Stories from Tenx9ers

Things I Never Told My Parents – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from our record-breaking night at February 2018’s theme “Things I Never Told My Parents.”

Nashville, tonight we are really glad are parents weren’t here!54-Things I Never Told My Parents

We never told them of our break from the rigid rules of the all-girl school to throw an all-girlfriend party, complete with bilingual education in the use of contraband and marital education watching unimaginable things in a decidedly unromantic movie.

We never told of skipping school to sneak into the cow pasture, or bribing Queen Betty with shoplifted goodies and facing legendary African discipline, or guzzling a large wine glass of…not-wine. But we learned our lessons and became our parents’ pride and joy.

We never told of going to Bonnaroo without A/C, observing dead-head bongs and landscape paintings on inappropriately free canvases, where we engaged in an act of cultural defiance involving sophisticated daisies—which led us to the profound discovery that we would rather be fully clothed.

We never told that we investigated the legality of our parents’ marriage, or that we used the imaginary story of our grandparents’ marriage to deflect unwanted advances, or that we knew the truth of our mom’s mom’s plot to snare our dad’s dad.

We never told of how preaching our grandmother’s funeral led to discoveries of useless floppies, and handwritten records of grandfather’s…compulsions, and tales of the horny bugger’s conquests. And we’re certain that Mom still wouldn’t want to know!

We never told of our Jeckyll-and-Hyde youth in the Flatbush fish tank—of the gangster threat at the off-track betting parlor, or the whack from the camp survivor, or the assault from the street punks—or of our life with the Huxtables and Yiddish raps.

We never told of flipping off the universe and luring death into the mosh pits of anarchists and the tense world of colored bootlaces, and landing in a dangerous fight between commies and skinheads—but we were more afraid of losing our mother.

We never told of how our drama teacher, who sacrificed God’s gifts to help young thespians, promoted us from lip-syncing “Happy Birthday” to performing as a singing rat—when performance-anxiety-induced pit stains led us to a novel first use for feminine hygiene products.

We never told of a moment in the dark in a funeral parlor 63 years ago, or of being afraid of what others would think, or even more of what Dad would do. But we can now say that secret is no longer in those shadows, and we are free from the fear…and we can now say, “Me too!”

A special thanks to all our exceptional storytellers—Annette, Anna, Gayathri, Jeannie, Elisa, Steve, Melissa, Sally, and Amanda! What a night! Join us in March for “Ouch.” You can request a story slot here.



OMG – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from January 2018’s theme “OMG!”

OMG, Nashville!

There in the fancy spa was the one destined to be our friend. So, we streaked from the aloe chamber to the steam bath—and celebrated her birthday in our birthday suit.

We went from a wedding reception with cupcakes and sober dancing to a weird rage 53-OMGparty, with siblings who hit each other’s crotches and freeze placentas. And, while watching a water bottle crash to earth, we tilted over the precipice of adulthood.

Scotty’s friends had come and gone, when we found a giant pig regally strolling through the living room. But with our best Shakespearean monologue, we banished the swine into the darkness!

We pursued the life-long goal of double-dating with Mom and her date’s son, which took us from a tennis stud with whispering hair to a tinder match with a scrub, and a shocking Facebook encounter—OMG! WTF! LOL—which somehow didn’t keep our parents apart!

We spent Easter season in Italy. We didn’t know what to do with the ash on our scalp. We scored Catholic Super Bowl tickets at the Vatican. And we closed the season by sharing a plate of chic-pea bread from Nono.

She had always had a past we did not want to know, but when we heard her voice this time, something was different. As she sat in the dark shadow of death, we frantically summoned the Law—and we will never know if we really helped.

We practiced law low-bono for free plumbing and AK-47s. But after our attempt at Matlock failed, our improperly dressed client caused us to question who was actually selling themselves.

Our anxiety rose as we signed the waivers, donned the identity-marking vests, and learned the 3-step rescue plan. But an autograph for his daughter revealed that we had helped change what is underneath his tattoos.

“I am up for anything” proved to be ill-advised words as we entered the Japanese equivalent of an American pub, where we dropped the loin cloth and exchanged nudity for inebriation—and found life-long friends.

Thanks to all our storytellers—Melissa, David, Madison, Marilyn, JW, CJ, Simon, Anna, and Bill! We will be back at Douglas Corner Cafe on Monday, February 26 for our theme “Things I Never Told My Parents.” Gotta story for that? Let us know here!

54-Things I Never Told My Parents

That Was Awkward – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from our December 2017 theme “That was Awkward.”

Tonight was…well, awkward.

We planned our wedding in great detail…except for one crucial document. But we finally 52 - That Was Awkwardcelebrated with a church full of unenthusiastic strangers.

We attended the funeral of our political Protestant grandmother, who was noticeably dead in the pink casket. After uncomfortable memories over casserole with cousins, we learned the palpable presence of absence.

We stalked a tall handsome stranger with our love-struck friend…for a long time. Then we attended his Bollywood wedding, where we were the focus of the entire village’s sympathy!

O.J. inspired us to grow from a ghoulish child to the coolest kid. And we inspired more girls with Diet Coke explosions, self-electrocutions, and…well…wheat germ jizz.

We had an out-of-body experience in the “Not-a-Diary-Queen,” and had to confess to the church—“I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!”

Eight hours into an eleven-hour trip, we plotted revenge…leading to the exchange of sexy, stolen merchandise for divorce-friendly yoga pants—and a thoroughly confused teenager.

We wore rubber gloves and wrote romantic novels and took leaning graduation photos…and somehow grew from the devastation of unrequited 8th grade love to the confidence of an adult with fond memories.

Regrading silence as an invitation to blurt out hair-brained remarks, we compared a tumor-inspired necklace to shrimp cocktail, which led to an awkward volleyball game about aquariums and Blackfish and beluga whales.

Tonight was awkward.

Thanks to all our storytellers—Rob, Darlene, Brittany, Christy, John, Ty, Bekah, and Deepa! Join us on Jan 22 for our 2018 launch theme “OMG!” Pitch your story here!


Jeff Shearer—Hunters and Gatherers

Jeff Shearer tell us a delightful story of when he was young for our November 2017 collaboration with One Voice Nashville. 

Outside of Portland, Oregon there’s a town called Beaverton.  And within the town of 51- When I Was YoungBeaverton there’s a group of 400 houses in a place called Marlene Village.  That’s where I was born.  It was a community built to provide homes to all the veterans who had returned from World War II.   For a six year old kid – Marlene Village had everything.   Three doors down was a neighbor who built boats in his garage and would let us watch, which was safe, because he used no power tools.   There were trees to climb when the neighborhood German Shepherd chased me on my bike because our Cocker Spaniel back home was in heat, and the German Shepherd’s hormones couldn’t detect that I didn’t look anything like a Cocker Spaniel.

In the summer, after the road patching crew made their yearly pass down our street, we took off our shoes and socks and popped hot tar bubbles with our big toes.  When a house on the corner caught on fire, the neighborhood moms herded all of us down the street to stand on the curb and watch the flames until a single firetruck arrived just in time to save the last standing wall.

Marlene Village had everything a six year old could want.  And on Saturdays, that was important, since every kid was expelled from the house after breakfast with a single command:   Go Play.    Followed by a reminder:   And be home by supper.

On one particular Saturday, I led a group of kids across the creek that separated our backyard and the wheat field that bordered our village.  I was six. They were younger, mostly four and five.  This meant that I automatically was the leader.   I showed them the rocks to step on to avoid getting bit by the crawdads in the creek.   I led them tromping through the wheat fields to a place we called the woods, a stand of pine trees that could provide hours of entertainment in games of hiding or in random discovery.

I had climbed the thickest tree I could find while the others played. I must have been about ten feet off the ground when looking down, I spotted what looked like a deer.   It was perfectly still.  I have since learned that thanks to our primitive ancestors, as humans we have what anthropologists call Attention Bias.  If there is anything that looks like prey or predator in our line of sight, we have an incredible ability to pick it out, while an inanimate object, even a precious one, will go undetected.    I stared harder.     It was a deer!   A very silent deer.    It had antlers, a nose like a chunk of coal, long  reddish brown ears, and eyes that were so intent they looked frozen.  I took inventory.  Antlers, nose, ears, eyes.   But there the similarities stopped.   Wasn’t there supposed to be a neck?   And legs?  And a tail?    This deer had none of those.   I remember thinking.   This is my lucky day.   There is no way this deer can run away.    My family were not hunters, so I had no idea how a deer’s head suddenly would appear in the woods without the rest of its torso.  But I did know that I had to scramble out of that tree and claim my prize before any of the younger kids stumbled upon it.

The feeling of discovery was intoxicating. The smaller kids ran up to me as I lifted up my finding.  They all wanted to pet the deer.  They wanted to know what all the flies were excited about.   They asked me what I was going to do with it.  I thought about that.   But there was only one answer: Take it home to mom.

The journey home was a lot longer than that morning’s trip to the woods.    For the next half hour we trekked over fallen trunks and through clumps of pine needles.  We stomped across the furrowed wheat field, the deer looking like it nodded each time it bumped from one furrow to the next.  I dragged it by the antlers, first the left, then the right, then the left again, a single vacant eye constantly looking heavenward.    My small army followed me, swatting at the flies with their sticks.    I had a single thought: Now I know what it feels like to provide for the family.  It had to be in my genes. This was some vestigial urge from a distant Neanderthal ancestor: “Take this home. This is  supper.”  The feeling was exhilarating.   To know that we weren’t the descendants of some ancient group of mambly pambly foragers and gatherers.  No berries and nuts for this tribe. No — we came from solid stock.  We were hunters!

During the trek home, I imagined the surprise on my mom’s face when I presented her with this trophy.   It would be a look of joy, followed by what –  yes — an announcement of a family celebration.    I pictured the envy on my older brother’s face and the stunned look of awe from my younger brother. My sister would say this is just like the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving.    My dad would then march us all down the hall to help me weigh the deer on the bathroom scale.

I had reached the creek.   My arms ached from all the dragging, but there was no way I was letting the blood thirsty crawdads get anywhere close to my deer.  I hoisted the head up until its ears touched my shoulders, and found the best rocks to ford the creek.  It took three attempts to climb the far bank that led up to our back yard.   On my third attempt  I figured out that turning the head upside down allowed me to dig into the crumbling dirt with the antlers, letting me  move up the bank in small six inch steps, like climbing a glacier with an ice ax.

I crossed the yard and pulled the deer up the two steps to our back door.  I tried not to let the screen door slam.     I looked around the corner.   My mom’s back was turned to me as she stirred something in a boiling pot of water. I pulled the deer across the linoleum floor and set it right in front of our chrome and formica breakfast table.   I knelt down on both knees and pulled back on the antlers to make sure the eyes were looking up at my mom.

“Hey mom. Look what I brought home.”

Her reaction will be forever imprinted in my mind.   I remember hearing the spoon bounce off the ceiling.  She threw both hands into the air.    I stared as her mouth lost the last trace of her smile and morphed into an O that kept growing into a bigger and bigger O, until it looked identical to the mouth of the deer, and from her mouth came a long,  low primordial groan.   The bigger her mouth got, the bigger my eyes got.    But then the groan gurgled to the top and formed a word.     GET… and then another word… THAT……followed by THING  followed by  OUT… OF…MY…KITCHEN!

I was sent to my room without supper that night.   Which gave me time to try to figure out what had happened.   I had come home a provider.  The highest tribute that you can make to your family.  And my gift, by offering, had been rejected.   Was my own family, after all, descendants of a tribe that had never developed into hunters?     Was I the only one who not only could see a wild animal camouflaged in the woods, but also the only one who appreciated the significance of that discovery?

I was still up when my dad came in to explain to me why we don’t bring deer heads home.   I had heard my mother’s voice earlier that night as she relayed the story to him.  Every sentence was punctuated by “What was he thinking?”   Toward the end I had caught the words “Bury it.”  Then her voice grew softer.  I couldn’t hear her final command to my dad.

So, now, as my dad finished tucking me in, he asked me if I knew what a souvenir was.  No, I said.  “Oh, he said.  Well you’ll find out in the morning.  There will be one on top of your dresser.” He turned out the light. I heard his footsteps as he moved down the hall.   He knew I wasn’t going to wait until morning.  I slipped out of bed.

For the rest of the night,  a pair of sawed off antlers lay next to my pillow, and I dreamed of the look on my classmates faces when the teacher called on me for Show and Tell.


When I Was Young – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory for our November 2017 collaboration with One Voice Nashville on “When I Was Young.” 

Tonight, we remembered when we were young.

We remembered life as a Neanderthal hunter, chased by mating German Shepherds, and dragging home a decapitated deer—where we expected a family celebration, but instead got solitary confinement.

We remembered the day Poseidon died on Easter Sunday, and we led black-clad funeral goers in a deeply meaningful memorial—despite the rib-cracking laughter of the Wicked Witch of the West!

We remembered growing up in the One True Church in the universe of Texas. Then we discovered that people existed elsewhere, that filmstrips were not the source of undeniable truth, and that mother was right—we might be wrong.

We remembered the tough love of Coach Dad—and the life lessons learned from the agony of scoring the losing goal, and the ecstasy of scoring the winning goal.

We remembered visits to Papa Donny’s house, and touching toes on the tree swings, and fireflies in a mason jar, and delivering gingerbread boys—and the origin of a Christmas tradition with the aroma of a childhood where you know everyone’s name.

We remembered the year of opportunity, when we crossed the wood-plank bridge one step at a time through eternity, and Mr. Mittens taught us we need help to reach our dreams.

We remembered with gratitude her long walk on Christmas Eve to swap four chickens for a few groceries, a little red truck, and a small doll—when it was too cold to sing, “Hard times come again no more.”

We remembered a lesson learned from a girl long ago—and now we are Moises’ super-hero—and he helped us recover the brick from the depth of our fear.

We remembered a hard summer mixing mortar with a perfectionist father, and guilty trips to the V.A., and a special gift full of pictures…and stuff…and the story—and you have to remember the story.

Thanks to all the storytellers–Richard, Qu’ana, Kathleen, Michael, Annette, Kathy, Gabby, Jan, and Jeff! Join us December 11 for our theme “That Was Awkward.” Got a story? Let us know here!

52 - That Was Awkward

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from October 2017’s “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

Tonight, we had very good ideas.50-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

We went on a church retreat where we engaged in eye-language and observed flies in the disco ball, while bug-eyed from the grass-green banana bread.

We rebounded to an overly-dependent rich-kid musician, who saw our color. And we spent evenings with loud volume, until he fulfilled his dream…and we moved on to find our own.

In Louisiana we enjoyed a swamp tour and ate at a genuine crawfish joint, where a personal crawfish tutor failed to warn us of the danger of a Cajun-contaminated crotch!

Our friend got creative with scissors, and then persuaded us that a pillow would fix everything—but the angels were busy, and neither glue nor pencils could hide it from Mom.

We attempted to spend the night in a Bath-and-Body-Works factory, where we sought weapons of opportunity to defend against maniacal Milo—the Spawn of Satan!

In high school we wrote about teetering the wire of indecency and tried to persuade our friends of the greatness of a song about being pooped on. Despite our different tastes, we grew up and grew together.

We worked the wedding reception in cool clothes from the craft store, where tossing table cloths led to confessions about crashing chandeliers.

We made a sleepy road trip to Hueytown and back, where we watched  the sun rise over the golden gopher and had a shocking encounter with a Talladega pit crew.

We rented a room with Red, who like to talk and talk about cartels and construction. And after secret clicking codes and White House correspondence, we escaped—only to have to break back in.

Well, they all seemed like good ideas at the time!

Thanks to all our storytellers–Wendell, Leah, Shana, Alex, Lily, Sally, Lizzy, Kate, and Deepa! Join us for our November 13th night, in collaboration with One Voice Nashville. Four slots will feature people under 20, and five slots will feature folks over 65. Join us!

51- When I Was Young

Rachel Gladstone – The Murdering Exterminator

Rachel Gladstone shares a story about a neighbor who asked her out…and then it got weird. Or maybe it started weird. From September 2017’s theme “Nashville”. 

The exterminator who lives down the street asked me out last spring. I’d said hello to him on occasion, the way one does with neighbors in a passing sort of way. Then, one morning, while I was walking my enormous pair of dogs, he took a left turn from the far right lane of our acquaintanceship and veered towards me. Pretending I hadn’t seen him, I crossed the street, but that did nothing to deter him. He was oblivious. He was also missing some teeth. And as he closed in, so did an aroma reminiscent of 9th grade biology class, the semester we were dissecting frogs. This is not a smell you want to encounter twice in your lifetime.

Trying to smile through my gag reflex, I corralled my dogs as he shuffled ever-closer in 49-Nashvillehis ill-fitting jeans. He drawled his opening line in an accent so thick he should have come with subtitles.

“Do you live alone?” He leaned in for punctuation. I leaned back.

Was this his idea of a logical segue from our previous conversations about the weather?  Before I could even take a breath, or turn tail and run, I answered with a resounding “NO!” Actually, I did live alone but I couldn’t be too careful. I didn’t know this guy. Maybe he just wanted to invite me over for an innocent beer, but there was always the possibility that he wanted to invite me over and make a suit out of my skin.

“Well,” he replied looking down at his bright orange trainers; a color even a dead mouse could see at forty paces. I guessed ‘surprise attack’ was not in this exterminator’s handbook.  “I just thought we might could have lunch sometime,” he drawled, spittle escaping his lips; a by-product of the missing teeth, I think.

My first reaction was to shout “NO!” again. But maybe I was being too picky, I chided myself. Who was I to say no to this guy? If I squinted, he almost looked jaunty in his stained trucker ball cap. He was a man wasn’t he? He was breathing. He was upright. And he’d approached me. What more did I want?

Luckily, this momentary brain freeze was followed by an absolute certainly that this redneck that smelled like the inside of a raid can was not the peanut butter to my Reese’s, so I swallowed hard, trying not to fidget and said, “Oh… well…I have a boyfriend,” which I absolutely did not.  But I sounded so convincing I believed it myself for a second.

“Well,” he said again.

Just then Tank, my neighbor’s chunky Chihuahua, saved the day by escaping his yard. My girls had a running feud with that dog and thinking this was just the moment to settle the score they gave chase, yanking me from the uncomfortable exchange at break neck speed. “Thanks anyway!” I yelled over my shoulder, as I sped away.

As my 200 pounds of hound continued to charge ahead, I realized that I had escaped a moment of lunacy. I’d just considered going out with some dude who possessed the breath of a moose and teeth the color of a Burnt Siena Crayola crayon. I felt like such a fool. What was wrong with me? Evidently, I had reached a new pinnacle of self-loathing. I hadn’t felt this embarrassed for myself since that time my boyfriend’s cat had left her bowl of wet food half-eaten and I, being on a starvation diet, looked at that bowl and wondered to myself, ‘Is she gonna finish that?’ But in my defense, this guy had been the first guy to ask me out in a really long time; we’re talking Game of Thrones, the winter is coming, really long time.

I didn’t think of this embarrassing encounter again until the middle of summer when I was faced with the Great Flea Invasion of 2009. Upon finding them everywhere, I immediately Googled fleas and discovered two things. First of all, when you magnify a flea to 1,000 times its size, it looks just like the creature that bursts out of that guy’s stomach in Alien. Second, those suckers can procreate faster than a couple of born-again virgins on their wedding night. I knew it was time to call in a professional. And I knew just who I was gonna call.

It wasn’t hard to track down the exterminator as his number was painted on the side of his beat-to-shit pickup in what was clearly red house paint. At least I didn’t have to Google him too.

“This is your neighbor from down the street,” I told him as he answered the phone. “I live in the light green Victorian?” He said nothing but I could hear him breathing so I plowed ahead. “You remember,” I said, praying to God that he didn’t. “You asked me out?”

“I only asked you to lunch,” his whined at last. Crap, I thought, he remembered. Still wishing for subtitles, I pressed on; explaining my plight. “Well…so, about the fleas…”

“Sure,” he said. “I can come by tomorrow. I’ll even give you the neighbor discount.” I was almost afraid to ask what that meant.

The next day, the Exterminator drove the 200 yards from his house to mine in his bondoed blue pickup, a large opaque, plastic barrel  fitted with a hose perched in the well, his liquid, lethal-tender, sloshing with abandon inside. He lumbered from the cab, pulling the hose into place and as he sprayed the perimeter of my house, with abandon and without a face mask, I wondered how many brain cells this guy could possibly have left.  As he sprayed, he regaled me with a host of fun fumigation facts, and I could tell he was really trying to impress me when he began to explain the life-cycle of the flea, like he was the Stephen Hawking of the Exterminator set. But all I could think about was that old commercial where this Raid can comes slamming down on top of a cartoon ant while the voiceover says “KILLS. BUGS. DEAD.”

The fleas met their maker and before long the exterminator was, once again, just a distant memory. I noticed he had taken up with a woman who, interestingly enough, had about as many teeth as he did and I thought how true it is that there’s a lid for every pot. And then, one cold, windy November night, I was driving home when I rounded my street corner and almost ran head-on into a slew of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. As I pulled up to my house I could hear raised voices coming from the direction of the exterminator’s and there he was, holding a shotgun, a dead man at his feet, screaming at the police, at the top of his lungs and gesticulating wildly.

My neighbors came running towards me, frantically shouting that the exterminator had shot some guy in self-defense, a point that would later be proven in court. Everyone was freaked out and shaken to their core and we stood in the chilly evening breeze trying to make sense of it all and clinging to one another for warmth and reassurance. And in that moment, three thoughts ran abreast through my horror-stricken mind. First of all, someone had been shot to death just three doors from my own. Second, not only did I know the guy who pulled the trigger but he had asked me out! And last, but certainly not least, I thought, Damn! I miss all the good ones!


Nashville – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory for our 4 year anniversary theme “Nashville”. 

Tonight, we experienced Nashville.

One day in Nashville, despite the dissected frog smell, we briefly considered going out 49-Nashvillewith the upright breathing suitor—and after the mass destruction of fleas and the death of a stranger, we lamented letting a good one get away.

On night in a Nashville park, at a candlelight vigil for peace, we broke up a fight over Jesus between two guys named moth-…well, one of them was named Tommy—and his story helped us understand.

We wanted to make it in the Big Apple, so we left Music City. But after struggling to shave, we returned to cry…and despite a new look at the old places, sometimes we miss the magic.

We began creative writing in Nashville, which took us from the “ass-end of Appalachia” to lightening haiku. But listening to a friend’s funeral story brought us from a lack of faith to an unexpected place of comfort.

At Nashville’s Tennessee Pride, we learned of sausage and sewers, and heard watermelon sounds through the flapping doors. And after a day of the tired owl’s silent signals, we succeeded—and dreamed all of night of sausage patties.

We attended a convention in Nashville where the crowd stood, and we paused—and we were grateful for a lunch in the yard.

We saw the Nashville skyline and it amazed a small-town girl. We roomed with a fellow Jack Johnson lover, and discovered new people and new ideas. And a view of the skyline through the clouds led to negotiating a separation…and staying.

We left home in Oklahoma to come to Nashville, but texts from a no-good husband sent us back home to file for divorce. But after a breakdown by a broken car, and some time with family, we came back to Nashville—and were glad to be home.

In Nashville, we found polite Publix shoppers…and body-slammed a disabled employee…and Music City alchemy eased the chain around our neck.

That was our night in Nashville.

Thanks to all the storytellers–Brittany, Elisa, Matt, Rachel, Rob, Amberly, Jeff, Sarah, and Dana! Join us October 23 for our next theme: “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” Got a story? Pitch it here!

50-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Jeff Shearer – Tennessee Pride

Here’s Jeff Shearer’s funny story about the day he worked in a sausage factory. He told this story for September 2017’s theme “Nashville”. 

I received a call from the temp agency the first week I arrived in Nashville. Until I found a teaching job, I told them I’d take anything they could offer me. I scribbled on a notepad:

Job category: General Labor.

Job location: Tennessee Pride.

49-NashvilleThey had actually said Odom’s Tennessee Pride, but the name Odom meant nothing to me. I was headed to Tennessee Pride. Maybe it was a Cultural Event. Tennessee Pride. Maybe it connected to football.

Instead, when I walked through the doors of Odom’s Tennessee Pride, I was met with the sounds of grinders, tumblers, stuffers, linkers, emulsifiers, and macerators. All the sounds heard in the process of making sausage.  I had never before or since heard of a macerator. It’s unique to 2 industries:   sausage making, and sewage management.

My first indication that this was not a job sweeping floors was when the supervisor handed each of us first timers a steel gauntlet and said, “Try this on for size.” I was still trying to figure out why we would need only one metal mesh glove, when he then asked: “Any of you have a problem with the sight of blood?”

We were told to count off by twos. I will forever be indebted to the number two. The number ones were sent to the delivery room. I thought he meant delivery from the plant.   He meant delivery to the plant, where the live product becomes a no longer live product.

I was spared the delivery room.  I was sent to the cutting room. There I was given a five minute lesson on how to use an electric knife that looked like an ice cream scoop. A constant line of huge femur and scapula bones rolled toward me. The meat on these bones was gone. My job was to remove anything remaining from the bone.  Anything.  When my 10 gallon tub filled up, I was to then empty my carvings onto a high speed conveyor belt that sent all the product through a set of flapping plastic doors. Whatever happened on the other side of those doors I will never know, but the sound was a cross between a bowling alley and a room full of bouncing rubber watermelons.

I lasted one hour and 5 minutes in the cutting room. After failing a remedial lesson, it was decided that I was not cut out to be a deboner. A virtuoso deboner can roll 10 pounds of fat per minute onto the conveyor belt. I was averaging — just under two.

Over the next two hours I also failed to make the cut as both a seasoning blender and a cold salvage operator. Three strikes before lunch usually means you don’t get to stay for lunch. But Tennessee Pride was determined to provide me one more opportunity to prove that I had what it took to succeed in the world of sausage. I felt like I was back in junior high on the football sideline. “We’re going to send you in, son. Now don’t blow it. We believe in you.”

And that’s how I made it to the packaging room. The final step in production. Here, I was given the task of climbing several feet above a slow moving conveyor belt with twenty pound casings of frozen sausage.  I then loaded each roll of sausage into one of 4 metal cylinders that sliced each roll.  This process produced perfectly round quarter inch thick sausage patties. I was shown how to adjust the speed. Below me, two lines of women faced the conveyor belt, 6 on each side.  And each woman had the task of shuffling 12 patties into little white boxes marked “Ready to Cook. Real Country Breakfast Sausage.” As fast as they completed a pallet, it would be whisked off to a refrigerated truck bound for distribution. The whole operation was seamless.  This was the epitome of a well-defined process.  The timing was crucial.  And I discovered I had a key role in that timing.

But I also discovered very quickly my innocence in production line protocol. Because in a job that to the uninitiated looks like it’s ruled by uniformity and monotony, once you are inserted into that process, you quickly see that there is unspoken dynamic at play.   I had always thought life on an assembly line must be mindless – that you could simply endure the 8 hours by listening to an internal playlist of your favorite oldie goldies. Oh, it’s five oclock already? I was just about to listen to Johnny B Goode.   I had always assumed a slow day was a good day.

The 12 women on my line relieved me of that notion. And they did that without ever saying a single word. They couldn’t. It was too loud. We all wore ear plugs. They could have all yelled at once and I never would have heard them.

No. It was the body language.

While I was happily peeling the plastic off the tubes of frozen sausage and guiding them into the metal slicers while mouthing the words to a favorite song,  I looked down to see 11 heads all turned toward one woman. She was small, much older than the rest, and had the face of a tired owl. There was a unanimous expression of “do something” in their eyes. The owl-faced woman then looked me straight in the eye. She tilted her head to the end of the line where the last two women only had 2 patties between them. Sure enough. One of my feeder tubes was empty. I quickly fed a new sausage roll into the slicer. When I glanced back at the line, all was fine. I tried to give the women a look that said “Small oversight. That won’t happen again.” But nobody looked my way.

Twenty minutes later, I noticed the youngest of the packers glancing up at me. Just for a second. Then it happened again. And again. Flirting, on a sausage line? I was trying to figure out a way to make a face that read, “Sorry, girl, I’m spoken for,” when she turned to Owl Woman and raised the same eyebrow she had raised at me. The Owl gave me a look with both eyebrows raised, shot a glance at the conveyor belt, and cocked her head as if to say, “Really?” I then saw that the patties were stacking up, and each woman was having to reach downstream for patties that were slipping by them. I found the speed adjuster and spun in down. But I went too far, and in no time the Owl was swooping her eyebrows up, up.   I split the difference on the regulator, and the 12 woman soon fell back into their regular rhythm.

For the next 5 hours, I was a nervous wreck.  I studied each move the women made, looking for any hint of annoyance or stress.  No more oldie goldies. It was like driving a car on a windy mountain road with cliffs on both sides. It took me forever to figure out that the gestures on the woman closest to my station.  Too fast.  No, too slow.   No, too fast.   I spent nearly an hour desperately trying to find a calibration that synchronized with her gestures, until I found out her gestures were the result of some sort of facial twitch.

Five minutes before the shift ended, a man with a clipboard and a red hardhat came by. He put the clipboard in front of the older woman. She took a quick look at the clipboard and then back down at parade of patties. The hard hat man raised a thumb in front of her as if to ask: “Is everything OK?” Oh-oh, I thought. All the women looked at me, and then watched  the older woman as they finished their remaining boxes. The older woman took her time in responding –as if her work was more important than the question in front of her. The man still had his thumb up. The older woman never lifted her head, but I believe there was an almost imperceptible glance in my direction. It might have been a blink, but my gut felt it was a glance. Then she nodded at the man, and he put a checkmark on his clipboard and left.  Our shift was over.  The next shift of workers slipped into place, and we all headed home.

That night I dreamed about sausages. I found myself with 11 other patties in a small white box. It was cold. And as the lid was being shut I was yelling “There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here!  You don’t understand. It’s all a big mistake.   I’m an English major!” But my voice was drowned out by the noise of a hundred machines and belts and moving parts.

In the morning the phone rang. It was the temp agency. Back to Tennessee Pride, I asked?

“No. We’ve filled our quota there. Here’s your new assignment. Write this down.”

I grabbed a pen.

Job category: General Labor.

“Ok. Got it.”

Assignment: Event setup

“Event setup. Got it.”

“Yes, I know how to get to West End.  Say again.   A bar on West End?   Oh, I see.  I see.  A Bar Mitzvah. At West End Synagogue.”

In the back of my mind I could still hear yesterday’s endless noise of the sausage slicer.

“I’m on my way.”

Kristen Chapman Gibbons – In a Tiny Office

Here’s Kristen’s moving story from our August 2017 theme “Words.”

I was seventeen the last time he left a mark. It was the summer before I left for college48-Words and I’d been working at World Bazaar in Rivergate Mall for about a year and a half. I don’t remember how or why he hurt me that day. I can’t recall if it was his hands or a belt or a stick. I have no memory of my wrongdoing, although it could have been because I wore too much lipstick or missed curfew or “talked back.”

It doesn’t matter. I showed up for my shift at work badly shaken and unable to stop crying. It took me almost an hour to admit what was wrong to my boss Karen. It is her words that day that altered my course.

Karen and I weren’t particularly close. She was a stickler and I was conscientious, so we got on well enough. She was in her mid-40’s at the time, a thin, muscular woman, who always wore her hair in a ponytail and wore very little makeup.

When I arrived for work, she immediately took me into her office to try and find out what had happened. She told me I didn’t have to work that day, that I’d still be paid. She knew I was saving for college. She said that I didn’t have to go home, at least until the store closed that night. In that tiny office, I eventually divulged a long-hidden truth, that my father, a respected Southern Baptist minister, was violent and cruel at home. Saying it out loud for the first time felt like a dive into icy water.

She then told me that lots of women are hurt by men who are supposed to love and protect them. She told me that her Assistant Manager was regularly beaten by her husband. Karen said she had given up trying to convince her to leave. She said she had prepared herself for a phone call that she knew would one day come, telling her that Tammy had been murdered. Her husband was a rich and powerful car dealership owner, who was often on television. She told me if she was ever alone in a room with him, that she would hit him so hard he wouldn’t be able to go on tv for a week.

Karen sent one of my co-workers to get me something to eat. She got me a pillow from her car. She set me up in her office, turned out the lights and encouraged me to just rest. About an hour passed before I heard banging on the back door.  I heard my father’s voice saying, “Please open up. I’m here to apologize.” Karen met him at the door. She told me later he was carrying a dozen red roses.

I couldn’t hear everything that was said, but after about ten minutes of escalating voices, I heard Karen clearly say, “She is not your property. You don’t own her. And if you ever touch her again or step one more toe in this door, I’ll have you arrested and call your church.” He left soon after, throwing the roses at her.

It was the first time in seventeen years that an adult both knew what was happening to me at home and stood up for me. My mother was not in a position, financially, emotionally or spiritually to challenge him. One time, when I was 14, I asked her why she stayed. She told me that she had only considered leaving once, when I was about five. She went to another pastor for advice. He told her that God wanted her to remain in the marriage. That it was her Christian duty to make sure he kept preaching. She then told me that if people knew too much, I’d be endangering countless people’s faith. Did I really want to be responsible for leading others off the path of righteousness? People did not need to know their shepherd was a wolf.

No one in the various churches we had served had any clue, or if they did, they chose to keep their suspicions to themselves. I learned from a very young age how to hide the evidence and keep a smile plastered on my face. I believed that was what God demanded. I also believed that if I revealed my father to anyone, he very well might kill us all in a fit. But, as long as we were there to soften him, to support and cover for him, he could continue doing the Lord’s work.

I never saw the roses. Karen had thrown them out the back door. She told me what happened and asked me who I could reach out to for help. There wasn’t anyone to call. She reminded me that my time in his home was almost over, that a new life awaited me in a few months time. Karen told me to hit back if he ever attacked me again. She told me to stand up and showed me how to hold my feet and body to maximize the impact of a punch. She told me to practice on the pillow. She said, “He’s no angel, he’s a devil wearing a suit. Just imagine his face here and let him have it.” She doted on me the whole day, even after her shift ended.

I don’t know what happened to Karen. I continued to work at the store for the next four years, every time I came home from college. She was still Manager when I worked my last shift. What she did for me that day has only grown in significance in the years that have followed.

She intervened. She probed for the truth. She got in his face. She threatened his charade. But most critical, she gave me the words I would use with him the next time he raised his hand to me. I said, “I am not your property. You don’t own me. And if you ever hurt me again, I will destroy you.”

It stopped him.  And started me.


Kristen Chapman Gibbons is a survivor, who knows the power of telling the truth of one’s life. She writes, teaches, and works with organizations and communities to elevate story. She is the force behind True Stories Let Loose and Story Booth Nashville. This was her 20th story at Tenx9.