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Hollis Gillespie

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Hollis Gillespie is a humorist, syndicated columnist, NPR commentator, and top-selling author. She has been profiled in Marie Claire, Bust, Writer’s Digest, and Entertainment Weekly. Her television appearances include The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, TBS Storyline, Monica Kaufman’s Closeups, Good Day Atlanta, and TV Land. Her radio commentaries appear regularly on National Public Radio and Georgia Public Broadcasting. In 2004, Writer’s Digest named Gillespie a “Breakout Author of the Year.” The film rights to her first book, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood, are currently under option with a major Hollywood studio. Her latest book is Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility.

The Good Book

Some may say my friend Frank is a dinosaur because he owns a bookstore in Inman Park. Yes, a bookstore. You’re probably thinking he may as well sell buggy whips, beepers, or inkwells, and that it’s a marvel his store didn’t die on the side of the information superhighway. But December 1 marks twenty-five years since he opened his store, called A Cappella, and I take Frank’s survival as testimony that the world is not such a suckwad of wasted potential after all.

Illustration by Peter Arkle
Illustration by Peter Arkle

Because I miss books. And I don’t mean that in a misanthropic, get-off-my-lawn way, as in, “Boohoo, books are digital now, and I can’t flip through their pages.” I mean I miss the necessity of having to read them to get the knowledge I need. I miss the quest. I miss knowledge being a reward, as opposed to a bunch of instant options on a Google impulse.

For example, I now know what Abraham Lincoln’s skull looks like—I mean his actual skull. There is a display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, with actual fragments of Lincoln’s skull that were collected during the autopsy. I have never been to Silver Spring, and I didn’t have to go. All I had to do was look up the images on the Internet, and now that knowledge—what President Lincoln’s skull looks like—is inside my own skull. I don’t even know if I want it there, but it’s knowledge that deserves some respect, right? It deserves to have been earned, but instead it’s out there for the unwashed masses like me to conjure with a click while I procrastinate on a deadline. I miss books.

In my twenties, I moved with my mother to Zurich, Switzerland, for two years. It was before the great, global cultural pasteurization of rampant Wi-Fi. There were two hours on a Wednesday each week when a British news channel played old American sitcoms—Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Petticoat Junction—and that was all the television I got unless I learned German. So I picked up some books and learned German; I had to. Also, the bookstores there had literally one shelf devoted to English-language books. There was no software instantly updating the Swiss book buyers on the day’s New York Times bestseller list, no Fifty Shades of Grey wads of canine-Kotex books to choose from. They sold the English classics and that’s it: P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Isak Dinesen, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Butler, etc. I remember buying Out of Africa. I loved it so much that I was elated when I saw that the author had died the year after I was born, because it meant that, for a brief time, the two of us had actually shared the earth together.

See? I took what was offered. I appreciated what was offered.

I used to work for the airlines, and part of the company perks was that I could designate annual buddy passes to my friends. These passes were good for anywhere the airline flew in the world—thousands of choices. Often, I’d notice that some of these passes simply expired, never having been used. I asked my friends why, and the answer was always the same: They couldn’t make up their minds on where to go. Thousands of choices, and they made none. They were inert in the face of vast selection, and I get it. It’s like the Internet. It’s too much. Too many choices to know which is the right choice, so instead of selecting something—instead of taking action—you do nothing.

Let’s say I want to establish a fact—a truth—of some kind. The worst place to go is the Internet, yet that is where everyone goes. In the early nineties, I worked for Creative Loafing as an investigative reporter. I got up at 4 a.m. to perform school bus surveillance. I went to the library to look things up. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears before I established a truth. The truth was a thing. It existed. If we wanted to know it, we sought it out. It was a quest, not a click. And then when we found it, we wrote about it—in depth, not in a post. And if readers wanted to learn it, they read about it—in depth, not in a series of unconnected, completely subjective two-line tags on a Google search results page.

I miss the truth, and books are where we find it. It’s not just the feel of books or the nostalgia of them; I hate that argument. It’s that books are a finite thing. They are not fluid like a website or digital download. You can’t go back and unprint them, screw around with the facts, cover up truths to make someone look better, or rewrite passages as an afterthought. A book is there. It’s printed. It’s in your hand. It’s a thing.

Hollis’s latest book is a young adult novel called Unaccompanied Minor. You can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com

This article originally appeared in our November 2014 issue.

Self-Diagnosis

Illustration by Peter Arkle
Illustration by Peter Arkle

My friend Grant had five days left to live. I gave him fewer, of course, because I planned to kill him myself if the “advanced stomach cancer” panic he’d been worrying me with all week turned out to be full of crap. But still I was concerned, because Grant never goes to the doctor.

“I’m at the doctor,” Grant phoned me.

“What’s wrong?” I cried. Grant at the doctor is like a tree at the lumberyard—already cut down.

“They found a mass on my x-ray,” he said.

A mass? What does that mean? Grant answered by texting me a slew of graphic images of stomach cancer close-ups, which, I want to emphasize, were not images of his own stomach cancer. “Why are you sending me this? Send me your own x-ray!”

“I don’t have it to send you, but this is exactly what it looked like when the doctor showed me.”

“Get off the Internet, you total bovine!” I said, aiming to keep things upbeat with my signature form of flirting, but I could feel the panic welling. My friend Lynn recently lost her mother to stomach cancer. “You don’t know you have it until you’re already dead,” she said.

“Grant, these are color images taken during surgery,” I said. “You were shown an x-ray. That mass could be an air pocket or a shadow or that nickel you swallowed when you were six.” But Grant was already infuriatingly at peace with his self-prognosis and had lapsed into a far-off voice ruminating on the wonderful life he’d lived; the many things for which he was grateful; how his bar in the Old Fourth Ward, Sister Louisa’s Church, would be left in good hands; blah blah blah. I wanted to reach through the phone and slap him until he panicked like a proper neurotic.

Because I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I am the designated hypochondriac in our group. Usually a day doesn’t go by when I’m not certain I’ve swallowed a tapeworm or contracted SARS or something. “Five days left to live” is practically my catchphrase.

The last time Grant went to the doctor was nine years ago, when he woke up a few days after a fender bender to find he could hardly move. So he called our other friend Lary, who is not a doctor but is known for fixing things. Lary came over immediately and took Grant to a yard sale, where he propped him against the truck to ensure Grant got a good view as Lary rummaged through the junk. This was because Grant had assured Lary he was perfectly fine as long as he stayed still while slanting at a precise angle—that way he could “almost breathe.”

Even when it appeared paralysis was setting in, they did not call a doctor. Instead they called Lary’s ex-girlfriend, a nurse, who berated them with terms like “lacerated liver” and “collapsed lung” until they promised to get Grant to an emergency room. There, an x-ray showed that Grant had broken a few ribs, which caused swelling that formed an obstruction in his intestines. Grant, it turned out, was literally full of crap.

So nine years later, Grant was in the hospital again and certain he had five days left to live, holding my hand and making me promise to pick up where he’d left off with his eBay search for a postmodern urn so his ashes could match the Scandinavian decor of his loft. Much later, when I was called in to be updated after the procedure, I found Grant loopy from residual anesthesia, and a smiling doctor who handed me a folder proclaiming Grant’s clean bill of health. The mass was either a shadow or a clog created by Grant’s secret addiction to fiber capsules. Either way, it wasn’t a death sentence.

“Imma live,” Grant said. His grin was groggy.

“Not if I kill you myself.” I put my hand on his chest and he covered it with his. Right then, you would have thought I was looking down at Grant’s big smile and being damn relieved he didn’t have stomach cancer after all. You would have sworn I was thanking Jesus Christ that my friend was alive, fine, and full of crap as usual. n

Hollis’s latest book is a young adult novel called Unaccompanied Minor. You can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

 

Vocal Opposition

Illustration by Peter Arkle

My girl used to sing all the time. I remember when I enrolled her in the ART Station summer camp in Stone Mountain. She was part of the chorus for a play about Greek mythology. Oddly, and to the huge delight of the audience, the script called for them to sing “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. My girl was up front, and she belted out the lyrics like they were fire from a dragon’s heart. I will never forget it. She didn’t sound like Christina Aguilera, but she sounded like herself, and she could be heard over all the others. I loved that. Wouldn’t you love that?

Parents usually sit in wait for what will be revealed as their kid’s passion. Most hope for a surgeon, a financial wizard, or a savant of some kind. The roulette wheel spins, and the ball drops. I got music. And I say “I got music” because it’s just like when your child is born and people ask you, “What did you get?,” and you say “I got a boy” or “I got a girl.” And then later, you keep discovering what you got. It’s like, “Wow, I got a boy who loves karate,” or “Awesome, I got a girl who is passionate about civil rights”—or mathematics, opera, equestrian competitions, Internet algorithms, or whatever. Whatever you get, it’s always a surprise. It’s like that booth at the fair where you put your money in to pull a string for a chance to win an iPad, a finger puppet, or anything in between. There are variables that are up to your control, but barely. It’s mostly luck.

So when you pull the string and you get music—wow, your girl is into music; she loves to play the guitar, write songs, and sing—you walk away feeling like a winner. Because the string could have pulled up bank robber, Ponzi schemer, hammer-claw killer, or something like that, right? Don’t complain. Walk away a winner. Thank you, is all I have to say to the cosmic carnival worker who supplies the strings. Thank you.

But then my girl stopped singing. I mean it was all of a sudden. She told me someone said she wasn’t a good singer, so no more of that. “Please just sing ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles again,” I implored, “or ‘Heartbreaker’ by Led Zeppelin.” But no, it had been determined by outside forces that singing was out.

After that, I kept waking up with a song in my head. Most would consider this a good sign, but I’m ambiguous. These were bad songs—like Peaches & Herb bad.

Reunited, and it feels so good . . .

Or Katy Perry and that song about hearing her roar. One time it was “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. Mae was four when she met Adam Levine. Maroon 5 was the musical guest the same night as my appearance on The Tonight Show. She and her friend Madelaine were literally under the feet of the band members as they sat in the studio’s vintage barber chairs during makeup. Levine’s mother was there, and she helped wrangle the girls when it was time to go to the green room.

“Adam Levine!” I tell my suddenly songless girl. “He doesn’t exactly sound like Pavarotti. I’m sure plenty of people told him he couldn’t sing. But he didn’t let that stop him, did he?”

But I am sounding desperate. She can smell it on me like an animal in the wild. And isn’t that what being a parent boils down to? You are a ferocious animal protecting your prodigy. You’ve been given a prize by the cosmic carnival worker—you pulled the string—and someone is trying to diminish your prize. But no, I’m not going to let you.

I get it now. Why I wake up with those song lyrics in my head, like “You’re gonna hear me roar.” Because roaring is not always ferocious. Sometimes it is just waking up in the morning with the conviction that you are not giving up. Sometimes it means sitting with your girl and playing Sting, Bob Dylan, No Doubt, Maroon 5, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and any number of other bands fronted by singers who sound nothing like Christina Aguilera. Over and over and over, until one morning you hear your kid singing again behind the closed door of her room, tentatively at first, but then belting it out like fire from a dragon’s heart. I’m so relieved. You might not think this is serious. But seriously—so seriously—what is worse? A dream that doesn’t come true or never admitting you dream at all?

Love and Enchiladas

I was raised in a trailer two miles north of the Tijuana border. Or maybe that’s open to interpretation, because I wasn’t actually raised there, but I did live there for a while with my mother. Still, I’m fond of this part of my personal history because I think it makes me an authority on all things Mexican, especially food and tequila. Did you know, for instance, that the margarita cocktail was (possibly) inspired by a German bar patron named Marguerite? I bet you did not know that. I see your eyes are rolling back. It must be because you’re so stunned by my mastery of Mexican trivia.

When I first moved to Atlanta in the early nineties, you could not get a decent margarita unless you knew about Nuevo Laredo Cantina, which I did not. It had just opened in Home Park, which wasn’t even called Home Park then, and it was before social media, so how could you have known about it except by word of mouth? It took years for word of mouth to reach people. Word of mouth is the covered wagon of communication, but it’s all we had. So I languished in my studio apartment in Buckhead, begging the Americanized abomination of a Mexican restaurant next door to push the Slurpee machine off the porch and make me a real margarita.

“And what is this fruit cocktail you call ‘salsa’?” I’d grumble.

Today, though, it’s different. We’ve witnessed a culinary renaissance in Atlanta over the past few decades. Not only can you get a perfect margarita almost effortlessly, but there are, like, entire bars devoted to tequila alone. It has surpassed even my own snobby knowledge of stuff like this. Too bad I no longer drink like a house full of frat boys stranded in the desert, but hey, far be it from me to resent good fortune to future generations.

The food, though—now that is something in which I still partake. So when I go to a restaurant that bills itself as serving authentic Mexican food, and then they tell me that the word authentic is up to interpretation, I feel my Tijuana-trailer roots rear up.

“I didn’t order this,” I told the server.

“Um, you ordered the chicken enchiladas?” he responded.

“Yes, but enchiladas are wrapped in corn tortillas, not flour.”

“Our chef uses flour tortillas,” he said, giving that face servers use when, no matter how right you are, you’re not right.

“Fine. I’ll just draw Jefferson’s face on this cocktail napkin and use it to pay my check. I know you’re expecting authentic money, but I was expecting authentic Mexican food.”

Let me stop here to explain something: The word bitch is almost literally my middle name. Ten years ago, I wrote a book titled Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch, which hit the top of the charts, got me on The Tonight Show, and made me quasi-famous for fourteen minutes. I don’t object at all to the moniker; in fact, I consider it open to interpretation. Plus it gives me a lot of latitude on how to behave in public. Often when people meet me for the first time, they almost sound disappointed that, in person, I’m not a raging human hemorrhoid after all.

But I am offended, for example, when someone serves me a burrito and calls it an enchilada. I know the correct definition of “enchilada.” It’s not so much that I was brought something different, but that an attempt was made to change my definition of something I know is right. And if we lose our definitions of what is right, then what the hell good are we?

Stuff like this matters to me lately. My girl is a teenager. I remember when I was her age; it was five minutes later (it seems) that I fell monstrously in love with a guy whose definition of love was a lot different from mine. His involved abuse, in various forms. I accepted it for a few years, and then I left him during a rare moment of clarity. He was furious. Evidently he had truckloads of bad treatment still in store for me, and here I’d gone and shorted him out of the right to use it.

He attempted to get me back by shouting repeatedly, “I love you!” Even some of my friends were frustrated with me. “See? He loves you! He says so,” they’d insist. Let me tell you, it’s very unsettling to be bullied by someone trying to get you to accept that love exists simply because he declares it does.

It stopped eventually, or it never did. Whatever the case, I stood my ground and was called a bitch because of it. “Don’t serve me a bowl of crap and call it caviar,” I told him. I know what love is. I know the proper way to treat someone you love. If nothing else, I hope my kid walks away with this in life. I want her to know that love is vast and real, that it has a correct definition, which is not up for interpretation.

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.

Scattered thoughts

Funny thing: When you donate your body to science, they don’t actually keep it. For me this was a surprise. I thought that was the whole point. When my mother donated her body to science back before she died in 1991, she did it so she wouldn’t be a burden, she said. And I get it. She died way too young, and we, her idiot spawn, were unequipped to deal with the bureaucracy of burial and such. Our heads were not in the right place. Imagine having to deal with funeral arrangements in your twenties. My mother imagined it, and rightly understood we’d be inept at it. So upon her diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer, she arranged for her body to be collected by “science” within minutes of her death.

Looking back, I have to marvel at the flawless execution. She died at home, and “science” swept in immediately after the hospice volunteer placed the call. We, her children, never had to risk failure about what to do with her remains. My father, who died younger even than my mother, was buried in a beautiful cemetery in San Diego. The process had been executed flawlessly, of course, because my mother had executed it.

Then recently I found her ashes on my sister’s bookshelf.

“What’s that package?” I asked. It was wrapped in plain brown packing paper.

“Mom’s ashes,” Kim said.

Let me explain that my little sister is like the human hair trap of all our family crap. When I moved to Atlanta more than two decades ago, I brought nothing but what would fit in my ’69 Volkswagen Bug. The rest I packed up and left inside the toolshed my mother kept behind her trailer. As far as personal belongings go, it was a pitiful hoard, combined with all the other pitiful hoards of my siblings. When my mother moved from the trailer to the beachside cottage where she’d eventually pass away, the nonessential portion of these hoards was left behind. What survived were forgotten family mementos, all of which ended up in my little sister’s possession. Occasionally she delights me by sending me packets of my old photographs. Slowly she is divesting herself of the yoke of family archivist and is entrusting us with our own history again. I appreciate that, because after all these years, I feel I’m finally in the right place to care for it.

But back to science and how they don’t keep the bodies donated to it. Instead they cremate them and send them back to you—or in this case, to the family member listed on the contact sheet. They send the remains back with a nice note informing you of the studies to which the body contributed. My mother, it turned out, contributed to the treatment of tennis elbow. I found this ironic, because only recently I had my first bout of tennis elbow, which hurt like I’d shoved my arm into a wood chipper.

I took the ashes, along with my sister, to the airport. Another funny thing: A box of ashes in a suitcase under an X-ray machine looks exactly like a big block of plastic explosives. We had to actually open the ashes for airport security to prove that they were ashes. And since they were opened, we decided to stop in Las Vegas on our way to San Diego to sprinkle some of my mother’s ashes at the foot of her favorite slot machine on Fremont Street. Gambling was a family pastime for us. As kids we used to stand next to our mother as she played blackjack at the Golden Nugget. “Don’t be afraid to put your chips on the table,” she’d say. But to this day I’m still a little afraid to put my chips on the table.

Then it was on to San Diego. Another funny thing: You can’t just all-on-your-own bury the remains of your mother on top of your father’s grave. There’s bureaucracy involved. First we had to get a copy of her death certificate, then a burial permit. In my twenties I would have met friends for margaritas halfway through that list and never completed it. I was constantly, gloriously failing at things, and my mother would tell me, “At least your heart is in the right place.”

Once we got the paperwork together, we presented it to a cemetery lady named Paulette, who liked to tell us about the cosmic significance of certain itchy body parts. (“If my right foot itches, it means something good’s gonna happen. If my right eye itches, it means someone’s gonna get hurt.”) We paid a hefty fee to have my mother’s “cremains” interred in the ground above our father’s casket. I told Kim I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop, and we laughed. People don’t usually laugh at cemeteries, but our mother had been dead more than twenty years, her remains carted around to countless locations in a plain paper package, dusty, cobweb-ridden. It was just such a relief, I tell you, to have everything—our heads, our hearts, our mother—finally in the right place.

This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue.

Collector’s item

My friend grant Henry is having a baby. Or more specifically, his daughter Mary Grace is the one performing the actual feat of giving birth, and she and her new husband will be the actual parents. But I try not to remind Grant of that. He is too busy buying designer high chairs off the Internet to notice the baby doesn’t belong to him.

“I just got this chair for Skeeter,” Grant says. That’s what he calls his baby, the one his daughter is gracious enough to be having for him. The chair is a child-sized rendition of all the others in his loft, which looks like a floor in a department store—the midcentury modern furniture floor. I did not know that Knoll made baby chairs. Or is it Bertoia? Whatever it is, Grant has a collection of it. His place is spotless and exhibits no sign of personal habitation. No family pictures or funny refrigerator magnets. There is a painting of his daughter at the age of fourteen that he hung at knee level in his hallway, but that is it. All other personal curios are kept socked away somewhere, out of view—they don’t match what he refers to as his “collections.” Every burner on his otherwise untouched stove top boasts an equally untouched Danish modern tea kettle, each exactly the same but for color. It really is like a display room. I like to come over and complain there are no price tags on his items.

“I am not a hoarder,” he tells me. “I’m a collector.”
“All hoarders say that,” I remind him.

The angriest I’ve ever seen Grant is when my friend Daniel and I broke into his place late one night to rearrange his furniture, after deciding this prank would drive him up the wall the most. We probably overdid it: Just one chair pushed an inch off the mark would have been sufficient, but we actually relocated things. This was in retaliation for Grant breaking into my place a few nights earlier and eating all the gourmet chocolate I’d planned to put in the Christmas baskets I was making for my editors. We were all neighbors living on the first floor of the Telephone Factory in Poncey-Highland, and we were constantly breaking into each other’s places to borrow tequila or space heaters or to litter condoms all over the bedroom floor to make it look like an orgy had taken place. It was fun and insane and I was the first to move out, having bought a house, gotten knocked up, and written a bestseller all seemingly simultaneously.

A few months later, Grant actually hung my baby by the straps of her overalls on his wall. “Look,” he said excitedly, “Baby by Hollis. We could have an art show! A collection of babies, all hanging on the walls. Are you not loving this idea?”
“I am not loving this idea,” I said, unhooking my child.

To this day Mae, now fourteen, is nuts about Grant Henry. She texts him whenever she’s frustrated with me, which is usually when I won’t give her something, like tickets to a sold-out concert at the Tabernacle to see some screaming gaggle of skinny chimpanzees that makes up her favorite band. She knows Grant will get the tickets for her and that it will piss me off. “Don’t worry, I’ll chaperone,” he promises, as though that is any comfort.

Until yesterday his daughter was living in Mexico. She moved there at eighteen. I remember the day she left. Mae was in diapers, a pink tutu, and tiny black combat boots. Now, more than a decade later, Mary Grace is back with a handsome Latin husband, a baby bump, and—compliments of her dad—a perfectly furnished shotgun shack in Cabbagetown. Now my baby will soon babysit hers. I find that fairly amazing.
“Hey, Grampy!” I greet Grant as he pulls into my driveway to deliver my girl a gift, which he bought after texting her, “What do you want for your birthday that your mother won’t get you?” She pounces on the package like a kitten on an open can of tuna. Of course, it’s something both inappropriate and insanely expensive. Mae thanks him and asks about his impending grandfatherhood.

“How are you going to live with yourself with only one grandchild?” Mae teases. “One baby does not make a collection. You need a collection.”

Grant threw his head back and laughed. I laughed too. Sweet child, does she not know Grant’s collection is complete? And that she is part of it? And that, in our own way, we all match each other perfectly?

For the Lady

There is a little old lady living in the bushes along the on-ramp by my house. I might have imagined her, but I doubt it. The last time I hallucinated, I was seventeen and driving south on the freeway that runs along the California coast. Suddenly I saw wild animals—giraffes, warthogs, and whatnot—running alongside my car, and keeping good pace, too. I had to steady the wheel in order to keep from grazing them on either side. Then I realized I was sleeping. I actually realized while I was sleeping that I was sleeping. At the wheel. I snapped awake just in time to avoid crashing into the traffic divider. To this day I think those imaginary animals were herding me to safety. Thank you, imaginary animals. Because when I consider the odds of surviving something like that, it comes up a losing bet every time.

My mother was a big gambler and taught me to always calculate the odds. She was in her fifties when she lost her job designing weapons for the government. Joblessness shouldn’t have been new to her. The nature of her profession was contract-based, and contracts end. Plenty of contracts had ended in the past, and she’d picked herself back up immediately. But this last time was different. She didn’t get up, or at least not in the way she usually did. Instead she retired as a missile scientist and became a junk dealer. She sold her wares at the swap meet. She wore a coin belt. She became best friends with a man who lived in his car. Until I saw it, I would have put the odds pretty high against this ever happening. But it happened.

Unlike the hobo who panhandles along the I-20 off-ramp around the corner from my house, the little old lady doesn’t have a cute dog she outfits in baby clothes to solicit generosity from drivers. That’s one successful gimmick, believe me. People throw money at that guy. If I ever become homeless, I plan to panhandle with my dog alongside me, because the odds of getting people to throw money at me would definitely be in my favor.

But the little old lady does not have a dog, nor does she have a sign, such as the other off-ramp panhandler whose sign reads, “Dreaming of a Cheeseburger.” In fact, she doesn’t panhandle at all. She lives in the bushes along the on-ramp, mind you. People don’t panhandle along on-ramps. They panhandle along off-ramps, where drivers are stopped waiting for either the light or a break in traffic, and the odds of them rolling down their windows and forking over some cash are much higher.

The little old lady is no bigger than a boy, which may explain why she wears the clothes of one: cargo pants, T-shirt, tennis shoes, grotty peacoat. No gloves. Or socks. All filthy, which stands to reason, seeing as she lives in the bushes. I usually see her walking the area around Boulevard where it connects with I-20. She is a curiosity, that one. She is not the “sweet little old lady” kind of little old lady. She stares straight ahead with furrowed brow, her face awash with the burden of having awoken alive that day, her hair solid white and matted, like Einstein’s.

Still, I didn’t think she was actually homeless (because what are the odds?)—not until I saw her climbing out of the bushes along the on-ramp, swinging her little legs over the barrier one at a time in order to commence her rickety wandering of my neighborhood. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. In my experience with homeless people, which I think is so extensive because I live near downtown Atlanta, they loudly announce their condition somehow, by sleeping in doorways, for example, or brandishing actual signs (“Homeless Man Needs Beer”), or by pushing a small mountain of their possessions—including, in one case, a toilet seat and taxidermied rabbit—around in shopping carts. And the odds are they will ask you for things, and that they will not be tiny and grandmotherly-looking.

My daughter says I have a soft spot for “lady hobos,” as she calls them. I’ve packed a bag with food, clothes, gloves, socks, and a blanket. I’m going to leave it near the bushes by the on-ramp, over the barrier. A note on the outside of the bag reads, “For the Lady.” I don’t know if I have a soft spot. It’s just that when I see homeless little old ladies I think of my mother, who taught me to calculate odds, and how the funny thing about odds is that they are not always in your favor.

Hollis has a new book! The novel is called Unaccompanied Minor, and you can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

Twist and Shout

The hipster waiter keeps calling me “dear,” and it bugs the hell out of me. He’s so young that if I were twice his age, I still wouldn’t be that old. Cut the ‘dear’ crap! I want to shout. I’m a strong, successful woman!

Even Grant sympathizes with me, and he never sympathizes with me. Take my present bout of tennis elbow. I get no sympathy. None. But then Grant has been subjected to so many of my loudly broadcast false alarms in the past—the Great Tapeworm Panic of 1997 comes to mind—that no wonder he and my other friend Lary think I’m making this up.

“Can you please stir my coffee for me?” I ask Grant, my good hand holding the cup.

“Hell, no,” he says.

“I have tennis elbow!” I holler.

Then Lary chimes in. “Is that even a thing?”

“Tennis elbow is totally a thing!” I cry, holding my right arm toward him. “Please rub it. Please. Puh-leez.” But it’s like asking a crocodile to perform a face-lift. Lary doesn’t touch people unless it’s to push them off a subway platform or something. “You don’t even play tennis,” he says.

I did not get tennis elbow from playing tennis. I got it from forgetting I’m not invincible. Why call a plumber? I recall thinking. I’ll fix this toilet my own damn self. In case you’re unaware, fixing toilets entails a constant succession of twisting things—the bolts from the tank, the flush valve from the thingy, the doohickey from the dealydob—but I hate calling plumbers because I hate strangers in my house. I used to call Lary to come fix things like this, but he’s done so many similar repairs for me so many times in the past that he’s right in insisting I should know how to do them myself by now.

It took me all morning, and an actual hacksaw was involved, but I fixed the toilet in semi-record time. I was in a hurry to catch a flight, and my friend Kirsty had this maddening requirement that there be functioning plumbing in order for her to house-sit my place. A shout-out to the nice customer at the Edgewood Lowe’s who helped me select the correct jiggy flip to fit into the nibby nob, because without him Kirsty would have had to do her business in the backyard alongside my dogs for five days.

My arm seemed fine that first day. It wasn’t until the next morning at the hotel that the simple act of lifting a coffee cup could drop me like a shotgun. OMGah! What the hell is this? I thought, rolling on the floor, wailing like a sick sea elephant. It got so bad that I couldn’t even push the elevator button without screaming. My daughter didn’t see the problem. Kids are visual; they don’t think you’re hurt unless they see you hemorrhage bloody geysers from your jugular. And simply proclaiming you’re in pain will garner eye rolls so big it’s a wonder they don’t flip over backward.

The first worst part of tennis elbow is the fact that it’s called “tennis elbow.” It should be called “hatchet elbow” or “railroad-spike elbow,” something in line with how much it actually hurts. Telling people you have tennis elbow doesn’t sound like a good enough reason for all the assistance you’ll be forced to beg for during the two weeks before it goes away. “Help, I have tennis elbow and I can’t lift this!” I probably heard myself say twice before I decided it was better to just look lazy and leave my tray on the table or my items on the floor where I accidentally dropped them.

The other worst part is that your arm appears to be perfectly functioning. It’s not even hardly swollen. It looks like any other healthy arm, only yours happens to be packed with a million invisible switchblades that stab you when you try to do anything normal, like brush your teeth or open a car door. So basically you’re standing around and, at turns, wailing and complaining, then angrily insisting you’re not helpless—you just fixed a broken toilet by yourself, dammit.

So now I’ve gone from complaining about the pain to complaining about my friends’ wholesale minimizing of said pain. At this point I don’t blame them; I can’t even stand myself. I’m considering using my hacksaw to cut my arm off above the elbow. I’ve become so unbearable to be around that my friends have left me alone in the diner to stew in my self-pity.

“Anything else, dear?” the waiter asks.

“Don’t call me ‘dear,’” I snarl. I’m a strong, successful woman. I fixed a toilet by myself, dammit. “Wait, can you please stir my coffee for me?”

Hollis has a new book! The novel is called Unaccompanied Minor, and you can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com.

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

Heartbreak on deck

I’m a sucker for puppies. But I’m not as bad as my friend Kate, who stopped traffic on I-75 in order to scoot a possum to safety from the center lane. To Kate, even possums are puppies. I get it. A possum once befriended Sockie, my adopted Dumpster dog. Sockie mysteriously whimpered at the back door every midnight until I finally turned on the porch light to see a baby possum waving at her from the patio table. We named him Ruffles. When I let Sockie out to commune with him, they seemed delighted to be in each other’s company, even though the most they did was barely touch noses. 

I don’t know what happened to Ruffles’s mom, or even to Ruffles himself after a while. When he stopped coming around, Sockie was so bereft I got an additional dog to keep her company. I chose another rescued Dumpster puppy of varied canine muttigree like Sockie herself, only while Sockie is latte colored, this one is almost all black. We named her Jasmine. Her face is like a jewel. Precious. Jasmine has a personality like a meadow breeze, calm and sweet. And she likes to eat. All grown up, today she looks like a furry potato on toothpicks. My friends laugh at the sight of her. But when I look at her, I see the same puppy I brought home that day. I can’t imagine her old. Though I know I’ll see her get there. 

Because unless you have a sea turtle for a pet, the odds are that you’ll outlive it. This is why they say that getting a dog is a heartbreak waiting to happen. And it’s true, but personally I don’t see the point in life unless you’re willing to love something enough to be heartbroken if it leaves you. 

Kate is the mother of my girl’s best friend, and the four of us travel a lot together. In Peru I’ve seen Kate buy a bag of fried guts from a street vendor and feed it to a dog still cupped in the arms of its unconscious owner, a vagrant sprawled in the doorway of a condemned building. I kept my distance. “Are you sure that guy’s not dead?” I asked, just as he grunted and tightened his arms around the dog. “Why don’t you just take the dog and find it a better owner?” 

“Are you kidding me?” Kate said. “Look at this dog. He’s happy. He has no idea he isn’t living in the lap of luxury. This is a good dog. Good dogs don’t love bad people.” That last line was a famous one from Lewis Grizzard, but I doubt Kate even knew she was quoting him. Dog lovers think alike. Kate patted the dog firmly and left it there, embraced. 

Once I sat across the aisle from a teenage mother on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Her newborn lay swaddled in her arms while its carrier sat secured to the center seat next to them, and twice during turbulence she was admonished for not strapping the baby into it. “It’s the safest thing to do,” the flight attendant said. The young mother ignored her, which I considered unwise. If we hit an air pocket, that sprogette would’ve popped out of her arms like a greased piglet. You think you can hold on, but you can’t. I even reached across the aisle to pat the girl on her hand and remind her of what the flight attendant said. I’m a mother myself, so stupidly I think I know things. 

Later I learned the girl was on her way to deliver the baby to its adoptive parents. I remember when I was a kid I thought unwanted pregnancies were, like, literally a crime or something. I thought if it happened to you they chained you up in a church basement for Catholic nuns to extract the babies and sweep them off to orphanages, where other mothers chose among them. I didn’t know you got to hold them like this mother did. No wonder she didn’t want to let go. 

I don’t know why I thought of the young mother when I was talking about puppies. Maybe it’s because the girl must have known, even at her age, that her choice was a heartbreak waiting to happen. But she made it anyway. That’s how it often is with the things we love. They leave our lives early, yet we still bring them into it. They slip out of our grip. You think you can hold on, but you can’t.

Hollis has a new book! The novel is called Unaccompanied Minor, and you can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.

Fill in the Blanks

I have chest pains. I’m serious. I am five minutes away from calling an ambulance. The only thing stopping me is that my friend Milt recently called an ambulance because he felt chest pains, and it turned out he was having a panic attack, which is not life-threatening but just as expensive. The ambulance charges the same for panic attacks as it does for pulling you back from the precipice of death—roughly the rate of a pair of healthy human kidneys on Chinese eBay. I hear I should call the fire department instead, because they provide EMS, and it’s cheaper than ambulances. I’m probably having a run-of-the-mill heart attack anyway, not a stroke or a pulmonary embolism or anything special—no paddles necessary. Very standard.

I remember during my long and not illustrious career as a flight attendant I once made it all the way to the layover hotel in Frankfurt before finding out someone had died of a heart attack in the front section of the plane. I was in the back, buffered from the dead man by about 300 passengers, so all I noticed was that disembarkation took much longer than normal. Probably because the flight coordinator had to fill out the incident report before the medical crew could cart off the body. When I try to remember what the man looked like, I either come up empty or fill in the blank with a pleasant face. When someone dies within the confines of your space, even if that space is a commercial jet half the size of a football field, the occasion should merit thought.

“The heart is a hollow muscular organ,” my father once told me as he brandished a canister of tiny nitroglycerin tabs from his doctor, who’d informed him he’d probably had a couple of heart attacks already and hadn’t realized it. My dad laughed it off, though nitroglycerin seemed serious enough. Builders used it to blast through mountains in the 1800s in order to lay railroad so people could move to Northern California and create mansions like the Winchester Mystery House, a colossal curiosity of architecture that is now a tourist attraction. My father liked oddities, and the Winchester Mystery House was one of his favorites. It started out as a simple farmhouse and ended up a giant amalgam of elaborate staircases and passageways, some broken, some abandoned, and some built upon. It was a perpetual work in progress augmented by other works in progress—never finished, yet no space left blank. My dad said it was commissioned by a woman mad with grief over the death of her family. Her heart was hollow, and she wanted to fill it.

A few years later, my dad himself died. It was sudden. He was the age I am now. This probably explains my own chest pains. Maybe they are not serious, but then seriousness is relative. I recently had to break it to my daughter that Ria Pell, Atlanta celebrity chef and the benevolent owner of Ria’s Bluebird, a breakfast joint around the corner from us, had died suddenly. Mae has known Ria her whole life, and two of the servers at Ria’s restaurant are parents to Mae’s schoolmates. I remember taking Mae to Ria’s Bluebird on her fourth birthday. She ordered the brisket. It seemed like a lot for a four-year-old, and it was. Ria used to keep a picture of Mae and some of the other neighborhood kids taped to the coffee machine.

The Lady Liberty Tattoo parlor was offering commemorative bluebird tattoos in honor of the beloved chef—who herself sported an artful body landscape—with proceeds going toward her funeral services. Ria was young. Younger than my dad when he died. Younger than I am now.

“Can I get a tattoo?” Mae asked.

My chest. The pain is real. “No tattoo, honey. Sorry.”

Mae is also friends with the daughter of the couple who own the tattoo studio. “It’s funny when two people covered in tattoos get together and have a baby,” Mae once said, “because the baby comes out blank. It’s like the baby is a blank slate.”

My heart. It hurts. People are brought into this world a clean slate; then their slates become lively and expressive and colorful and anything but blank. Their slates interconnect with those they love to tell a bigger story, and the story is never finished, is it? It continues, a perpetual work in progress augmented by other works in progress. People die young. It happens. Still, these pains in my heart, these are just probably pieces of my slate, some broken, some abandoned, and some built upon. What’s missing, though, are the blanks. Those have all been filled.

Hollis has a new book! The novel is called Unaccompanied Minor, and you can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com.

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.

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