Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #16 – ‘Chet the Unhandyman’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Chet the Unhandyman has been living on our ranch for about a year and half. He came here from New Mexico, where life had gotten the best of him and given him no choice but to find a new place to live, work, and dream.

I knew Chet from when I’d taught at The College of Santa Fe in the early ‘90s. He’d been a good student and had gone on to teach at the local junior college. Chet’s in his mid-fifties. He’s smart and talented. So I thought he’d be the perfect assistant and offered him the job in exchange for a room in the trailer we call “The Annex” until he got himself settled.

I figured Chet could return calls and deal with the public for me when I was too busy writing or reading or whatever it is I do. (A writer’s life is tough to understand, even when you’re the writer.) I figured he’d be a big help while he made friends and set himself up with paying work. And then he’d move on.

What I didn’t figure was that Chet’s personality was going to sabotage him at every turn.

I can’t explain what it is about Chet that riles people so, but it’s definitely there. He’s got a gift for making even the kindest people his enemies. Within a week of Chet’s arrival, my wife Gwen the Beautiful was no longer speaking to him. Visitors to the ranch begged not to have to deal with him. Belle, the friendliest of our dogs, became a snarling, biting terror. (Not exactly a good thing when you’re half pitbull-half chow.)

There went dealing with the public.

Since he still didn’t have any income, I kept Chet on. His duties became animal feeding and clean-up and house-sitting when Gwen and I were away. Garbage hauling. Brush piling. You get the idea.

Then, one day, I walked into the trailer and saw that his one room had become every room but one. He had the kitchen, the living room, a bedroom, and the bath. The only place left for me to do any work was the tiny second bedroom, and half of that was filled with his boxes and suitcases.

I did the logical, mature, adult thing. And joined my wife in not speaking to him anymore.

Chet didn’t notice. He talked enough to cover both sides of any conversation.

I knew it was time to explain the facts of life to this old boy. To say, “Goodbye.”

But he was all alone and miserable and when you know someone can’t take care of himself how do you throw him out?

Instead, I tried to get Chet a job. I knew he was an experienced teacher, so I sent him to ASU. No room at that inn. I knew he was an experienced television engineer so I sent him to a TV repair shop that was advertising for help. (“I can’t hire a man who keeps talking about how wonderful the place he just left is,” said the owner. “Let him go back there if he likes it so much.”)

Finally I got him something at the Mountain Home radio station. It lasted one day. Another job I found at the TV station stretched out for two. A gig at a video rental store that Chet, highly motivated by the fact that our lawn tractor had broken and he had to cut several acres of pasture with a weed whacker, got for himself went all the way to three days.

My good friend, Brannigan the Contractor, came to the rescue by putting him on as a laborer. Chet’s three day limit kicked that one right in the head.

About a month ago things finally took a turn for the better. Chet got a job at Wal-Mart. Stocking shelves at midnight. The Employee No One Wants meets The Job No One Will Take. A match made in heaven!

Except that yesterday, one day shy of working one month at one of the world’s most undesired occupations, Chet was fired.

Chet stayed in the trailer all day today, watching old movies and playing video games. He’s a little forlorn, sure…but he also seems relieved. It’s like having a teenage son.

I understand now that there’s a trick to starting a new life.

You’ve got to want to.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #15 – ‘What This Drought’s Really About’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

As I write this, Paradise is having its worst drought in thirty years. We’re in the sixth week of 90 plus degree heat accompanied by humidity of under thirty percent.

My riding mower broke down last month, but I haven’t needed it. The grass hasn’t grown an inch in that time, although it did turn the same color as my new straw hat. And last week the water from our well started coming up mud.

Local rivers and lakes are in trouble too. The Buffalo National River, just a few miles from our place, might as well be called the “Buffalo National Shoal.” No point in floating it when you can just walk downstream.

And, speaking of walking, I’ve been sidestepping around for weeks filled with guilt. Because until yesterday I was convinced the cause of this terrible situation was—me.

It was a couple of months ago when I opened my big mouth. I was sitting by our pond, marveling at the cattails, and suddenly realized how much I was sweating from the humid air.

The walk down to the water had taken just a few minutes, but my body’s waterworks were opened so wide I felt as though I’d been working outside all day.

I looked to the southeast, where the Summer Wind comes from, and I gave it a piece of my mind. “Wind!” I called out. “Why are you torturing me? Why bring me to the most beautiful place on earth and then make me too hot and wet and exhausted to enjoy it?”

I pointed across the road, where some neighbors were camped out. “See those people? Peggy and John and their two kids? They’re living in a tent because it’s too miserable in their house! They deserve better, don’t you think?

I stood up. Yelled louder. “How about it, Wind? All I ask is a little physical comfort for those of us who live here. It gets just as hot in New Mexico. And in Southern California. But it doesn’t feel nearly so bad.

Because it’s dry there. This humidity’s too much. If you love us how about drying Paradise out?”

I waited. At first there was no answer. Then I heard a screech. Looking up, I saw a golden eagle overhead, flying into the forest. It screeched again. Was this an answer? Was the Wind speaking to me?

The next day was a hot one. Over 80 degrees by nine a.m. I went outside to groom the horses and give them their mash, then ambled over to the chicken yard, clucking what I can remember of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as I always do.

When my second son was a toddler Mozart always delighted him, and the chickens respond almost as well as he did. I collected half a dozen eggs and went back to the house. As I stepped up on the front porch I realized something.

I wasn’t sweating.

Not one little bit.

It was dry outside. Dry enough to be—I forced myself to think it—comfortable.

And it stayed comfortable all day, in spite of the heat. Since then, the temperature has gotten higher and higher, but the humidity has remained down in the Comfort Zone. Just like New Mexico. And Southern Cal.

My first reaction was, “Thank you! Thank you! You’ve helped us all!”

But as time wore on I understood the truth. Comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean good. No humidity is one thing. No rain is something else. There’s trouble in Paradise, and if this goes on longer the trouble will get worse.

So yesterday morning I sat down on the bench again. And I said, “Wind, I’m sorry. I pulled the old, ‘If you love me you’ll do such and such for me’ stunt, the worst thing a parent or child or lover can do. How can I fix this? How can I set things right?”

This time the Wind answered in words that spun the surface of the pond into ripples like laughing waves:

“Chill, dude. You can’t blackmail the Wind. The seeds of the drought were planted months before you put in your request. You haven’t gotten what you asked for, but you’ve learned what you needed. That’s how life works.”

Well, of course. How could I have thought I had such power? The drought will end when it ends, for the same natural reasons it began. Unless—

Let’s see. Blackmail’s out. But what about pleading? Maybe threats…?

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #14 – ‘Draco’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

The Brodys came to Paradise with three dogs. Dineh was half red heeler and half coyote. She’d grown up wild in Monument Valley, Arizona, and came into my life by jumping into my car and refusing to leave. In her youth, Dineh was supremely capable and wise, but by the time we got to Arkansas she was only a shadow of what she’d been.

The first time she and I thrashed through the woods to search for the Original Settlers’ Cabins Dineh got herself so lost I had to search half the day to find her.

Emmy the pit bull was a rescue to whom life was a game and every living thing a toy. Here in the land of Rabbits Unlimited all she wanted to do was dash back and forth between clearing and woods after all critters.

Her best pal was Draco, another pit bull rescue far less healthy. Draco’s limbs twitched and his body shook uncontrollably. His tail spent most of its time between his legs. Draco didn’t chase squirrels; squirrels chased him. He was, one vet said, “neurologically challenged.”

Draco loved to run. Sometimes it seemed like he could run forever. Usually away from something or somebody. But the minute he got to our mountain he heard the forest’s call. Nothing could keep him in the clearing. Given half a chance, Draco would head into the woods at full steam, and be gone for hours at a time.

We tried to let the dogs out separately so they wouldn’t lead each other to trouble, but one day during our first weeks on the mountain both pits pushed by me when I went out to feed the horses and tore off together into parts unknown.

At sunset Emmy and Draco were still gone. As I tucked my pants into my boots to go looking for them I heard barking outside. When I opened the door a panting Emmy galumphed into the house. She was intact but exhausted. And alone.

I went out to find Draco, calling and listening for his mewling bark. I stayed out until it got so dark I could barely find my own way back. I stayed up all night, going outside and calling, “Draco!” at the slightest sound. Nothing. No dog.

I spent a week combing the woods. Put flyers with Draco’s picture in every mailbox on our road. The mailman and UPS and FedEx drivers learned to beat it when they saw me so they wouldn’t have to say they hadn’t seen our neurologically challenged friend. And every time I drove anywhere I watched the roadside for a glimpse of Draco’s tan coat.

For weeks after Draco’s disappearance my heart burned with rage. My target became the woods.

“The forest took a sacrifice to prove its power,” I said to Gwen one night. “I want to burn the trees to the ground!”

“Tomorrow,” Gwen said. “Tonight let’s go to bed.”

Rage gave way to dull sorrow. A few months later Emmy became pregnant by a wild chow that had come out of the woods. When she had her puppies I saw her firstborn son cradled between her paws as she licked him and was struck by how familiar he looked. It was his expression.

Draco’s expression.

The puppy looked at me like we were old friends. In the weeks that followed I named him Decker, and Decker started greeting me with a mewling bark I’d heard before. As he grew older and bigger – we’re talking mastiff-size – I got more and more of a sense that Draco was here. But a powerful Draco, a secure Draco, an unshakable Draco completely at home in the house, the clearing, and the woods.

One night a few weeks ago, while I was sitting on the front porch, Decker ambled over and before I knew it was lying on my lap, filling the entire porch swing. He cocked his head the way Draco always did and licked me lovingly, and I heard the wind from the southeast part of the woods say:
“You had it wrong. We take nothing. The forest welcomes you with a gift. Your sick friend has been returned, healed, and well.”

I love Decker, whoever he is. And I want what I heard to be true. But even now – as recently as yesterday – every time I drive anywhere my eyes still search the roadside, hoping for a glimpse of Draco’s tan coat.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #13 – ‘Movin’ On Ain’t as Easy as It Sounds’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

As I mentioned last week, Gwen the Beautiful and I went to St. Louis recently, and although we did some tourist things our visit had a serious purpose.

In December of 2003, at the age of 48, Gwen suffered a major stroke. We were settling in to watch the debut of Angels In America on HBO when, Wham! she fell to the floor with an excruciating pain in the back of her head. At the same time, her world turned black. She couldn’t see.

I was an idiot and didn’t know what was going on. After about half an hour, when neither the pain nor the darkness had gone, we headed for the nearest hospital. Baxter Regional, 45 minutes away.

The E.R. was empty, and the staff went right to work. Within two hours we knew that Gwen had had a blood clot in her brain and that the clot had cleared up by the time we reached the hospital.

But loss of oxygen had taken out part of the brain where signals sent by her eyes are processed. Bottom line: Her eyes work just great. But everything seen by the right half of each eye no longer computes. Picture two circles on a piece of paper, half of each of them blacked out. That’s Gwen’s vision as of that night. And now.

Since then we’ve spent a great deal of time and money in doctors’ offices, trying to find out what caused the stroke. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And we want to find out what we can do to help her regain her full sight.

The consensus of the doctors we’d seen up to last week was, “Sorry, but we’re clueless about what happened here. None of the usual culprits seems to be involved,” and, “There’s not much hope of your vision improving.”

In a sense, our trip to the Neurology Department of Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis was our last hope. In the language of the medical profession, Barnes is a “tertiary care center.” Translation: “The hospital of last resort.”

At Barnes leading specialist Dr. Sylvia Awadallah looked over all of Gwen’s records and tests. Sylvia asked a lot of questions, examined Gwen thoroughly, and acknowledged that, “So far we’re clueless about what happened here,” and, “There’s not much hope of your vision improving.”

But then Sylvia suggested a test other doctors had decided against, and another no one else had considered.

The first test is a spinal tap, to see if anything in Gwen’s spinal fluid can shed light on the mystery.

The second is an angiogram of her brain’s circulation. Sylvia doesn’t know what she’s looking for, but these are the last two places to look.

We scheduled the tests for later this summer, and the next day as we drove home we talked about everything Gwen’s been through since that December night. She’s an artist. Folk paintings. Hasn’t done much of it lately.

Hasn’t done any driving since the stroke either – can’t see anything coming on the right. Has a mess of trouble reading or watching TV. A big movie screen is overwhelming.

Real life is overwhelming for Gwen too.

It’s easier for her to see in the city than in the country because city vistas are smaller and more crowded together, but from her perspective all new places are incomplete and filled with shadows where anything can lurk.

She makes herself go out. But the fear is there.

Always.

The fear that comes when doctors look at your test results and say, “Whoa! That’s not how the brain of a 49 year old woman should look!”

The fear that comes from not being able to believe that the precautions she’s taking against another stroke are going to mean a thing.

As we left the St. Louis area we saw a billboard asking drivers to become organ donors. It was a reminder that “Your organs can save others’ lives.”
Gwen looked over at me.

“I’ve already set that up,” she said. “My eyes are fine. They’ll help somebody someday.”

All I could do was nod. Gwen snuggled closer.

I drove on. I held the woman I love more than anything in the world as tightly as I could while we both cried.

It wasn’t the first time we’ve cried together about what’s happened, and it won’t be the last.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #12 – ‘St. Louis Blues’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Last Tuesday my wife Gwen the Beautiful and I packed up the truck and took a nice, leisurely drive to St. Louis. The first leg of our five hour journey was from the ranch up to Branson, Mo., home of Andy Williams, Mickey Gilley, and all your favorite entertainers who died twenty years ago but are keeping it quiet.

From there we continued up to Springfield, home of Bass Pro, the makers of fishing gear treated by my neighbors pretty much the way I imagine the ancient Israelites treated the Ark of the Covenant.

The remainder of the drive consisted of three hours of straight four-lane highway, definitely a major treat. The highlight of this stretch was the drop-off of the Ozarks at Rolla, where all traces of Southern geography abruptly vanished. From there to St. Louis it was pure Midwest.

Neither Gwen nor I had ever stopped in St. Louis before. Turns out it’s a nice little city of about 270,000 people. Small by urban standards, but bigger than anywhere I’ve been in years.

St. Louis is a city of neighborhoods, laid out on a rectangular grid. Easy to navigate, and easy on the eyes. Classic Midwestern architecture. Brick buildings. Cafes, bars, and international cuisine. We gorged ourselves on delicious Indian food.

The people we met were much different from those we’ve become used to in the South. Their body language clearly established that we were in the North.

In the South people lean back even when they walk forward. In St. Louis everyone I saw was angled forward into their lives. Their movements were quicker too. The scratching of a nose took place in the blink of an eye, a task to be gotten over with. At home in the South taking care of an itch is an experience to be savored, something worth doing in and of itself.

In St. Louis, people walk with a vengeance. Putting one foot in front of the other is a means to an end, and that end is reaching their destination as quickly as possible. This can be especially gratifying in a restaurant, where you know your wait person is getting your order in for you while it’s hot.

In the South, walking is a kind of kinetic sculpture. When a wait person walks to the kitchen he or she is creating what I can only think of as a scenic cruise – a body rolling casually and, on a good day, seductively into its next adventure.

The way people speak in St. Louis is of course much different from the way we speak in the south. Intonation is flat, slightly nasal, and the word “all” sounds more like “awl.” We’re not talking anything as strong as in the states bordering Canada, but I could hear the beginnings of the habits that blossom in St. Paul.

Here in the South English has evolved into a more inflected language. Meaning and communication come not only from what word is used but also from how a word is said.

It’s not a matter of irony or sarcasm – very little of that makes its way past the polite Southern exteriors that have continued from ante to post-bellum days. It’s about varying syllabication.

The same word can be pronounced with one syllable or two or even three. Gwen, for example, can be “Gwyn,” or “Gwy-un,” or “Ga-we-un,” depending on who’s saying her name and how they feel about her and how they want her to feel about herself.

I liked St. Louis. As tourists, Gwen and I had a great time. We’ll go back and sample more of its culture. We may even explore the possibility of me spending a few months as a visiting professor at one of the zillion universities there. But my St. Louis Adventure taught me that no matter what the North has to offer, I’m really a Southerner at heart.

Not just because I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, but because even though I’ve traveled and lived pretty much all over the world, I find that the one thing I can’t imagine living without is the sound of a Southerner’s soft-voiced “Hi…”

Because in spite of how low-key it seems, every word a Southerner says is packed with everything the speaker has to give.

And you can’t find that kind of attention anywhere else on this earth.