Monthly Archives: July 2009

Ladies Who Go Hack in the Night

LadyHack3When I step out of my house at 4:15 a.m. three days a week to catch my commuter bus, I am only marginally awake. I’ve discovered it’s entirely possible to drive to the park- and-ride lot while in a dream state. Buildings and side streets glide by of their own accord under the traffic lights’ silky glow. Often, I prefer this time of day because it is so pure, like a beach emptied of tourists. At this hour, Front Royal could be almost any place.

You don’t see too many other human beings at four a.m., not until you reach the park-and-ride lot. I might see one other vehicle roll down my street now and then as I’m getting into my car. Rarely, there’ll be a teenager strolling down the sidewalk to or from the 24-hour McDonalds.

Despite or maybe because of this quiet, I have a compulsive habit of looking in my backseat as I get into the car. Even though I never watch horror flicks, I’m always happy to be safely on my way with the doors locked. About a year after I started my commute, we installed a motion-triggered flood light above the front porch—don’t know if it would scare anyone away but it makes me feel better.

Still, two days ago, I got the most interesting reminder about what undiluted fear feels like. I’d completed all my morning preparations—showered, dressed, brushed my teeth, fed the cat, made my daughter’s lunch. Finally, ready to go, I set the alarm, opened the front door, and stepped out within the allotted 75 seconds. Juggling my laptop bag and purse, I held the door shut with one hand and started to slip the key into the lock with the other.

A guttural shout came from behind me, over my left shoulder. It was completely incomprehensible—loud, rough, and quick. My heart flew to my throat and time turned slow motion as I swiveled toward the sound. I heard words come out of my mouth but I could swear they were slurred, as if I had swallowed a large dose of valium with breakfast. They must have formed something like, “What did you say?” but to my ears they were an aural blob, sheer terror.

The shout had come from someone standing below me on the sidewalk about twenty feet away, a middle-aged woman with short, dirty-blonde hair. My pulse pounding, I asked more clearly, “What?”

“You got a cigarette?” she asked as if we were sitting next to each other at some dive bar, sharing a laugh and a drink. Her voice was all sandpaper and phlegm wrapped up in a southern drawl.

“No, I don’t smoke,” I shouted back, more than a little annoyed and a bit self-righteous.

“Oh,” she said, and shuffled on her way.

I looked around carefully before I got into the car, every sense still on alert despite the obvious absence of danger. She had hardly been a threatening figure, but I couldn’t believe how easily my body locked down, ready to fight or run. It had been a long time since I’d felt that kind of fear. At least this time, it was a false alarm.

I’m still royally pissed at that woman for scaring the crap out of me but the whole incident was so Front Royal. What would my new town be without the middle-aged, early-morning cigarette bummers? If I were still a smoker, I probably would have given her one, maybe had one with her, maybe asked her why she was walking down the street at such an ungodly hour.

Now I’ll never know—unless she has a regular schedule and a regular route that’ll bring us back together at 4:15 a.m. This time, you’d better believe, I’ll be ready for her.

-Heather Davis

Heart of Glass

HeartOfGlassI sat on our front porch, waiting for Heather to come home, while Maggie sat inside watching a particular episode of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody for perhaps the 10th time. Maggie doesn’t let me make suggestions for things to watch on television anymore—not after she noticed the DVD of Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass on the table and asked what it was.

“Well, you want to watch it?” I asked. “It’s about this town where the people have all gone mad. And also, the whole cast, except for one person, is hypnotized!”

Maggie was intrigued, so I put it on. She actually made it a third of the way through before falling asleep (I, on the other hand, had seen it five or six times, and not once had I fallen asleep while watching it). Now, if you ask Maggie what’s the worst movie she’s ever seen, she always says, “Heart of Glass.”

“It’s so boring,” she explains. “And everyone’s hypnotized,” she adds, as the detail that once intrigued her is now the most horrible thing about it.

So I stepped outside with my early evening cup of coffee, not being in the mood to watch the scene where Maddie Fitzpatrick (Ashley Tisdale) takes in the suddenly penniless London Tipton (Brenda Song). Sometimes I bring a magazine to read when I sit on the porch, but other times all I need to do to entertain myself here is to watch the people going by.

I was on the porch for about five minutes when a young woman driving a beat up old boat of a car held out her middle finger as she drove by our house. I wondered what it was that offended her. Was it the Obama sign that we never took down after the election? Was that what pissed her off? Perhaps I had gained the ability to piss someone off just by sitting on my front porch. Or, I wondered, had the town suddenly gone mad, like in Heart of Glass?

But walking into view from the left was one of those young shirtless guys with the bad tattoos. As the car moved ahead he turned around and looked back at the woman in the car, then raised his own middle finger to salute her in return.

“Fuck you,” he muttered in disgust. “Fuckin’ bitch.”

I was embarrassed, having assumed that that middle finger was meant for me when it was meant for someone else. I was disappointed, too. I tried to catch the shirtless guy’s eye so that I might share in his sense of disgust, but he kept moving on. I guess he had shit to do. And probably other women to piss off.

-Jose Padua
Photo: Josef Bierbichler in Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass.

Jonesin’ for Blueberry Sno-Cones: The God’s Unvarnished Truth

Jonesin2You know how sometimes, if you aren’t trying, you can have a nearly perfect day? This past Saturday in Front Royal came pretty close to perfect, which surprises me even as I write this on a Monday morning at 6 am surrounded by high-rise office buildings in Rosslyn.

That morning, my daughter Maggie and I rose early, around 7:30 am, leaving Daddy to sleep in since he’s a notorious night owl. After Maggie scarfed down her egg, ham, and cheese sandwich left over from our visit to The Daily Grind two nights before and I finished a bowl of the obligatory shredded wheat cereal, we went for a power walk around town.

I call it a power walk, but with a 6 year-old in tow, it was more like a stroll. Every few feet Maggie saw something on the ground she wanted to look at. Eventually, we made our way down to Main Street and past the empty storefront being used to display local artwork. The sun shone brightly on the massive baskets of pink and purple petunias hanging from the light poles near the visitor’s center. The slightly humid air had warmed up quickly.

We marched past the secondhand store run by the women’s shelter, the bank/arts council, the coffee shop, the fabric store, the computer shop, the Catholic store, the Lucky Star Lounge, the furniture store, and the movie theatre, before Maggie whined that the snazzy black boots I told her not to wear were hurting her feet. I suggested that we cut our walk short and head over the new farmer’s market behind the gazebo—so much for Mommy’s kick-ass workout.

Front Royal had been lacking a farmer’s market for years, which was odd because there are lots of farms in and around town. Ironically, an old neighbor of ours from Alexandria now runs a farmer’s market in Strasburg. But Strasburg is twenty minutes away—too far for a quick trip to pick up veggies.

Lots of folks here were thrilled to hear that a local market would be starting up, selling produce and other goods on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. Jose and I had wanted to check it out for weeks but were just too busy. Finally, last Thursday, we made it over.

Under one of about 12 small white tents, we chatted with the market’s manager and his wife who we’d met some months before when the wife ran up to me at the grocery store and introduced herself. She’d seen Jose and I read poems at The Daily Grind. Like us, they’d moved to Warren County from the northern VA suburbs.

That night at the market, Maggie played with one her classmates between the tents while we bought some Swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash. I vowed to actually cook the stuff, not just feel virtuous about buying it, which is usually as far as I get in my quest to be an organic, locavore mommy.

As Maggie and I entered the farmer’s market again on Saturday morning, she headed straight for the sno-cone table. She had discovered on our earlier trip that the blueberry sno-cones, made with real fruit syrup, were strangely more tasty than the variety enhanced by blue dye #2.

Just as on Thursday night, a man and woman sitting off to the side played guitar and sang some folksy farmer’s market shopping music. About five minutes after Maggie started in on her sno-cone, a lady selling herbs and homemade scones scurried over with a paper towel to mop up the sticky mess decorating her face and shirt. I thanked her profusely.

The whole scene had that easy Saturday morning kind of feeling, as if no one there could possibly have a care in the world (except maybe for the frowning, bleary-eyed woman smoking a cigarette by the visitor’s center).

In the end, I bought three peach muffins from a woman who grinds her own flour and then window-shopped the offerings at the other tents—scented oils and bath salts, candles, soaps, honey, fruits and vegetables, meats, organic pizzas, and hand-embroidered towels and aprons. Those aprons were the only product that scared me a little since many of them depicted curly crosses and avenging angels.

The rest of our day flew by. After Maggie and I got home, I threw her in the tub for a quick bath, then we hung out at a birthday party in the wilderness near Skyline Drive, read some poems to teens at the library, ran to the Hair Cuttery to get Maggie’s hair chopped into a sassy bob/shag kind of thing (which she requested out of the blue), ate dinner at home (including the recently purchased Swiss chard), and finally headed off to a movie—I couldn’t wait to sit down and relax, though Jose feared he might fall asleep.

Despite the fact that we can walk to the theater, we drove down and parked half a block from Front Royal’s only movie house, the Royal Cinemas. Built in 1920, it shows three first-run movies at a time in one large and two small screening rooms. Sometimes we catch a film mid-week when almost no one else is there—it’s like having your own home theater.

I was eager to see this particular film since I had just finished reading the book (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Maggie was excited too since she had seen all of the previous Harry Potter movies. Halfway through though, exhausted from our long day, she asked to go home. I held her on my lap as the sad story reached its peak and wound down. I tried not to ball my eyes out at the ending—I’m a sucker for young adult fantasy. I was tired also and looking forward to a soft, if unmade, bed and a sound eight-hour sleep.

Main Street felt almost city-like as we stepped out onto the sidewalk in the bright lights of the marquee. We walked to our car past the Lucky Star Lounge where local bands play just about every night of the week. We used to take Maggie there with us for a late night snack once in a while but kids are no longer allowed in after 9 PM—this is annoying but we’ll just have to get a babysitter next time—it’s about the only night life Front Royal has to offer.

We clambered into the van and drove home around the block, Maggie falling asleep in her seat. The day had been busy but good. As we dragged Maggie into the house and up to bed, I wondered if she would dream of Harry Potter, of his dark blue eyes and bookish glasses. Maybe she’d spend the night sharing an organic blueberry sno-cone with him at a quiet little farmer’s market just down the block.

-Heather Davis

So Early in the Morning

SoEarlyNow and then I hear it coming in from the distance here. It’s not the usual horrible pop country music (the big act this past summer at the Warren County fairgrounds was Montgomery Gentry). It wasn’t even one of the great country singers (Merle Haggard, who played the fairgrounds right before we moved here). No, it’s a sound that reminds me of the streets of DC, a sound which, in fact, began there: Go-Go music. It got louder and louder as I sat outside the Daily Grind on Main Street and started bobbing my head up and down.

The first time, it was a Sunday morning, and inside the coffee shop was a crowd of people who’d just gotten out of church. It was the usual Front Royal Sunday: some clean, mostly nice and polite folks, neatly dressed. Here and there you’d see a teenage girl wearing a frontier dress and looking like she’d never spoken a single word in her life. Of course maybe that’s just me reading into it, but that was why I looked for a seat outside, and that’s when I heard it, as the rusty brown Pontiac GTO got closer and closer:

Can we drop the bomb on the south-east crew?
Drop the bomb, drop the bomb
Now south-east crew, now whatcha gonna do?
Drop the bomb, drop the bomb…

It was the sound of Trouble Funk, infiltrating a quiet Main Street morning. And the bomb they were singing about was not a weapon of mass destruction.

I see and hear the Pontiac GTO every now and then, and it’s always go-go blasting from it. Sometimes it’s Trouble Funk. Other times it’s Experience Unlimited or Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go. But whatever the song, I always feel a little bit less lost when I hear it coming, and it always makes my day.

-Jose Padua

Soft Focus Civil War

KunstlerPostcard2If you frequent restaurants and coffee shops in the Shenandoah Valley, you can’t avoid paintings by Mort Künstler, an artist who reminds me a lot of Thomas Kinkade, though his subject is the Civil War and not cozy little cottages.

Soon after we moved to Front Royal, Jose and I started seeing these artworks everywhere—on the walls of The Daily Grind and in gift shops, hotels, and antique stores.

Typically, they depict an historical scene from the Civil War era in a style I can only describe as romantic realist cheese—think Norman Rockwell but without the cheeky humor. They have a certain glow about them calculated to elicit nostalgia and patriotism at every viewing.

Though they are schmaltzy as all get out, people here love ‘em. What Confederate flag-waving southerner wouldn’t? How glorious were the soldiers, how noble the steeds, how dramatic the sky!

These painting give folks here something grand to grab onto, scenes that read like legend and fantasy despite their historical accuracy.

Clearly, I have a bit of a complex about these paintings. We received a postcard in the mail recently announcing a new work by Mort called The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air, which depicts General Lee visiting Front Royal on July 22, 1863. It was such big art news, I put it on our refrigerator.

It is a lovely pastel vision. All that is missing from the painting is a thatched cottage, a country lane, and a few golden highlights on the river. Maybe Mort and Thomas could collaborate on something, a new piece called “Candlelit Cottage Filled with Moaning Civil War Amputees.”

As a respected illustrator of books, magazines, and advertisements, Mr. Künstler’s work does seem to be a cut above Kinkade’s technically, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind having Mr. Künstler’s prints scattered around town, if they were his poster and books illustrations from the 1960’s and 70s instead of the Civil War fluff.

Check out this fantastic box art for this toy from the 1960s, the “Lost in Space All Plastic Assembly Kit” complete with “one-eyed monster, giant boulders, the Robinson Family and their interplanetary space vehicle.”

Or enjoy this illustration for the “Wonder Weave Loom.” It is “excitingly different… anyone can do it…”

Mort’s movie posters also rock:

And who could resist buying these paperback books with cover art by Mort:

14 Seconds to Hell

Kill Quick or Die

But my favorite has got to be this ad for a product called “Bacchus Aftershave.” It is “The Incredible Aftershave That Conquered the World.” If this were still available, I’d buy it for Jose in a heartbeat.

To be fair, Mr. Künstler seems like a nice guy and an upstanding citizen. He contributes generously to the Timber Ridge School in Winchester, which serves needy young men. He also doesn’t seem to be nearly as strange as Mr. Kinkade, whose weirder habits and business fraud you can read about on Wikipedia. Truly, he is one of the creepiest artists who has ever lived.

All in all, I think Mr. Künstler’s early illustrations just about make up for his later Civil War indulgences. I would be proud to own any one of the prints listed above—they are beautiful and surprising, full of an authentic irony.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford one.

-Heather Davis

Up in Smoke

UpInSmokeAlthough I believe in hope, in working to make change, in gathering forces for the better and all that, I did not want to be back here. We should have done whatever we could have done so that we could have stayed in Rehoboth Beach. I could have gotten a job running the frog toss at Funland. Heather could have worked at that gift shop that has all the goddamn sea shells. And Maggie could maybe start selling her drawings of bug-eyed girls, or better yet, start doing counterfeit Henry Darger paintings. That would bring in the money. Then maybe we could afford to live in Rehoboth Beach instead of Front Royal.

Then this morning, when I was walking out of the Martin’s for my first post-vacation trip to the grocery store, a woman in a convertible grinned at me as I loaded up the mini-van. I looked back at her, and she couldn’t stop grinning. She was a plump, gray-haired woman—not a church lady, not a suburban soccer mom, and not a Blue Mountain grandma making her weekly trip to town. She was, possibly, one of us.

“You look just like Cheech Marin,” she marveled. “When he was just starting out.”

“When he was just starting out?” I asked, to make sure I heard that last part right.

“Yeah, when he was just becoming famous.” The whole time she never broke out of her ear to ear grin.

I was getting ready to step into my mini-van after having loaded it up with, among other things, Lucky Charms cereal, Sponge-Bob crushable yogurt cups, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur slow melt popsicles.

What she said on that Monday morning, as my beach dreams went up in smoke, was probably the best thing anyone could have said to me at that moment.

-Jose Padua