers, lizards, snakes, and the occasional Formerly Sentient Being To Be Named Later.

Despite the anti-camouflage of his stark white coat and his daring do in a heavily hunted predatory zone, Cotton survived and thrived at ranch life. He outlasted his mother and the three of his litter mates that were kept on the ranch, all of whom were picked off by a particularly wily pack of coyotes, though he regularly came home with fresh scars that foretold of difficult battles with larger mammals.

The move to our new townhouse was a blessing for Sharon and myself. We finally had our own place, along with the room to spread out a bit that any co-habitative long-term cabin-dweller eventually yearns for. The “kids,” however, seemed to lose a little bounce in their new city lives. No longer free to roam wide pastures and open space, and confined to the house for fear of the many cars and trucks that buzzed our neighborhood, Cotton and Bear both whined and whimpered at the front and back doors of the house, often one at each, an achievement of stereophonic guilt.

Eventually, we relented. With his regular, mournful moan becoming intolerable, and after a few long man –to-cat talks, Cotton was given the run of Barber Drive. It was not an easy decision. The irony of the name Car-bon-dale was not lost on me. We knew the possibilities that his street walking might bring. In the end, we figured that with the ideal life that he had already led, he deserved a chance to go out (in this case, literally) on his own terms. Survival of the fittest, carpe meow, all ‘dat…

I was not surprised in the least that he took to the dangerous city streets as easily as he did to the predatorily hazardous ranch trails. He was the quickest cat I’ve ever known, with extra cat-like agility. Regularly I would be sitting on the back porch overlooking the hubbub of Hendrick Drive when I would see a white flash emerge from underneath a parked car, dash across the road comfortably ahead of oncoming traffic, and disappear under the cars and trucks parked across the way. And, ever evening, just like clockwork, when the wife or I would go out on the front stoop and clang a tuna can with a wooden spoon, here would come Cotton, just as dirty and bloody and happy as ever.

III.

It was three in the morning in Posen, Michigan when polite knuckles rapped on the door of Sharon’s childhood bedroom door. I was there to meet her parents and multitude of strapping, protective-looking siblings, and, if everything went well, to ask her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Bleary eyed from the late hour and the gallons of pilsner consumed earlier at the bonfire meet and greet, we heard the voice of Sharon’s mother, Rita. She sounded concerned, but ever so politely. “There is a girl on the phone for you Corby. I think that she speaks another language. She wants to talk to you,” she said. Her tone worried me. Her tone worried me. There are, after all,  very few potential positive outcomes when a French woman calls your girlfriends parents house in the middle of the night of your engagement party asking for you.

Thanking my future mother-in-law, I took the call. “Zee cat, eez squieeeshed!” said the voice on the other line. I recognized it to be that of my TV station intern, Cecile, a Frenchwoman who was at our house watching the animals for us. “Zee cat! Eet eez squished…oh no I feel zo tereeebley!” she said again in a Franco lilt. “Eer. Talk to zee veterinarian,” she said sadly, pronouncing every syllable of “vegetarian” with utmost care.

The vet got on the phone and told us that Cotton had been ran over by a car. He said that Cecile had brought him in that night, but that he suspected the accident to have happened earlier, maybe a full day earlier. She had found him after hearing a low moan outside of our bedroom window – usually a sound only heard coming from Peeping Juan, the town pervert. “He doesn’t look good. He’s got a broken leg and pelvis. We can’t know of the internal damage to his organs until we get into surgery,” he said calmly. “I need a credit card for that,” he added.

Sharon was listening over my shoulder. She started to cry, which in turn made me tear up. I repeated to her what the doctor was telling me. She cried more. So did I. “How much is it?” I asked, pondering the impossible question that faces every pet or car owner: how much is your old friend, your family member even – life worth?

I am not a rich man. Never have been. Hope to be someday, like most probably do or should, but at that time to say that my finances were limited is an understatement. The vet told us that while he couldn’t be sure what the total costs might be, depending on the injuries found in exploratory surgery, he thought that $3000 was a good number to start with. The number hit both of us like a brick. When he added that “even with surgery there is a very good chance that Cotton will never walk with his back legs again,” I felt a whole wall of bricks tumble down on my suddenly saddened brain. “Or, I could put him down in a painless procedure. That costs about $200 bucks.” More bricks.

We asked to have a minute to discuss the decision and told him that we would call back in a few minutes. We called Carolyn, the owner of the ranch where Cotton was born. Carolyn Shipp possesses a unique combination of qualities: great empathy towards all living creatures, along with a Libertarian sensibility when it comes to business. We gave her the facts. She paused. Then she told us what we knew in our hearts already: with no easy way to pay and no clear promise of recovery, we should let the vet euthanize the cat.

Fighting back tears, I called the vet back. “Doc, we have to let him go. For all of the reasons discussed before. I need you to ask Cecile to hold the phone up to Cotton’s little ears so that I can say goodbye.”

“Well, if THAT is your decision, then I’ll just see what I can fix and put him up for adoption,” the veterinarian replied unexpectedly. “Excuse me? Did you just sa…” I stammered, shocked. “Yes you did. I’ll repeat it. If you are asking me to put this cat to sleep, I will not do it. I will fix him and then adopt him out to a caring family.” Silence. The weird silence of slow motion bricks tumbling down onto more bricks.

I threatened to sue right then and there. “I’ll have your fucking license for this stunt!” I yelled. Sharon sat amazed, sad. The veterinarian tried to explain what he meant. I countered and shut him down. He tried again. “I’ll tell you what. Let me see what the injuries are and we can figure out the payment later,” he said, humbled. “Well, obviously if he can be fixed, fix the boy. But I ain’t able to pay that kind of money, nor will I, after this bullshit phone call,” I iterated. It pained me to argue for the death of a good friend, but there were principles at play, and I am, if anything, a man of principles. We agreed on surgery. I was connected to Cotton via cell phone speaker to cat ear. “Hang in there buddy. We love you. Bear loves you. Doc’s gonna fix you up good,” I said, expecting that would be the last time I spoke to him. He did not answer. I thanked Cecile and tried to explain to her that she was in no way responsible. I asked that she take care of the dude the best that she could if he made it out of surgery and that we would be home within four days.

I hung up, and we stayed up the rest of the night fretting for Cotton’s life and deciding whether to drive home in the morning or to carry on with our trip as planned. There were elderly grandparents to visit with yet, and I still had a secret, seriously convoluted engagement plan complete with documentary film crew, special after hours private tour and post-yes (I hoped!) catered dinner in a historic lighthouse on Mackinac Island to see to.

To all of our excitement, except possibly Cecile, who had to nurse a partially paralyzed cat for several days, Cotton came out on the topside of surgery. The car had indeed broken his rear leg and shattered his pelvis, but other than a bruised spleen and a hernia, his internal organs had survived intact. Cecile told me to stay on and to go through with my engagement plan/scheme. By the time that we returned, Cotton had graduated from dragging himself around our condo with his front paws to gingerly walking. It was a miracle of sorts. I had condemned a dead cat to being deader. He not only survived being hit by a car, but my own execution order. We kept him inside after that.

IV.

Two years later, on the last days of the year 2007, our herd moved from the frigid winter chill of the Rocky Mountains to the relatively balmy climes of Monterey, California. I wanted to write a book and to find a way to advance my career in media. Sharon wanted to study dentistry. Bear and Cotton wanted some space. Off we went, into the maw of a massive winter storm, our lives jam packed into a U-Haul truck and chase vehicle.

We wound up in a wonderfully spacious ranch-style four bedroom house in the old Army base town of Marina, formerly Fort Ord. The house had a large fenced back yard AND a large fenced front yard. The neighborhood traffic in rural California was perplexingly, and blessedly, light compared to that of the small mountain town in Colorado from whence we had migrated. An enormous sand dune and the four-lane Highway 1 embankment was all that separated us from the glory and danger of the Pacific Ocean. At night we could sit INSIDE the house and hear the ocean roar. Birds were everywhere, much to Cotton’s satisfaction. From little sparrows to cormorants, seagulls to Snowy Plovers — you couldn’t toss a sourdough crumb without a dozen flying creatures clamoring over the score.

After a few weeks of beach life, it was decided that Cotton would once again be an outside cat. Maybe the calm, serene atmosphere of fog and ocean breezes got us to lighten up, or maybe the cats own outdoorsy personality and the telepathically transmitted insistence of his innate need to be Out There won us over, but out he went. Right away he picked up his hunting and general carousing as he had before. His street smarts were evident immediately. We watched him gracefully maneuver Brookside Place and the surrounding feeder roads. Maybe it helped that there was less traffic. Maybe it was that the roads there were built wider enough for three tanks to drive parallel to one another and still have room for a fleet of jeeps to be parked on either side of the road.  Perhaps or boy, by now known affectionately as “the stupid cat” had learned a little something from his run in with the Michelin Man.

Whatever it was, he had the outside cat game fully wired now.

Though fixed, and not necessarily burly by cat standards, Cotton fought like a wildcat with the neighboring cats until it was clear by the noises of each scrap and by Cotton’s studly saunter while leaving each catty scene that he had ascended to alpha of the Brookside pride. He had girlfriends at seemingly every house on the block. When he came home and did not eat his food, we worried some, until we were told by several neighbors that he was wont to visitation and meal privileges in several neighborhood households. He and his buddy, the Bear dog, now visibly aging, tag teamed the local bird population. Not a morning went by that I did not hear my wife’s sing song voice emanating from the living room. “See the birdies?” she would say in her best baby mama voice. It nearly brought the house down every time, with both cat and dog howling in agreeance while clawing into the glass door. Oh, they saw the birdies alright.

Several months later we brought home a soul who was unwittingly to become Cotton’s best friend and worst tormentor. Hondo the dog was born in a Missoula, Montana English Shepherd puppy mill.

It was on New Years eve later that year when I was to realize the sordid nature of his origins, but I should have known. The breeder’s business was called Shady Lane Puppy Farms.  We had looked around all over the regional papers for a pup from this particular breed, but finally were forced to ship Hondo in from out of state. He arrived at the San Jose Airport in a plastic and steel dog crate. He was tiny and scared and visibly confounded by his plight. To comfort him, I had brought along a film crew to document our meeting, along with large photo print outs of his new family. “This is your mama,” I said, holding up a photo of Sharon to the open crate door. He stayed cowering in the back. “This is The Bear, your new brother. He’s the best dog ever,” I said. A tiny, fuzzy black, brown and white painted ear perked, but that was it. “And this, this is your kitty,” I said, holding up the 8×11 color photo of Cotton. YAP! The pup snapped out of his apoplexy, rushing forth to sniff the photo. HIS kitty. It was love/hate/terror/love at first sight.

V.

My intended mission for Hondo was for the youngster to grow to be my old boy Bear’s friend and understudy as he entered his golden years. And while he took to that role with a natural canine camaraderie (though his herding instincts kept the aging Bear on his guard for sneak attack “drive bys”), it was the depth of his friendship with Cotton the cat that surprised us all.

The two were fast friends, literally. Cotton was prone to the “midnight zoomies,” a crack head-like spasmodic reaction to God-knows-what provocation. As a night owl myself, I grew to appreciate these impressive displays of deep-night random energy and strange feline athleticism, but the same cannot be said for Hondo.

Hondo is a weird sleeper. He splays out upside down like a hairy, de-shelled turtle. Cotton seemed to time his evening calisthenics to just about the time that Hondo would grow bored with my Sportscenter fixation, roll over and grunt himself to sleep. Then, with a punk spirit, the Goddamn Cat (Hondo’s words, not mine) would deftly launch himself from the top shelf of the couch down onto the sleeping dogs’ exposed belly, touching down only briefly enough to gather himself and steal a quick catty sneer at the startled pup, before bounding off down to the deck and sprinting off around the far reaches of the house. The poor dog, of course, had no chance. There was no catching a hyped up barn cat with rascality in his blood and evasive maneuvers woven deeply into his sinew.

VI.

We moved a total of four times during the Reign of Cotton. The third and fourth moves were rapidly stacked together, with (thankfully) just two months internment in the California Dutch hellhole known as Ripon, California.

That was the amount of time it took to kill my best friend Bear, who was riddled with two types of cancer and held a fragile football-sized tumor in his poor belly, contract a persistent case of walking pneumonia, pack our beach house up, move the family to Ripon to take a job writing for a couple of TV food show producers who turned out to be the sleaziest, heartless, lowdown scum sucking dirt bags in the history of an industry rife with sleazy scum suckers, drop off the family at our new house before promptly jumping on a plane to the Super Bowl in Dallas for work, find out that my dear Grandma had died in a fall, succumb to the gathering sickness in my hotel room, be excused to go home, fly to the funeral, deliver the eulogy, return to my new home to find out that I was fired, and spend a month looking hopelessly for work in a recession-ridden Central California town that neither Hitchcock nor Steinbeck could have dreamt up.

In that time, Cotton seemed resentful of our move to inner-suburbia. His forays out into the neighborhood were forbidden, as the traffic was regular and the bird-loving neighbors overt enough to let on that cats don’t last long in their hood, a comment that seemed to have nothing to do with the pace and regularity of the traffic and much to do with their Taj Mahalesque bird mansion that measured 25 floors and covered more lawn space than a live oak.

So, instead of his jocular life of outdoor adventures, he was cooped up, whiny, and dispirited. Not even a chance to have a go at the upturned, snoozing pup seemed to rile his mischievous instincts. Gone were the midnight zoomies. Instead, he slept all day, and moaned pitifully at the foot of the door all night.

VII.

Thankfully, fate intervened. One morning, as I teetered near my breaking point in Ripon following an ugly encounter with the neighbor over her perfidious threat to call the cops on us to have my old, temporarily dead 1972 Chevelle towed away as a neighborhood eyesore, I got a text from Dan Shipp, the Mississippi lawyer who owned the Colorado ranch that Cotton had been born on. “What y’all doin?” he asked in his trademark gentlemanly draw. “Pondering a good, old fashioned neighborly fire bombing, to be quite honest. As my lawyer, what kind of time do you think I’m looking at if I torch the neighbor skank’s bird castle?” I replied.

He must have sensed the mounting frustration in my voice, because within minutes he had offered us the chance to move back to his ranch to the little old cabin that we had lived in years before. Within 24 hours we were packed into a 21’ U-Haul, had accidentally knocked off the birdfeeder while backing the attached Chevelle-hauling trailer out of the driveway, and had abandoned uncaring California for the open-armed Colorado. As soon as we had negotiated our long-haul truck and trailer down the narrow dirt road that leads to Shipp Ranch, Cotton began mewing uncontrollably, sparking a mystified Hondo to follow suit.

VIII.

Back on the ranch, Cotton quickly regained his mojo. Now an adult, his mousing skills had sharpened to the point of mastery. Soon, he graduated to squirrels, then small rabbits, along with a steady stream of birds. To supplement his diet, he would throw in a green snake or two a week, a horrendous habit that he seemed eager to share with us by way of dragging the live, squirming snakes into the window before releasing them on our bedroom floor for further examination.

For these field hunts, he often teamed up with his uncle, a grey Maine Coon known as Mister Tigger. It was not unusual to see the two of them stalking a pole fence, one on the top row, and the other on the one below, each crouched low as they scanned the pasture grasses for prey. Inevitably, a family brawl would ensue over the prize, with Cotton regularly pummeling a cat so legendarily tough that it was fabled to have once fended off a coyote by blinding the dog with a vicious frontal Ninja-cat attack.

At long last, Rotten Cotton was back in his element, living what is surely the dream of all cat – wandering open country that was filled with feline delights, dominating the neighboring competition, then returning home to the small cabin at night to curl up under the tall legs of the old wood stove to slumber until his next adventure.

IX.

It was early spring when I got the call. I had started a new job with the local community college, and was in a meeting when my phone buzzed in my pocket. The number was not one that I recognized, but it was local so I decided to excuse myself from the meeting and see who was trying to reach me.

Though I deigned to admit it, I knew the reason for the call even before I answered it.

Cotton had been missing for four days. It was not unusual for him to stay out all night, but he always returned sometime early the next morning. This time he had not. His colleague Hondo had been wandering around for most of a week with a worried look on his brow, standing by the door looking out at all hours of the day, whimpering a bit at night. He eagerly sniffed the bushes on the mountainside beside the cabin on hikes to look for Cotton, both of us quietly hoping not to happen upon any soft white fur, soaked in red.

He was old, Cotton was. Near nine by now. Maybe he wandered off to die, I told my wife in an attempt to reassure her against the doom that we felt looming each night that he did not return. “No, he was fit and healthy. He’s been eaten. I’m sure of it,” she lamented. “Fucking coyotes…” She muttered. I kept a rifle at the ready, in case revenge opportuned.

Just in case, I made a sign and posted it on several power poles around the ranching community where we live. “White male cat with a grey coon tail. Goes by the name of Cotton, missing since Sunday,” it read. I chose two of my favorite pictures of Cotton for the sign. One was a shot that showed his full body, for identification purposes. In that shot, taken in the pitiful Ripon days when the one bright spot in our lives was the addition of a comfy leather couch that we purchased with money sent to us after my Granma’s death, Cotton lay splayed out on the top of the new leather couch, straddling the couch top like a horse saddle. His white fur glistened in the photo. His grey and black-streaked ears perked up and a quizzical look etched on his face as I stood behind him flipping him the bird. It was my way of warning him not to scratch our one good piece of furniture, which, amazingly, he never did.

The other photo that I included on his want ad was one taken in our condo in Carbondale, soon after he had miraculously recovered from being “squeeshed” by “zee car” and then doomed to the vet’s eternal needle by me, before being subsequently saved by the bungling vet.

This photo featured a close up of Cotton’s face as he worked his way into a bunch of historic peacock feathers given to me as a gift by author Hunter S. Thompson’s wife that I kept on my desk. The luminescent green-gold-purple eye of the peacock feather juxtaposed perfectly with Cotton’s own golden eye. The image represented to me everything to loved about the Stupid Cat: his indomitable curiosity, his penchant for adventure, and his mellow, kindly nature. He was not a bastard cat, whining for his way all of the time, clingy or spiteful. He was there when you needed him. Except now he was gone.

The caller asked if my name was Corby. He paused for a second. I studied his voice. It was oddly distressing. My legs gelled.

“Do you own a cat? A cat named Cotton?” he asked. My heart leapt and sank at the same time. Maybe…Maybe he had found the cat sleeping off a big, chipmonky meal in his barn? Maybe he’d finally found his lady cat and set up shop somewhere down the canyon? The possibilities raced through my head, quickly drowning out the budgetary thoughts that had been lingering just moments before.

Cotton had lived through many near disasters. He’d been raised on a ranch surrounded by coyotes that picked off all of his many relatives, hit by a car, condemned to die, and ran the high-traffic neighborhoods of California like a boss. Of lives, he knew many. But surely he had one good life left?

My mind churned through positive outcomes. The caller continued. “I’m…uh. Well, hell, son. I’m not sure how to tell you this…”

 *Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who works from the rickety loft of an old cabin in Emma, Colorado. His stories can be found here, as well as at corbyanderson.wordpress.com, Flipcollective.com, The Aspen Daily News, Monterey County Weekly, Canyon Country Zephyr, and BEER Magazine (the Playboy of beer rags), among others.

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Ponder, for a moment, the lowly, oft-used, at times abused, everyday fixture of metabolic necessity – the toilet. It is, of course, a receptacle for all of your cast-off humanly bile and toxic waste. The toilet, or commode as it is known in the south, or shitter, as we lovingly say in the trades, has the singular distinction of sanitarily disposing of an entire species’ collective excrements. Over the years, it has also been the unfortunate splash landing spot for some of my dearest possessions:

Phil the Hermit Crab

My misfortunate, gravitationally-challenged relationship with the toilet started at a young age. Barely past the potty training stage, I was faced with the horrifying act of having to ship my beloved first pet, a  Hermit Crab named Phil, off to greener seas after he/she had made the awful decision to exercise his/her only form of self-defense against the tender skin of my brother’s scrotum.

As unenlightened children, we had for some reason engaged in a form of crustaceous Russian Roulette: taking turns sticking Phil down our pajamas in a timed contest to see who could handle the tickling of his shelly phalanges the longest without screaming. It was after bed time. The lights were out in our room, but this grand scheme had our competitive juices awash with muffled laughter.

The game went on for several “successful” turns, each of us enduring Phil’s weird traverses in our underoos…until disaster struck. In a shocking turn of events, what I had assumed would be some fun, cage-free exercise for my buddy Phil quickly turned into a nut-pinching fight for life that woke everyone in the house after the previously docile crab unexpectedly clamped his formidable left claw on Brody’s testicular region.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the sensation of having your gonads savagely scissored by an enraged sea creature, but judging from my brother’s reaction, it is scream-inducing unpleasantness.  Thusly ensnared in a bony, serrated vice, Brody emitted a sustained, high-pitched primal howl that I have since only heard in Tea Party conventions and small-claims court.

At the beckoning of Brody’s shrieks, my parents came bursting into our room, expecting the worst. Bewildered, they found us gripped with fear and screaming bloody murder. After ascertaining that I was not the afflicted one but rather suffering from empathetic emotions, my father set upon Brody to save him from some unseen demon. “What is it? What in Jehovah is going on?” he demanded. Biting both lips at once, tears pouring down his cheeks, the eldest Anderson son gingerly lifted open his drawers and pointed down to his nether regions with a quaking, inconsolable finger. “Ffff..ffff…fffil got his nads, Dad!” I yelled, reporting for my shock-muted brother.

The Phil Removal Project was quickly underway, and I will spare you the details due the graphic nature of the operation. For the sake of educational purposes (should this savagery ever occur to you or your own bright-minded progeny), I can report that the operation took no less than the use of a D-Cell flashlight, a rusted pair of my grandfather’s carpenters pliers, a jar of salt (Mom’s theory, relating to slugs), a wooden stick from the backyard (for Brody to clamp down on), a splash of hydrogen peroxide, and a large, perhaps overly-gluey Band-Aid.

Phil, mangled from battle, was handed to me to dispose of by my perturbed Dad. The toilet and the mysterious waters beyond offered the only thing close to Phil’s native habitat for which to reintroduce him into the wild. So, accompanied by a river of mournful tears, and with a splash pattern that would make a Chinese diver proud, I cast my best friend into the wilds of the Contra Costa County Sanitation System.

R.I.P. Phil.

Superman Toothbrush

Some time had passed since my sorrowful goodbye to Phil when I was again broken-hearted by dropping a vital possession into the toilet. I was ten then – old enough to have collected a few prized items of my own that did not also belong to my brother. One of those was my electric Superman toothbrush. I may have been a wee little feller and mostly reliant on my parents for food and shelter, but dammit I had electric Superman toothbrush, and together we could conquer the world!

It was near bedtime and I was “scrubbing my pegs,” as my Dad always called it, a strange term for dental hygiene now that I think about it, since at no other time in our youth did he utilize pirate-speak. Like all ten-year-olds, I was excited to get the actual brushing behind me so that I could go read more “Choose Your Own Adventure,” books.

It was in this Adventure-bound frenzy that I found myself rushing Superman’s main chore along. A quick lap around the gums was all that I had time for. As I wheeled to grab Dad’s Listerine off of the shelf next to the toilet, I somehow loosened my grip on ol’ Supey. Down he went, spiraling through the air like a buzzing, spitting, super heroic depth charge. I noted the unchanging, goofily grinning expression on Superman’s plastic face as he broke the water’s plane and slid down along the bowl into the muck that I had as yet neglected to flush.

It was at this time that I chose to let loose an undeveloped but aspirational string of 10-year-old swear words that would have made a drill sergeant blush with shame. Coincidentally, it was at this time that my live-in, elderly grandmother decided to check on my progress. Needless to say, Superman did not make a heroic return to the sink counter. Much to my chagrin, a well-used, tooth-marked bar of soap did, however.

The Only Expensive Pair of Sunglasses That I’ve Ever Owned

You know that predictable asshole named Murphy? The one with all of the Laws and the sick sense of humor who comes around to mock your regular inability to spot malady even when it is barreling down on you like a stroked-out trucker? I do. All too well. He nearly blinded me in 1998.

I was a lift operator at a ski area in Colorado, “living the dream” after my college years. Twenty-five-years-old, criminally handsome (so I’ve told myself), living on a half of a rotten couch for $200 a month, surrounded by impossibly beautiful mountains, adventurous women and piles of mostly illegal intoxicants.

The inevitable late nights of our ski bum existence always seemed to bleed directly into the next far-too-early morning, usually before light actually arrived, when we had to meet our snowmobile hop up to the bottom of the ski lift to start our work day. The sustained lack of appropriate sleep, combined with eye-reddening substances and the brutal glare of sunbaked snow made having a strong pair of sunglasses a vital necessity. Losing or breaking a pair was akin to jabbing yourself in the corneas with a flaming marshmallow stick. So, even though I made a total of somewhere south of seven dollars an hour at the time, I decided to throw down for the latest, most expensive pair of shades possible – a stylish pair of Bolle’s that ran me a season’s worth of oily tuna cans.

Being most of the way up a 12,000 foot mountain and far from a sewage system, the facilities at the bottom of the High Alpine lift consisted of a horrible smelling, freezing cold drop toilet. Using the head was something that was to be avoided at all costs. Everyone on the mountain ate the same disgusting processed food diet, and it proved out in decomposition stage. “Holding it,” was a way of life. Thus, the locker room facilities were often equally destroyed on a daily basis once everyone skied down at the end of the day, but at least they cleaned those. Poor fuckers…

As Murph would have it, you can’t always hold it, especially after consuming half my weight in malted barley and free Crab Rangoon (Phil’s revenge, I called it) the night before. So, off I went, bracing myself with a makeshift turtleneck gas mask to enter the lair of an assy beast.

Now, the thing about a homemade outhouse on the side of a mountain is, there isn’t much light to see your way around with. They were built with as little ventilation as possible, so as to contain the olfactory demon within. After all, nobody wants to pay $80 bucks to ski Aspen only to have their sense of smell permanently deadened by the gaseous emissions of lift-operators. Most days I considered the lack of light a blessing, given the god-awful creature that lived down below the wooden rim. But on this day, proud of my brand new sunglasses as I was, I decided to keep them on rather than stow them away on the bill of my hat. I figured they might work in tandem with the turtleneck mask and form an impenetrable shield against the evil that lurked in the High Alpine shithouse. Also, I was lazy.

Somehow I managed to find myself in proper unloading position without the benefit of illumination. It was on the hasty dismount that I ran into trouble. The elastic suspenders that normally held up my ski pants formed a sproingy lasso when unleashed, and when I stood to quickly evacuate the premises, they wrapped themselves around the iron toilet paper holder, yanking me violently around with enough force to lose my footing on the snowy pine floor.

I landed in a twisted heap on the shithouse floor, face-first on the brink of the death hole. My Bolle’s went hurtling down into the pit, forever sealing them in the mud of a thousand poo’s.

Dazed and dejected, I extricated myself by kicking out the shitter door, crawling to a blinding freedom. I was greeted with a chorus of bellowing laughter from my fellow crew members and cheers from the skiers who were craned around from a half dozen chairs, rising into the skies from the base of the lift.

Later, at the end of the ski season party, I was presented with a pair of sunglasses that were made out of duct tape and cardboard toilet paper rolls, upon which someone had written “Bolle” in fine black marker along the sides.

Cell Phone

Generally, the “five second rule” only applies to non-sticky food stuffs that have been dropped on a relatively clean floor. In some dire cases, this rule has to be applied to items that are both irreplaceably expensive and vital to your working life, such as my first iPhone.

Like many people, I enjoy good reading material when nature calls. It is an unscientific fact that the act of reading ushers along the biological process. In the past, I would go to great lengths to procure reading materials of any kind prior to heading for The Loo. But that was before Steve Jobs made all of our lives better by giving us unlimited options for restroom infotainment, all in a smart little box that fits in the palm of our hands.

And while the iPhone is a brilliant package of mystifying technological magic, I found out the hard way the one thing that it is not, is waterproof. So, when my entire working and social world made that inevitable, ironic plunge into the Bakersfield, California In N’ Out toilet after slipping out of my breast pocket during an unfocused attempt at flushing, I was faced with an unpleasant, split-second decision. Perhaps you’ve been there yourselves, and can empathize with my plight.

Despite what most of my former employers, girlfriends, and teachers would say about me, I consider myself a Man Of Action, an unflappable beacon of pragmatic agency. It is only due to this inner-Chuck-Norris that I was able to utilize my cat-like reflexes and follow its course immediately down into the water and fish my phone out of the fast food restaurant commode before the shock waves that its splashdown had created in the bowl allowed the traditional contents there within to recede back to their former resting places.

Just as quickly as it had entered the toilet, it exited, along with my hand, which did not escape as unscathed as the fetchee. Into the sink everything went for a wash. Fortunately, the In N’ Out had both paper towels AND a power blower, which I promptly forced into sustained usage.

I was just about satisfied with my efforts at drying out my afflicted tele, contemplating where I might find a bag of dry rice at midnight when the bathroom door swung open. It was a pimply kid in a paper hat, peering in on me with one crooked eyebrow, his foot holding the door wide open to the full dining room.

“Dude, are you number 130?” he asked hesitantly. I stared back at him from underneath the blower. “Your order is up and we thought you disappe…,” he added, pausing when he saw my phone in my hand below the air dryer. His oily head tilted to the south momentarily, and then his eyes lit up with delayed recognition. “OH SNAP!” he shouted, snapping the fingers on both hands at once for effect. He was laughing now, his voice rising and squeaking in a crescendo of pre-adolescent dynamic range. “Did you drop your PHONE IN THE CRAPPER!? Dude, that SUUUCCCKS! That happened to my toothbrush once!”

 

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Uncool Takings

By Corby Anderson

Eyes raw and spackled with cat hair, my mouth ravaged with an unknowable and toxic combination of the previous night’s gustatory insults, I wandered into the kitchen for a glass of water. Relatively speaking, this morning watering was the most important thing in the world, you see.

I crossed the kitchen linoleum one slow inch at a time, so as not to upset the booze-rattled inner ear. I reached into the cupboard, fingered the handle, and leveled the old mason jar to the cold water tap that fronts our refrigerator, and when the glass had filled to the rounded top, I claimed my blessed prize in great gulps.

As I drank of Mother Nature’s joyful tears, it occurred to me that something in my immediate surroundings was different. I glanced around. The walls were still painted in that sickly green foam color that our senile landlord named after herself. The cabinets were the same, as were the duck-themed curtains that my wife had hated but installed anyway after their much-ballyhooed presentation as a wedding present. It all looked the same, but something felt slightly amiss.

Down the street, a dog yipped — probably Ron Rivera’s dad’s cockerpoo –setting off a major quake that split viciously down through my grey matter. Holding my head together, and sipping my salvation, I studied the fridge — that oblong container of abandoned condiments and foreign cheese which, other than as the place where half-eaten boxes of white rice go to wither and die, serves as the artistic and archival hub of our household.

The walls and face of our fridge were barren and devoid of life. No pictures. No yellowing strips of newsprint with dumb headlines (“Brown Eyed in Acorn Probe” or “Satan lifts Flyers over Avalanche”), no early Crayola works of a future Master. Not one.

The stark white face of the Kenmore was a clean and unmanaged as a newborn’s conscience. No wet or smiling dogs, no super-soaking river wars, no camping sing-alongs, no shotgun weddings, no monochromatic sunsets, no bluish snorkelers holding hands underwater atop a dumbfounded turtle. Not even a random familial babe.

Fear T-boned my gut like a herd of rollerblading rhinos in a Chinatown alley. What was wrong? What had I done this time? I had just awakened on the ten-minute couch, but that is not illogical, or un-normal, for that matter. On certain nights of folly and mirth, I’ll claim the couch rather than roust the wife. Why wake a perfectly good sleeper, a far more innocent soul, with my rambunctious sleep-bound gyrations? It was late when the garage concerto came to an ugly head — at least 4:30 a.m., and there had been a half-hearted push for our heinously pickled band to head for the beach to gander at rare winter waves and a pissy, rising sun. But I do not believe that this meteorological mission occurred, judging by the lack of sand in my beard.

Why on earth would someone come in and steal all of our photographs and carefully vetted fridge magnets while leaving me utterly unscathed, I wondered: Had I ordered a new icebox in my stupor, one exactly like our old standby, but without the memories attached? Montel’s juicer, maybe. Likely, in fact. But no calls to Sears or Home Depot rang any bells. I had not won any bets, that I could recall. Nor had I lost any, at least none that required forfeiture of my magnetized collage. To the best of my knowledge, I had not made any donations to charity, unless you count Berto’s Beer Cave and Corner Market register No. 2 as charity.

But the receipt jammed into my chest pocket said nothing of photographs. Only a 750 milli-something jigger of Jagermeister, eighteen Coors Lights in can formula, a set of dominoes, seven Lucky Seven lottery scratchers, a gross of tequila-flavored beef jerky, several pairs of plastic sunglasses, a pack of Marlboros, Snickers bar, Snickers ice cream bar, tub of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, and ten gallons of low-grade diesel, which in hindsight is interesting because I think that I know for a fact that I did not drive to Berto’s, and even if I had, I do not own a diesel. Nor do I smoke. Much.

The things that go through your head when you are dying of thirst and your very past has been erased! Like mercury through a colander, my mind raced from nowhere to nowhere, coming to all conclusions at once. Robbed. Stolen. Targeted by some unknown syndicate. Maybe I was dead. Maybe I was someone else.

The chilly fridge water coursed down my singed gullet, easing the reflux, slightly cooling the kettle below. I studied the rectangle that stood nakedly before me. White skin, stretched square. Too white. Too square.

Suddenly, more than anything, even more than the water I had finally won, I wanted to have a round refrigerator. And not just circular. Round. Orb-like. No, not like an orb. Round. Let’s see the bastards try and strip my fondest memories from that, I thought. No one would dare molest a round fridge. Even hardened thieves would draw that line. It would be too weird and difficult to attempt. Like necrophilia. Or cricket.

My cell phone was dead, the life sapped right out of it by a pervading, innate laziness. So much for “smart phones.” Phones should know how to charge themselves by now. It’s 2010, ferchrissakes. Enough with all of these obscure plugs and tiny cables.

To hell with it. I grabbed the wall phone and dialed 911. A lady answered, sounding uncertain and tired. “I wanna report a theft!” I shouted. “Oh yeah? Of what?” “Whaddya mean of what? My goddamned pictures of my goddamned life. And the magnets. The fuckers took the magnets too,” I continued. I looked again through nuclear eyes. The Space Ghost magnet was indeed missing. “Aw…holy hell, my God. The fiends took Space Ghost!”

 

The line was quiet. Too quiet. I listened to see if she was calling in the APB somewhere in the background. No radio chatter. Nothing but dead air. Then I heard a faint sound. It sounded like someone snoring lightly. “Hey!” I shouted. “What the hell is this? First my house gets invaded, and then the cops ignore me? Are you fucking sleeping? I’ll have your badge, you reckless ditz!” That oughta wake her ass up, I figured.

“Corby,” she said, finally.

“Yes! Yes … that’s me. It’s about time. I’m over here with criminals running amok, bashing in doors and stealing magnets and … hey … howdidyouknowmyna …”

“This is your wife. I washed the fridge last night. The pictures and the stupid magnets are in the basket by the door. Come back to bed and stop making such a fucking racket!”

 

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My walkin’ stick

*Note – This shortie was submitted to Outside Magazine for their Reader’s Essential Gear section of their upcoming 35th Anniversary Issue.

Of all of the various and sundry piles of adventure gear that I have owned over the past 40 years, I can think of no other that I absolutely feel naked in the outdoors with than my walkin’ stick.

Yep. You heard that right. Not my trusty Sierra Designs Meteor Light tent, with hundreds of nights to its register. Not my Benchmade knife. No, I’ve had others just as sharp. Not my Petzl headlight. It’s a replacement to the original one that got hucked into a frenzied crowd of a Mother Hips show in Big Sur during the devastating breakdown to their song “Magazine.” Not my Marmot puffy, Patagonia Micro Puff, or any of those things…

I cannot, would not go out in the outdoors without my old walkin’ stick. It’s an old six-foot Pinon pole, shaved of bark, whittled into a bear’s head at the top, pointy enough to fight off a Chupacabra attack on the business end.

My walkin’ stick walks me, you see. It calls to me in the night, whispering grand plans for morning hikes. It taps a bluesy rhythm all its own on the trail, keeping me on Corby Time. It balances me on rocky pitches and slick logs alike. It prods the Hondog when he lingers on a pile of coyote tung. Onward, it says. Further into the bush.

It’s just a walkin’ stick, but it’s my walkin’ stick, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the fancy store-bought sticks in the world.

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Image

Sporks for Sticks

By Corby Anderson

5-14-12

Yesterday at lunchtime I went out for my weekly Sunday meal and newspaper ritual. I wound up in the wayside town of El Jebel. Hungry after a late night of playing music at a foodless bar, I ordered up a burger, some fries and a coke. I was fetching the ketchup/salt/straw/napkin paraphernalia and trying my damndest to not think about the week ahead yet when my ears tuned into a racket emanating from the dining room. Looking in, I saw that the ruckus was coming from a little Latino kid, maybe 5 years old, who was smacking the table that he sat at loudly and consistently with a pair of plastic sporks.
Consciously, I chose to sit as far away from the noise as I could. I spread out my papers and dug into the week’s news. I had brought my journal along and had some designs on writing a few pages as well, but after a few minutes of mentally trying to block the noise coming from the boy across the dining room, I found that the loud, rapid fire smacking of the spoons was overwhelmingly annoying and gave up the idea of writing there at lunch.

You know how a particularly out of place noise in a certain situation can just grate on you? Well, times that by two. Sure, I could get up and leave, but I was the customer here. I had purchased food and had a right to sit and read my paper in relative quietude, right? And here was this oblivious child, no parent in sight, ruining my long-anticipated Baconator moment! Were I an urbanite, you can just about guarantee that my outraged gourd would resemble a bobble head and my outstretched finger a windshield wiper.

I started to get up and go say something, but just before standing, a strong instinct told me not to.

I sat back and thought for a moment. I opened my ears, listening to all of the noises of the otherwise quiet restaurant. The crew hustle was blocked by the wall that separated us. The few other diners each sat alone, eating silently absent the occasional straw slurp. The kid smacking out a ratta-tat-tat-TAT on the Formica table top. The overhead speakers piped in an old rock and roll song. The kid persisted, smacking the salt and pepper shakers, leveling the paper pyramid of marketing material on the table. I went back to the Denver Post sports page. The headline was for a game that was two days ago. I glanced at the top of the page. Damn. Saturday’s paper for Sunday coin. I had gotten distracted by running into a good old friend at the newspaper boxes. Her husband is one of my heroes. He died for an hour a few years ago while eating a steak in Aspen, Colorado. He’s barely with us now. I hugged them both, and wished her a happy Mother’s Day. She showed me the charm that her daughter had given her at their breakfast picnic. I told her that it was beautiful, and how I though the idea of a breakfast picnic was ridiculously cool.
The song changed. In the split second interval of one song ending and the other starting I heard calm and quiet in the restaurant. Then, the jolting intro riff to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” cranked up, and, once more, so did the kid on the sporks.
It was only then, with my annoyance squashed by an inner voice that occasionally tells me to live in the moment and just observe (the writer’s instinct?) and my attention properly relaxed and focused that I realized that the boy was actually drumming with those sporks, not just being a nuisance. He was hitting the spice shakers as toms, using the cardboard triangle as a splash. And though his tempo was off, he was actually pretty well matching the rhythm of the tune. Skeptical still, I waited for the legendary drum solo section, ready to dismiss the whole thing as an idyll kid’s dumb luck. I thought of the infinite monkey theorem – the one that says that you can give a team of monkey time enough tapping on enough keyboards and eventually they will write Shakespeare.
The fuzzed-out guitars fired into that old familiar staccato rhythm. Duh-duh-duh-duh-da-da-duh-duh! The bass followed. Then the stringed instruments dropped out and the drum solo came. The kid followed a half beat behind, reaching all across his “kit” of a table for effect. Astounding, I thought! He was mimicking an incredibly complex drum solo on what I had to assume was ear alone.
My drink disappeared, when the song ended I got up to get a refill. The kid watched me closely as I crossed the restaurant, putting his sticks down on the table. “Hey kid, you speak English?” I asked on a whim. He nodded and smiled. “Yes,” he said quietly. I asked him how old he was. He held up three fingers in each hand. “You ever played a drum kit before?” followed my line of questioning. “No,” he said, dropping his chin to his chest in a classic pout. I thought quickly back on my own youth, when I had tried out for jazz band as a drummer. “Look buddy, you need to get your parents to enroll you in a music class pronto! You’ve got chops!”
He motioned back to the rear corner of the restaurant. “Papa,” he exclaimed dejectedly, pointing with his back-cast thumb at a booth where a couple of employees were looking over a notebook, discussing work. I looked back at the counter. There was no one to be seen behind it. The kitchen was empty.
“Hey Dad-Of-The-Kid-That-Is-Sitting-Here-Drumming-On-The-Table!” I said perhaps a little too abruptly in an amplified voice. He looked up startled. “Is this your kid?” I asked, closing the distance, consciously trying not to come off as mad or weird. He nodded, getting up out of his booth. “Yes, yes!” He looked at the boy with a caring look that turned stern in the same glance. “What is wrong sir, is he being too loud?” “No, no. He’s fine. But I do think that you need to get him a drum set and into music classes, quick like! The kid has insane skills for his age. The longer you put it off, the longer it’ll be until you get to hear his real talent. And you know, there is nothing worse for a household than an ambitious, untrained drummer!” I explained with a grin.
The father walked over to his son, roughing up his thick black hair with a firm swipe, leaving a frozen rooster tail in his wake. They looked at each other. The son’s brown eyes beaming up at his father with excitement and love. The father reflected and magnified down the feeling in his own identical eyes. “Would you like that, Carlos?” he asked. The kid nodded in a brace of double time head shakes. “OK then, we’ll get you a drum for your birthday!” he said lovingly. “And sticks!” the kid replied instantly. “And a medium Coke, for me,” I added, rattling the ice in my waxy cup.

*Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who writes from the spidery loft of an old log cabin on a truck ranch in Emma, Colorado. His essays, literary, food and music reviews, PR work, novel excerpts, poetry and other detritus can be found at www.corbyanderson.wordpress.com, and he can be reached at corbyanderson@hotmail.com.

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Eulogy of Martha Ella Rogers Tullis

February 7, 2011

By Corby Anderson

On behalf of Martha’s entire family, I’d like to thank each of you for being here today to remember my Granma, and to celebrate a long life, well lived.

I’d like to say a few words today that might help to bring into focus just how special of a woman Martha Ella Rogers Tullis was.

When I think about the combination of qualities and attributes that made Martha such a great, unique person, several come immediately to mind, especially her incredible physical beauty and class, her unyielding love and support of her family and friends, her selfless generosity and her amazing home cooking.

Yesterday, at the gathering at Cumby Funeral Home, I had the pleasure of meeting many of Granma’s longtime friends for the first time – and being the inquisitive type, I took the occasion to ask some of them what one word that they would use to describe Martha.

Time and time again, you all replied with the word that I think perfectly captures her essence – “Beautiful.”

Martha Tullis was a fashion plate! She dressed with the sense of a true southern belle, which only served to further accentuate her already striking natural features and sweet personality.

Whether it was just on a run to the store, out to church, or on a cross-country trip, Martha was rarely seen without a classy ensemble, usually consisting of a perfectly tailored, brightly-colored jacket and matching blouse, smart skirt or pants, and accompanying shoes. And lord, she could accessorize – she had a myriad of interesting broaches and pins, jewelry and purses, scarves and shawls. That beautiful silver head of hair of hers was always precisely done, and had the unique ability to maintain it’s base form in the strongest gale or the wettest snow.

She loved to look good – for herself, and for her friends and family. And look good, she did. Indeed, she was beautiful, as she was so aptly described yesterday and for many years prior – and it was a combination of her love of fashion, but really her beauty was underlying – in her abundant natural warmth, her joy and love of life, her family and friends.

I look out here today and see so many familiar faces and I know that Martha is so very happy that you all came out to remember her. I see many family members – from all different generations – and it reminds me how much Martha loved all of you.

She was a deeply devoted mother who raised and loved dearly her two beloved daughters – my mother Phyllis and my Aunt Carla, both of whom she would do anything for.

I know that she cherished every minute of time that she was able to spend with all of her sisters and brothers – Ranzy, Laura, Lucille, Alice, Ruth, Edna, and Bobby and their spouses, their children, and the generations that followed – including her lifelong neighbors, Tommy and Theresa Cook, their sons Brian and Brad and their respective families, my brother Alton and his wife Noel’s son Jake – her adored Great Grandchild, and a special boy in Ohio named Kristopher who became like a Great Grandchild to her.

Grandma had a special fondness for my Dad, Glen, who she loved to dote on, and developed a truly inspiring relationship with his mother, Ruby, and also with his brother Harry and his own family.

And though the years have gained on us, let us not forget – for she sure never did – just how deeply that Martha Rogers Tullis loved and honored her late husband, my grandfather, Harold Tullis.

Together, they defeated the Nazi’s, made it intact through a World War, and built their dream home on Tobacco Road, which still sits there today as a testament to their love.

In that home, they raised a beautiful family and pursued their mutual dreams, and when Harold died a sudden death at a relatively young age, just months after I was born in 1972, Granma set about to seeing that their shared vision of the American dream through not only her own, but also through all of our eyes by participating so closely and sweetly in our lives.

She was as generous and selfless as anyone that I’ve ever met. As her grandchildren,  both my brother and I never say a holiday – and not just the major ones – or a special occasion that did not include a custom card, a hand written note, and a little money taped into the card with a little piece of scotch tape.

Martha, or “Moth-a” as many of you know her, would give her time, energy and money to anyone that she felt needed a little help. Her enthusiasm for deeds of good will never waned, even as her age advanced. In fact, over time it seemed to be gathering steam and her efforts doubled – sewing, visiting, listening, helping out, and cooking for her many friends and family.

And MAN could she cook! Now, I know that everyone here is going to say the same thing about their own Grandma, but I can say without a single doubt that my Grandma was the best cook on the face of planet Earth, a mantle that now thankfully passes to her keenest student, my Mom.

To me, her food tasted, looked, and smelled simply like home – like the south – like her: Sweet, loving, abundant and significant.

She was a master of her kitchen. When I was in college up in Boone years ago, I’d come down from the hills to visit with her and Carla for the weekend and when I would awake at her house I would rise to a mountain of biscuits, ham, sausage, grits, two kinds of gravy, eggs, coffee, and as I’d wolf that down she would start pulling the lids of the lunch that she had made earlier that morning – unleashing an amazing aroma of fresh collards, black-eyed peas, squash, cornbread, sweet tea. And while she was showing me that, she’d plan out dinner for me, just a few hours later – and inevitably start making her famous coconut crème cake or strawberry cobbler for dessert. I’d go back up to Boone with ten pounds of hot food in my trunk and at least ten more in my belly.

I was always amazed at how she made all of that incredible food, from scratch, every day, month in and month out, all for less money than most of us spend on a good dinner out. She had a true gift for resourcefulness and a depression-era bred ability to provide incredible food from her own bountiful garden.

And that is but one of the memories that I will always have of my Grandma – of her dancing around her kitchen, from one outrageously good smelling pot to another, humming, singing, calling us all to the table, and urging us all to “warsh up!” – suppers on and it’s getting cold…

Thank you.

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*The following essay was written as an entry for the National Steinbeck Center “Travel’s With Charley” essay contest. On Tuesday morning, as I sipped my luke warm coffee and stared out at the fog and mist billowing beyond my office window here in Central California, I received a call from Steinbeck Festival organizers congratulating me for winning the contest!

Dog is my co-pilot.

Grin and Bear It

By Corby Anderson

Beardog heard it first, as always. I was lost in a dream, chasing a fleeting strip of bacon through a swaying sea of corn silk. Good Bear and his own golden ears picked up on the rumble and rustled me with a serious-sounding growl just before a midnight flash flood ran in dark torrents past our campsite deep in Utah’s Lockhardt Canyon.

The flood arrived in an explosive, headlong clamor. Boulders smashed together in thunderous cracks and caromed down the otherwise dry wash just below where I had perched our tent earlier that day. Bear whined and howled at the sudden noise, but after some time had passed — impossible to know how much, as I had no watch, nor did I want one — we both fell back to sleep in the rain-dampened tent, lulled by the pattering rain on the fly and the rushing clatter of the brand new river.

It was our yearly desert foray, a time for harried man and hairy dog alike to commune with the rocks and sand, to stare sideways at Utah’s cantaloupe-hued hoodoos and hobgoblins, to scramble down cliff bands and up steep drainages to the canyons rim.  It was my down time, barely sufficient in my allotted one week of solitude to clear my head of the thought-pervading technology that possessed it in my workaday life.

Bear, the mystery mutt whom I had volunteered to raise up in an attempt to win over the stony heart of a hippie princess in Boone, North Carolina, ten years prior, was the ever-eager co-pilot, requiring for sustenance only the long exploratory hikes into the thorn-bound wilderness, a portion of whatever slop was for supper, a dented tin saucer of sandy water, and a warm fire to lay beside at night while an mal-tuned guitar plunked in its familiar whiskey rhythm.

Bear in our new swimming hole.

We awoke to find the path that we had driven in on  — the arroyo — completely washed out by the flood, a situation that persisted for four striking days. On the third of those, my truck battery died, an unfortunate situation in some regards — since wife and work were expecting me, us, back to their civilization sooner than the wilds would allow — but in other ways not. I was stocked with enough canned food, water and beer for a week or more.

Thoroughly isolated, there was nothing for us to do but play. And so we did, with gusto. We chased lizards, mapped stars, made up ridiculous songs about fleas and sticks, and barked profound declarations into the night.

When the urge struck, I wrote languorously in my journal while Bear napped in the scrape in the dirt. Or I napped and Bear sat alertly, defending our nest from wrongheaded buzzards and flies and long-tailed mice. Once a day I sat in the dirt and drew pen sketches of the monocline, and each time, as if keeping a schedule, Bear, as he is wont to do, wrestled with mud-stuck rocks in the now-trickling creek.

On the morning of the fourth post-flood day, a white Jeep appeared down canyon. I was nude at the time and wading in the creek (why not?), so I ducked behind a rock and slipped into my grungy shorts and a sweat-salted T-shirt to run out to meet the Jeep at the head of the camp.

Down Canyon.

It was the Sheriff, and in his Jeep were two lawyers from Boston, out to visit the scene of a recent death in the area. Dehydration. Outward Bound student. Lawsuits were piling up, and these men were there to investigate.

They were as shocked to see me as I was them. Bear wagged his tail and growled at the same time — his emotions as mixed as his genes. “What are you doing out here? Don’t you know that this is one of the most remote places in the country?” the lawyer in the front seat howled. The one in the back leaned out and jammed a video camera in my face. “Sure. That’s why we’re here,” I replied, grinning through cultivated whiskers. “Can I offer you boys a cold Coke?” They accepted in sun-sapped unison.

The flood still courses down the otherwise dry arroyo three days later.

I went to get the soda bottles, which were still perfectly cold in the cooler that was tucked away in a shady nook of deep maroon sandstone, although my ice was long gone. “That’s that gray shade Davis talked bout,” one of the Boston lawyers said excitedly to the other, pointing at the crease in the rock where my cooler lived. The second lawyer snapped a photo of my cooler.

With cables I had already pre-staged in hopes of eventual rescue, the Sheriff jump-started my truck. Once it was alive again, I left the old Ford running while I packed up camp, just in case . No sense in pushing my luck. The investigation expedition disappeared up into the canyon, and Bear and I had one last game of fetch with a forearm-sized chunk of gnarled grey Pinon.

I looked around and decided that this place is where I’d like to rest when it’s all over — somewhere quiet, open and unspoiled.

“Well, old buddy, I guess we’d better get back home,” I said. “Load on up.” The tired dog leapt into the passenger seat with the ancient stick still in his mouth. When I got in he dropped it in my lap, and looked up at me with an expression of what had to be absolute contentment.

“We’ll get lost somewhere good next year,” I said, scratching his dusty brown head as we bounced and slid back down the muddy wash.

Bear Dog and Whitey Ford.

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