Saturday, September 22, 2007

Love Letters to a Fourteen Year Old

I've been a little down for the last week or so. Somewhere out there in the meandering channels of United States Postal Service, or in the mail rooms of dozens of literary journal, are my nicely typed submissions which have gone unanswered for six months or longer. If you write I am sure you can sympathize. Envelopes in the hands of strangers. Time drags on. You hope for the best.

To cheer myself up tonight I went down to the basement office I share with spiders, and pulled an old shoe box off a shelf crammed with boxed-up nativity figurines and old stereos. It's a box I've kept stowed away since I was in high school. I had the no-response blues, so I thought I would go slumming through memory lane, and remember a time when every letter I wrote received a heartfelt response. The shoe box holds the remnants of all my juvenile romances.

I was a letter writer up until the late nineties when I got my first hotmail address. I have love letters from girls I met at the beach on summer vacations, notes from girls I met at track meets, and Valentine Day cards from girls I can't place at all after so many years. Email ended this. With a check and a click
I erased every significant relationship I had after the age of eighteen. When I bring out the box, I am reminded of the tragedy of convenience.

If I had had email when I was younger I wouldn't have been able to notice the following:

When young and writing love letters, it is important to use a lot of exclamation points.
If you have a step-daughter it is important to develop a strong bond with her. Otherwise she will refer to you only by your first name, and write long diatribes against you to boys she hardly knows.
The girls who wrote to me spent almost have their time writing about their sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. This make sense since for the most part we hardly knew one another although we were in the grips of storied and tragic love affairs.

Nearly every letter ends with a plea to write back soon. The absence of email led to anticipation which made the whole affair more exciting. I imagine the girls who wrote me walked to the mailbox everyday, as I did, full of hope that there would be a letter waiting for them. This was good training for a writer.

We talked about everyday things: music, movies, TV shows. When I read the letters I feel old.

It is possible to express your feelings with homemade gifts. The box contained among other things a romantic cassette tape with songs by Bryan Adams and REO Speedwagon taped from the radio, and a lock of hair taped to a birthday card.

In the end, I'm glad that email didn't exist when I was younger. Thanks to my shoe box I spent the night remembering a girl with amazing handwriting who dated me and three other boys at the same time, a girl whose dad had threatened to send her to Charter Ridge (a mental hospital) if she got out of hand, and a girl who was thrilled that she just made third chair in band. I was also able to read letters from people I promised to love forever who I can't place now but whose sentiments still make me feel cared for.

Save your old love letters. Throw away your rejections. Wait for the mail, and keep faith that someone you haven't spoken to in years is cloistered in a basement remembering you fondly.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Motels Part I


The Kozy Motel in Manchester, KY is a sagging platform of concrete and plaster that sits atop of a NAPA store my uncle Shorty has owned as long as I've lived. It was once a nice, clean, no-frills motel. It had been the only place to stay in town when my uncle owned it too.

When I was young my uncle drove my cousin and I to Lexington to see the WWF. It was the mid-eighties, and pro wrestling was at its height with heroes like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant beating each other senseless on national television three times a week. In the back of the car my cousin and I talked about our heroes. I had a Jake the Snake Roberts poster that ran the length of my door, and my cousin had a foam replica of the championship belt which I envied greatly.

"Randy 'Mach Man' Savage, is going to be there with Elizabeth" my cousin said. "He hates Hulk because they used to be friends."

"He ain't a Macho Man," my uncle Shorty said. "He used to stay at the Kozy with his brother Lanny when they wrestled Smokey Mountain. I threw them out for stealing towels."

We loved the show that night because we had a first-hand account that the heel Macho Man was a real villian-- a towel thief.


At the Baptist college I first attended, there were rules for everything. There were rules against holding hands in public or kissing on the lips. There were rules against wearing the wrong t-shirt, against unnaturally colored hair or pierced noses. There were rules to keep students from running.

Students were given two overnight passes a semester which had to be signed by their parents and approved by the college. If a student left for the night without an overnight pass they could be expelled. The college had learned long ago it was easier to expel troublemakers (free thinkers, pregnant girls) than to reform them. It was a work/study college, so it didn't hurt their bottom line to send half a dozen home each semester. It sent the right message to those that stayed.

The night before finals I sat in a Denny's with a girl I had known for a week. We smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. I had met her in art class where she only drew dead trees and nursery rhyme characters. Neither of us had an overnight pass, and each time a police man came to the pick-up window we sank into our seats.

We spent the night in a motel which had been built on top of a former stripmine. The polyester comforter was stained with motor oil. Ladybugs explored the blinds. We made love as if there was no hope left for us tomorrow.


She had taken off her pants in the car as we crossed the desert because I asked her too. The car had no air-conditioner, and the heat had been growing since we passed an amusement park on the other side of Los Angeles. I had never driven a stick before so we depended on long runs. If I stopped at a light we were lost. Roadside flea markets bled into Barstow, and afterwards we vanished into the Mojave at seventy miles an hour.

Her feet dangled out the window, and sunlight bounced off half-painted toes. By the end of the day we had left the desert behind us, and found ourselves over seven thousand feet above sea level in Flagstaff, Arizona. I promised to get her off the road soon, and she asked if I wanted to go out later get a tattoo.

The lobby of the motel was decorated with statuettes of Hindu deities. Above the front desk curling blue arms spread out like a crab next to black bodied goddesses heavy with jewels. We checked in under fake names and paid in cash.

That night as she slept I sat on the floor in my underwear and watched a documentary about The Mississippi River. Hernado De Soto first laid eyes on it in 1541, when he was forty-four years old. I counted the days until I would see it for the first time. I was young. I too was an explorer.