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.”

Starting – The Understory and Next Theme

Enjoy Rob McRay’s understory from 2017’s first theme “Starting.” 

Tonight, Nashville, we started.

We started contemplating word choices after a very poor word choice was directed from a 43-startingwild-hearted, hormonal adolescent at an equally emotional mother, who responded by hurling a giant “Route 44” cherry slushy all over us—and our relationship surprisingly thawed with the frozen drink.

We started our career at a school for children with disabilities with games of hot potato pickle and endless crafts…and scoliosis and seizures and horrific stories, and one child’s personal hell—which we escaped…but he didn’t.

In a 3rd grade “physical education” class we learned of…body changes, hygiene, and fictitious babies. And we started praying for periods—which eventually led to a loud scream, and a strangely smiling mother, and…uh…pillow butt panty problems.

We started our happily-ever-after with a blind date on Valentine’s Day, arranged by the committee. And we became engaged to be engaged, with no ring—till our romantic psychiatrist eventually asked nicely.

It all started when we cautiously climbed the broken sewer pipe, and tight-rope walked the brown beam, till we reached the vast river and took a bow to the applauding white caps—and now we want to speak for ourselves.

A new journey started when Mom fell, and led us to complaints of inattentive care, and assurances of disappearing beds…and a kind hug, and a stream of tears, and a promise of prayers…. And it really will be alright.

The trouble started at tennis practice with an insensitive response to Mom’s life crisis. It took years of distance till random love superseded rational thought, and we reconciled over a vodka martini and a country concert.

We started the relationship in a spartan home with many questions and a Kung Fu Panda kite. We sat cross-legged around the same delicious homemade dish—and thought perhaps the resolution of many of our problems might start this way…when we all eat as one.

We started our penchant for bad boys with “Rebel Without a Cause,” and spent years rescuing the troubled men…till restraining orders, and a long distance move, and years more of therapy led to the discovery that we were James Dean after all.

And so, Nashville, it started.


Thanks so much to all our storytellers–Darcie, Brittany, Kristen, Irene, Jane, Sarah, Barbara, Michael, and Samantha. Please join us for our next night of stories on February 27. Our theme is “Choices.” Pitch your story here!

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Laura Cockman – Nashville’s Reality

At our September 2016 theme “Nashville,” Laura Cockman shared the following story of how she finally got her parents to visit her in Nashville. 

Instead of having an advice-dispensing angel or devil on my shoulder, I have reality tv show hosts. They rotate in and out of advice duties based on what I need at the time. So when I was trying to decide where to go to college, it was the host of Survivor who said, “move from the midwest down to Nashville! It’ll be an adventure!” The tribe had spoken. I moved.

I’m about as adventurous as a bear in 39-Nashvillehibernation. I’m the kind of introvert who puts “alone time” in her calendar, the kind who intends to use the money I’ll definitely win from my future successful run on Survivor to buy a house on a mountain to fulfill my dreams of living isolated from everyone else. You can see why Survivor is my favorite show: a way to win win money while incrementally becoming more and more alone? Sign me up.

The reality show hosts on my shoulder tell me this may just make me the biggest loser, but I’m ok with it.

Not to be outdone by my introversion are my parents, who, when they last moved, or rather, re-moved themselves from everyone, relocated to a house surrounded by dirt for more than a mile. This is how you get there: drive up north until you see a cornfield, go through the next cornfield, turn left at a cornfield, make a crazy turn through the – wait for it – soybean field (I told you it’d be crazy), and their house is right next to another cornfield.

They’re sweet homebodies. My parents are such introverts that they barely leave the house; their favorite date night, going back for a decade, has been sitting on the couch watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Yes, their favorite dates are all about other people’s dates.

So all through college and my subsequent decision to stay in Nashville, my parents remained ensconced in their own chosen reality. Their Nashville experience was more Rayna James and Juliette Barnes than Keith Urban or Tim McGraw, and certainly far from my Nashville experience. I’m actually afraid to this day to tell them that we didn’t re-elect Teddy Conrad from the show Nashville as our mayor this past election.

For introverts like this, talking about stories is a great way to connect. My parents write down what they think about our shared shows, and they call me to ask questions. They’re all very sweet, like, “What did you think of last night’s episode?” and “Laura, why haven’t you switched dentists so you can stalk Cupcake Chris from last year’s Bachelorette (more easily)?”

So this past May they called me and said this: “Did you know that there are three Bachelorette contestants from Nashville this year?” And, because I think in reality show tropes, my little voices whispered to me, “This is your chance to make the conversation go the way you want it and align their ideas in your favor. You are this close to winning the immunity necklace, getting the final rose, becoming the head of household.” I convinced them to arrange plans for their first long weekend trip to Nashville.

I’ve got them where I want them at this point. Like any good reality show fangirl trapped in actual reality, I started to think about the future and how I could make my parents’ experience so fun that they’d start planning their next trip back.

“Anything we do will be fun because we’re with you,” my mom assured me.

“But really, I hope we’ll see a celebrity,” my dad said.

And just like any good reality show, life threw in a twist: my boyfriend told me he was going to be out of town the weekend my parents were coming to visit, and he needed me to watch his dog. How convenient. “You better re-strategize,” the reality shows hosts in my head were telling me, “You’ve got to fit both of these alliances’ needs in now.” I told the voices that it would be ok, that a dog couldn’t vote me out of anything, but I was still a little concerned about accidentally leaving her alone too long and her voting the stuffing out of the couch.

So I reorganized my plans for my parents to allow for several trips across town to take care of the dog between activities. This worked out well, actually, because it allowed them some down time to relax in between going out into the world. But, my dad noted while relaxing between meals and museums, he hadn’t seen anybody famous yet, other than, of course, the dog I famously talked on and on about over the phone.

They came to love her as much as I do. Saturday morning, my parents woke up excited to take the dog for a morning walk. We spent the walk talking about their first hot chicken experiences, and my mom offered to hold the dog’s leash, remarking on how well-behaved she was on the walk. We all decided to go to the dog store and get her a treat afterward.

The three of us go to this tiny dog store on the east side near my boyfriend’s house, and I make a beeline for the giant antler toys. I lean down and start to pick one up, and all of a sudden, I’m being licked by a big bloodhound who’s snuck up on me.

“Hey, sweetie,” I say to the dog, and I glance upward at the owner to ask if I can pet him. And there I see it. A tall, tan, familiar face, one that my parents have been talking about for months: Wells Adams, Bachelorette contestant.

The reality show hosts in my head start screaming at me.

“Ask him if he’s still dating Ashley from his stint on Bachelor in Paradise!” one shouts.

“No,” yells another, “that show hasn’t even premiered yet! Then he’ll know you stalk Bachelor contestants online, and all the rest of them will find out, and then you’ll never get to have your teeth cleaned by a Bachelorette contestant dentist!”

“Just say hi to his dog, call him by name – Carl – and tell Carl that you follow him on Instagram!”

“Just ask him if you can pet the dog and play it cool.”

“Act now or you’ll be voted off the island! – I mean – the dog store!”

I couldn’t act. The barking in my head was louder than any in the dog store, and so I did what any good introvert would do. I looked toward my parents for a solution. This was a mistake. My parents’, who had previously been waiting by the door, heads had turned, Exorcist-style, to stare at their authentic Nashville reality star.

I walked up to the checkout line, feeling stupid and starstruck, and bought the antler. When I turned around, the rest of my parents’ bodies had caught up, and they were full-on staring at Wells.

“Get in the car, but don’t leave yet,” said my dad, “We have to watch.”

We sat in the car and watched Wells and Carl leave the store.

“He has decent taste in cars, very reasonable,” said my mom.

“He has beautiful eyes,” said my dad.

“I’m so glad we came to Nashville,” they decided.

“This is what it’s really like. This is what you get to experience all the time, isn’t it, sweetie? This is magical.”

Just like that, after years of convincing my parents to take a weekend trip, weeks planning and replanning where to take them so that they’d come back again, hours spent walking the dog with them and hoping they weren’t bored, we spent less than five minutes in a dog store, and my parents declared those few minutes their true, authentic Nashville experience. Now, they call often and ask about my “good friend Wells.”

If this trip were a date on The Bachelor, I think they would have have given it the first impression rose.

They’re already planning their next trip back.

Secrets – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from October 2016’s theme “Secrets.” 

Tonight we learned secrets.

We learned of childhood clubhouses, and running into walls, and a pledge to keep the next accident secret—until our underarms exploded!

40-secretsWe learned of family secrets about wealthy descendants of conquistadors in dresses and gloves, and seedy pool bars, and the joy of good food, tequila, and fine wine.

We learned what goes on when cocaine addicts secretly enter a church basement and make loud, barbaric angel noises, which make us feel like we could be good—except for the faking it part.

We learned the secret of how the windshield was cracked, after we said an unladylike word 37 times, and slammed down the “end call” button—and were exposed by Sgt. Son-in-Law.

We learned a state trooper’s secret of how he lost a brown Dodge Aspen pulling a U-Haul on I-40—a secret no one should try at home.

We learned of our racquetball buddy’s secret affair, and the divorce, and four daughters…and now brushing our teeth is a painful experience.

We learned of the shameful secret tryst of two 19 year-olds in a passionate Rav-4 in a megachurch parking lot, serenaded by the strains of “Desire,” and interrupted by headlights, flashing lights, and an all-knowing blue-suited head honcho.

We learned the secrets of a woman with scars from an unthinkable cause, and another with an infection from an unthinkable source—and we responded in silence…What could we say?

We secretly dug through the trash and recovered a treasure horde of evil occult paraphernalia—and gave thanks for the wonder of answered prayer!


Many thanks to all our secret-tellers: David, Darlene, Amanda, John, Rob, Christy, Bob, Cindy, and Rachel! Our next night of true stories is Nov 14. Our theme is “Hard Times.” Submit your story idea here!

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Nashville – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from Tenx9’s 3-year anniversary theme “Nashville” in September 2016. 

Tonight we visited Nashville.

In Nashville we met Chainsaw, an English major who couldn’t understand Twain, who would be singer but couldn’t sing, and who used his body with its underlying text to meet39-Nashville his idol.

We moved from Manhattan to Music City, lured by the magic of honky tonks and amused by the cute traffic, till we found ourselves house hunting while the joys of pregnancy overflowed all over town.

We came to Nashville pursuing an opportunity at a major publishing house—excited about the life-changing, dream-fulfilling possibilities. We raced in a toy car to an interview with a team of quirky grandmothers…and now we are where we belong.

We encountered Music City’s fiddle-wearing monsters in the walls. We imagined a poltergeist of thousands of jumping spiders—but we were somehow calmed by research that revealed that the nightmares were true…but rare.

We attended church in Nashville in a large, dark sanctuary with a small gathering, listening to the endless sing-song intercession, gripping the pew and awaiting the impending peril of the silence-shattering shout.

We moved suddenly to Nashville, landing amid CMA crowds, finding southern hospitality despite the lack of room in the inns, dazzled by the fireworks of the Fourth and the glittering diamonds of downtown, and stepping outside our comfort zone to find the comfort of our new home.

We attended a wedding in Nashville between the most wonderful little girl in the world and a young man who did not follow a wise father’s advice…but who better remember some of it.

We lured our homebody parents from the cornfields and reality-show dates to their first trip to Nashville. The highlight of their adventure was encountering a real-life reality-show celebrity and watching him…leave the store.

We moved to Nashville to relive the grief of the river of tears, now flooding our daughter’s life as it once flooded our own, and moved to a new home too close to another river of tears. But, for all the tears, we would choose it again because we choose to love.


Many thanks to Brittany, Joe, Rob, Jacquie, Chris, Anne, Stephen, Laura, and Gail for telling such excellent stories! Our next night of true stories is October 24, and our theme is SecretsGot a story? Tell us here!

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Cherie Roberts – A Day at the Beach

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer and Porch writer Cherie Roberts’ story about a harrowing turn of events while enjoying a day at the beach. She told this for Tenx9’s August 2016 theme “Strangers.” 

A few summers back, I was nestled beneath a beach umbrella, reading, on the second day of a long anticipated vacation on Hilton Head Island. It was late afternoon, a peaceful time to be on the beach. I looked up from my novel to see my 13 year old son Nathan thigh-high in the waves with his friend, Bill. The boys kicked and splashed in the water while a mother and her small child played in the surf nearby.

As I returned to my novel, over the sound of the waves I could just hear a mother and 38-Strangersdaughter to my left arguing. The mother waved her rhinestone encrusted phone in her daughter’s face as the words, “told you,” “too young,” and “trouble” floated by me in staccato bursts on the breeze.  I sighed and turned away. I’d left my own phone back in the condo to avoid dispelling the serenity of the beach.

Moments later, that serenity was interrupted again by Nathan, yelling and running toward me.

“Mom, Bill’s been bit by a shark!”

Nothing stills activity on a beach like someone yelling the word, shark. Everyone stopped moving and talking all at once, and heads turned as Nathan’s voice boomed louder than the waves.

“Hurry, Mom! He’s bleeding!”

I scooped up my towel and ran toward Nathan. Surely my son was wrong, and Bill had only cut himself on something. Up ahead, I could see Bill being led out of the water by the woman with the baby. Her navy swim suit with its white flowers was a stark contrast to the bright red blood pouring down Bill’s left leg, covering his entire calf like a trouser sock. The woman’s face was filled with panic as she guided Bill with one hand and her small child with the other. As they made their way toward me, blood poured out of the leg so fast that it puddled on the sand. I grabbed Bill and laid him down.

Remarkably, he was very calm, his blue eyes never leaving my face as I wrapped my towel around his leg, staunching the blood so I could get a look.

When I pulled the towel away, I realized Nathan was right. Bill had the perfect semi-circle pattern of shark’s teeth from his knee to his ankle on both sides of his leg. The serrated teeth had pierced and torn his flesh, each tooth leaving Bill’s skin, feathery, almost like fringe. At the deepest places, the muscle had been pulled through the bite marks like the macabre threading of a needle. Blood poured over my hands and onto the towel. Soon, a circle of strangers surrounded us; but several people who were close enough to see Bill’s injuries backed away quickly. I told the woman with the baby to run and get help.

In minutes, a young blonde lifeguard came running with what looked like a float but in reality was a medical kit. Later, Bill and Nathan would laughingly describe her bikini-clad figure running towards them with hair swinging in the sunlight as a scene straight out of Baywatch. She pushed back the crowd and dumped the contents of the kit on the sand, then shouted into her walkie-talkie for a Jeep that seemed to materialize in seconds. It was then that I felt someone touch my shoulder—the mother who had been arguing with her daughter under the umbrella.

“Here, take my phone,” she said, shoving the rhinestone studded IPhone into my hand. “Use it, call whoever you need.”

We got Bill into the jeep and shot straight up to a gurney waiting at the boardwalk in front of nearby hotel. The entire walkway had been cleared of people, except for one man, standing only a few feet from me, all alone as if waiting for us.

The stranger’s appearance made it impossible for me to look away. He was so out of place amongst the beach goers. Older, probably in his late sixties, he was shirtless with gray chest hair and a firm rounded potbelly overhanging a filthy pair of sun-faded red and white seersucker swim trunks. Barefoot, he had hairy legs and feet, and his toenails were riddled with fungus. His thinning salt and pepper hair was wiry, and with each puff of wind, it parted, revealing a sunburned bald spot. But what was most unusual about him were the Band-Aids on his face, one at the corner of his left eye, and one at the corner of his mouth on the opposite side, giving an odd symmetry to his face.

For some reason, I felt drawn to the strange man, making it difficult to turn away from him, but soon it didn’t matter—he fell in beside me as the gurney began to move and I held tight to Bill’s hand. The man talked to me non-stop in a firm but quiet voice.

“You aren’t his mother are you? You’ll need to keep her busy when you call,” he said.

I could only nod to his answers like a puppet. No—yes—his voice was hypnotic. When we reached the ambulance, two EMTs moved Bill into the back, and I tried to climb in with him, but the older paramedic stopped me. It was against the law for me to ride back there. The dark-haired younger paramedic who was starting Bill’s IV looked up and said, “He’s a tough one, mam. He’ll be fine.”

In the cab of the ambulance, I kept looking back at Bill through the small window behind me, his face white as the sheet, but his eyes so bright blue.

“Second shark bite of the day,” the driver said. “An hour ago a woman lost half her thigh a mile up the beach. Haven’t had shark attacks here in decades. The boy’s lucky—because of the woman, I mean. The surgeons live on the mainland—over an hour away, but because of her, they’ll already be at the hospital when we get there.”

“I need to call Bill’s parents,” I said.

“Whoa, wait a minute! You two are doing great. No one’s panicking. Calling his mom’ll cause her to panic, and then you’ll panic.”

I looked down at the sparkling phone, its pebbled stones cutting into my palm. Then I looked the driver straight in the eye and said, “If this was my son, I know Bill’s mother would call me.” As I dialed, the man with the Band-Aids stood just outside the passenger side door. My window was rolled up, but I could hear him as clearly as if he was in the ambulance with me.

“Keep her busy. Tetanus shot—tetanus shot,” he said.

Bill’s mother answered the phone. “Hey, Suzie, it’s Cherie,” I said. “Bill suffered a puncture injury on the beach, and I was wondering if you’d check to see when he last received a tetanus shot?”

I heard a quick intake of breath but gave her no time to reply.  I told her we were on the way to the ER, and I could talk more then. Meanwhile, she should call Bill’s pediatrician.

My calm voice and soothing tone surprised me. We hung up, and I looked at the ambulance driver.

“Good job,” he said. “You’re a pro.”

Outside my window, the stranger with the Band-Aids smiled with approval. As I smiled back, my son Nathan ran up to the ambulance, jostling the bandaged man in his rush, moving him out of my line of sight. I was shocked at my son’s rudeness but I couldn’t get a word in; he was talking loud and fast before the window was even down, telling me that the woman who’d given me her phone had found his big brother, Jackson. Gasping, he continued, “Jackson said we’ll follow you in the car. The woman said, don’t worry ‘bout the phone.”

“Nathan, you shouldn’t have run into that kind man,” I said. “He was helping me.”

My son looked puzzled, and the driver next to me stopped writing. Both of them stared at me as if I was crazy. I looked out the window, but the bandaged man was nowhere to be seen.

“Mam, what man are you talking about?” the driver said.

“The man who walked with me to the ambulance.” I pointed at the parking lot. “He was standing right there.”

“Mom,” Nathan said, “no one was here when I came up, just the ambulance.”

“He’s right, mam,” said the driver. “We clear a path for the gurney. There was no one there.”

Stunned and confused, I looked back and forth between them, but the looks on their faces said it all. They never saw the strange man who helped me.

The driver turned the siren on, and we sped out into the twilight, the ambulance’s lights coloring the passing palm trees red and white.

* * *

            At the hospital, Bill was a celebrity, “the boy with the shark bite.” The ER doctor determined he had been attacked by a four and a half foot reef shark. I learned that shark teeth leave marks as telling as a fingerprint.

In the hours leading up to surgery, Bill and Nathan talked about the ordeal, each telling from his perspective. But it was a comment from Bill that left us quiet and thoughtful.

“I wasn’t scared when it happened,” he said, “and now I’m grateful. If the shark had bit the baby, she would’ve died.”

Nevertheless, my heart was heavy for Bill. We had been told that the scar would be large despite plastic surgery, and recovery could be slow. Unfazed, Bill blushed and said with a grin, “It’s okay. I bet the scar’ll help me with girls. I mean, who can compete with a guy who survived a shark bite. Right?” Then, we both laughed for the first time since the attack.

When the nurse came to medicate Bill for surgery she turned to me and said, “The news crews are outside. Do you want to speak to them?”

“No interviews,” I said. “He isn’t my child. I have to protect him.”

I leaned over a very sleepy Bill, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him.  As they rolled him away, he seemed as much my child as any of my three children.

* * *

            Back in the surgical waiting room, I called Bill’s parents to tell them he was in surgery, and I’d call back when it was over. After hanging up, I looked down at the twinkling rhinestone phone—given by a stranger without hesitation.  A kind act—one of many during the unthinkable. Then, with images and moments from the day flooding my mind and heart, I sank to my knees in that dark and empty waiting room, miles away from friends and home, and I cried in gratitude for Bill’s life, for the kindness of strangers, and for a mysterious bandaged man no one could see but me.

 

Tessa Jeffers – The Angel in the Wine Bar

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer Tessa Jeffers with a heartbreaking story about meeting a stranger. She told this at August 2016’s theme “Strangers.”

The Angel in the Wine Bar

I met Jackie at a coworker’s birthday party in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about 5 years ago. It was in a quaint, unassuming wine bar, and she was drinking out of a large bottle from a paper bag. “Is that wine?” I asked her after we’d been introduced. No, she said, it’s Sutliff Cider—a locally brewed hard apple cider. She was so friendly, blonde and beautiful, and 6 foot tall just like me. She was one of the first people I ever saw wearing an infinity scarf, and she looked damn cool doing it.

We did the “where are you from/what do you do kinda thing,” and I was shocked to learn she was only 23 years old at the time. Her wisdom and calmness with life was beyond her38-Strangers years. She had charisma in spades. I asked her how old she thought I was (I was 29 then), and she said, “23 … 24?” We hit it off immediately.

In the spring she took me to the namesake, Sutliff Cider, a renovated barn in “God’s Country-side” where cider flowed like champagne in pitchers, guitars were played in the sunlight, peanuts were eaten, toddlers danced, and grandpas in overalls flirted with Jackie. I remember her telling me that her mom was worried she might be obsessed with old men. As a 3rd grade teacher and kid magnet, Jackie didn’t discriminate spreading her joy to any age demographic: She fell in love with everyone and everything around her. She was funny as hell too, sending Snapchats of her adventures in teaching: bad kids in time out, impromptu classroom dance parties, and my personal favorite: crab races in the name of science.

A year or so later we were at another friend’s birthday party in an Irish pub, and a girl started trouble because Jackie accidentally stepped on her foot. I was so protective; I whispered in the enemy’s ear. “I’m sorry you’re ugly on the inside,” I told this stranger, “but we’re having a good time so please leave my friend alone.” Next thing I knew, I was being tackled and punched by the enemy. “You’re a stallion,” Jackie remarked in awe after the fight had been broken up. She’d never been in a fight. But she also said something that’s stuck with me to this day: “Talk shit. Get hit.”

Jackie had a surprise dinner for me when I moved away and she gave me a framed map of Iowa that said “You can go your own way.”  She visited Nashville last Fourth of July; met my nieces and new friends. We ate Edley’s BBQ and went to a psychic for fun. I remember one of the questions she asked the psychic was if everyone in her family would stay healthy. We had private sessions so I don’t know what the response was.

But in the first week of January of this year I got the news from Jackie that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had a full hysterectomy within a week. They’d caught it early, it was stage three, a rare form, especially for someone 27 years young, but she was expected to recover after surgery and six sessions of chemo.

Jackie had her last (sixth) session of chemo in late May of this year. In a completely shocking, devastating turn of events, she suddenly caught pneumonia and unexpectedly passed away on June 22, 2016.

At the visitation, I saw our mutual friend Aaron from a distance. We locked eyes from afar but the line of visitors was so long, we didn’t get a chance to talk. I really wanted to connect with him, to acknowledge that someone great that we both knew had left us and this world, but I didn’t see him again at the funeral.

Before the long drive back to Tennessee, I decided to drive by Jackie’s apartment. I have no idea why. As I was driving past, her mother was leaving and locking the door. I could only imagine what she’d been doing in there. And then I remembered the 16-year-old me, going through a box of my dad’s things after his death and finding a razor with his hair still in the blades. I will never forget how it felt to have a physical piece of someone who is so definitely gone.

I didn’t realize how much Jackie had made an impact on me in the years I knew her. I also didn’t anticipate her dying, or how hard it would shake me, but I’m continually amazed at the little glimpses of her revealing themselves. I honestly feel like it’s her doing magic, and I cried when I read a Facebook post from her sister that said it feels like Jackie is everywhere and that her little niece Lily said: “It just doesn’t feel right anymore without Aunt Jackie.”

So many conversations with Jackie are fresh in my mind. This girl was so incredibly GOOD. We went Christmas shopping a few years ago and she told me her mom had a health scare with a mammogram and she was so worried but so relieved that the growth was benign. I cherish everything she ever gave me or said to me. My favorite pair of Free People socks are ones she gave me for my birthday. I have a 2015 calendar still on my desk from her, the theme: “The Imagined Desks of Historical Women.” When I opened it, I was so touched because she said it reminded her of me, and that I inspired her. It really tickled me because SHE was so inspiring to me, and I do have one regret that I didn’t get to tell her that in person or pick up the phone and call her when she needed it the most. I tried to give her the space she needed for the hardest thing she ever did in her life. And throughout it all, she still made others feel at ease when she was going through the depths of it.

After I drove by her apartment, the next stop was a coffee shop where Jackie worked while in college, just down the block from the wine bar we first met at. When I opened the door, Aaron was sitting there reading the paper. It was like fate. I was able to get that hug I needed from someone who knew. We didn’t even talk directly about her, we tried but then teared up and just kind of looked at each other for a really long pause and then Aaron had the good sense to start talking about his chef career. Then he left, and I got my coffee and looked around at the trinkets and antiques for sale. My eyes fell on a small black box with a sacred heart on it: just like the tattoo Jackie had on her back. I bought it and then drove over to the cemetery to say goodbye.

Someone had left two colored paper birds on her grave next to the flowers, and it made me smile to think that it was probably her niece Lily who made them, to fly up to heaven with Aunt Jackie. Something clicked and I went to my car to retrieve a blue stone I’d randomly picked up at a spiritual expo a few months ago at the Nashville Fairgrounds. It was Angelite. The definition:

Angelite is a blue stone with a peaceful energy that is calming and soothing. It has a vibration that is very helpful to aid contact with beings in the higher realms and in particular with members of the angelic kingdom. Many people choose to use it because it both aids you to connect with angels, and is also helpful to assist you to make contact with spirit guides. It is a strong communication stone, and an extremely helpful healing crystal.

Next to the paper birds, the stone looked like blue sky for them to soar over. I got in my car and the GPS told me that the highway from that cemetery went straight south through Illinois, to St. Louis, then Nashville. I had a weird sense of peace driving home and every single sunset I’ve seen since then has been more beautiful than the next and all I can think of is Jackie, every time I see something that feels like a familiar miracle.

Jennifer Chesak – Teetering the Line

Here is Porch writer and Tenx9 first-timer Jennifer Chesak’s story from August 2016’s theme “Strangers.” 

Teetering the Line

A teenager lives kitty-corner from me, and we’ve teetered this line between being strangers and friends. Are we friends? Me, a late thirty-something woman who hoards mulch bags from the garden center, and he, a young man navigating the years where you get your first job and your driver’s license—and, for him, some tough experiences that I’ve laid witness to…

I was in my home one afternoon when I heard a thud followed by howling. Brakes squealed, and a car jammed in reverse. Before I’d even looked out my window, I knew what 38-Strangershad happened and ran outside. Tony’s puppy was lying in the ditch, bleeding from the mouth. A woman stood outside her car, yelling. “It was like hitting a rock,” she said. She shook her head at Tony. “Why didn’t you have him on a leash?”

Before this moment, Tony and I had never spoken; I actually didn’t even know his name. We were essentially strangers. But we’d waved to each other in passing as neighbors tend to do. Over the years, his wide smile had caught my eye, and in recent weeks, I couldn’t help but notice the affection this teen, all arms and legs, doled out on this pup, who was still yet all paws. Now he stood on the lawn, shaking and with tears clouding his usually bright eyes. Words trapped in his throat as he tried to respond to this woman. All he could do was throw his hands in the air. Then he dropped them to his side in defeat.

I looked at the little yellow dog quivering on the ground and back at Tony. I learned that he was home alone and that his dad couldn’t be reached because their only cell had been shut off. “I’m gonna grab my keys; we’ll take him to the vet,” I said. I also told the woman who had hit the dog—she was still yelling—to write down her name and number and get going.

By this time another neighbor had come out to the street. She’d been listening to the commotion. “You can’t just take that boy without his dad’s permission.”

I turned back to Tony. “I can take your dog, but I think you should come.”

We eased little Sunny, the puppy, onto a blanket I had grabbed, and then Tony slid into the passenger seat with her on his lap.

Tony took quick and shallow breaths in the car. I tried to reassure him—and myself—that Sunny would be okay, that she was likely just in shock. I also told Tony I would cover the charges with my credit card.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. “I applied for a job at Pizza Hut.” He told me he’d just turned 16 and could now work.

“Don’t worry,” I said. I reached over and lightly touched Sunny. “We’ll figure something out.”

On the short drive down Gallatin Road to the vet, I learned that Tony and his friend had found two puppies in an old tire left out near Cornelia Fort Airpark in Shelby Bottoms. They’d rescued them and each kept one. The pups had just received their first shots.

The vet assessed the situation quickly in a room separate from us. At first, it appeared that Sunny might just have a broken leg, but after further evaluation, I learned that she had extensive internal bleeding. Yes, there was a chance she’d make it, but surgery would cost a few thousand, and it was not a guarantee. The vet leveled with me in the hallway. Putting Sunny down was probably the unfortunate but best choice for the dog. She wanted me to get ahold of Tony’s parents, but I explained that wasn’t possible.

I went back into the exam room, got down on my knees in front of Tony sitting in the chair, and although I was a stranger to him, I took his hands in mine and told him the news. He cried in my arms, and he didn’t know it, but my tears fell into his hair.

“Do you want to say goodbye to Sunny?” I asked. He nodded. The vet brought her in, still wrapped in the blanket, and placed her on Tony’s lap.

He cried into her fur and said his goodbyes. “I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t protect you.” He lifted his head and shook with sobs. He repeated his apologies to this pup who had clearly received a lot of love from him in a short time.

On the drive home, Tony told me about the accident. He’d been filling Sunny’s water bowl with the outside spigot when she slipped out of his arms. Just then the woman came speeding down the road. “This isn’t your fault,” I said. But he wasn’t ready to hear those words.

His father’s truck wasn’t in the drive yet when we returned to our block. I invited Tony to my house, but he said he’d be fine and just wanted to be alone. I understood. We exchanged a hug and went our separate ways. Inside, I curled up with my dog and sobbed.

When Tony walked by with a friend a few days later, I wondered how he was, but I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking. I didn’t want to out him as being pals with the neighbor lady. I gave a discreet wave. He returned the gesture much more animatedly, and then he stopped and asked me how I was. A few weeks later, he came over while I was gardening, and he asked me about getting a rescue dog from a shelter. He continued to wave every time he walked by.

We were no longer strangers; we were friends, and seeing him always made me smile. Then one day, about a year later, I feared I’d ruined everything. I feared I’d teetered us back across the line to a place of unfamiliarity—one we wouldn’t be able to come back from.

I was sitting on my back deck with my husband and some friends. Our house borders South Inglewood Park in East Nashville. Tony and another young man, who was older and of bigger build, were walking on the path. Suddenly, the other guy grabbed Tony and began to hit and punch him. I jumped up and yelled for him to stop. With his grip still on Tony, he came to the chain-link fence and threatened to jump it if I didn’t “shut the fuck up.”

I grabbed my phone and called the cops. The whole time, Tony never fought back; he only ducked the punches when he could. The altercation broke up before the police arrived, and the other guy took off in his car, tires screeching. I later heard Tony’s dad yelling at him in their driveway.

I didn’t regret sticking up for Tony, but I worried that he would be mad at me for getting involved.

The next day I was unloading groceries, and Tony and a friend came walking by. I had this moment of panic. I almost considered hiding my head back in my SUV to pretend I didn’t see him. If he was embarrassed to be associated with the cop-calling, busybody neighbor lady, he’d have an out.

But that’s not Tony’s style. He made it a point to catch my eye, even though I’d positioned myself half behind a porch pillar. And he flashed me his big Tony smile. “Hey, how’s it going?” he said. I gave a goofy wave and an even bigger goofy grin. I stepped into the open and asked how he was.

I’d just been schooled by a teenager. You see, on Tony’s part, there was never any teetering. We were decidedly well past the line of being strangers. We are officially friends.

Strangers – The Understory and Next Theme

Here is Rob McRay’s Understory from August 2016’s theme “Strangers,” in collaboration with the
excellent Porch Writer’s Collective

Nashville, tonight we encountered strangers.

We teetered the line between strangers and friends with an awkwardly younger neighbor, till we cried in his hair as he said good bye to his puppy…and we discovered we had crossed the line before we knew it.

We over-analyzed a comment about movies we like and discovered that we were more strangers than friends, even though we once loved each other—or did we? But now we know ourselves better, and we don’t know him…and we like it that way.

We sifted through pictures, listening to gossip about town folk and mailmen, and discovered that the stranger in the old cherished locket was a first love…once forsaken for true love…leaving a pain for which we hope we have been forgiven.

38-StrangersOur tranquil day at the beach was invaded by strangers—an angry mother with a rhinestone phone, a Baywatch lifeguard administering first-aid, a mysterious, fungus-toed, 60-year-old advisor, and a woman with a baby spared by the injury of the boy who now seems one of our own.
We encountered strangers with strangely familiar connections to our past—a wedding on our old block, and a child of dear friends who quickly moved from being a stranger to a friend—all from a few simple questions.

We journeyed from the Old South to San Francisco, worked on antique computer equipment, and traded our problems for cable. And we encountered strangers from strange lands, who held strange affections for those we thought surely they would despise.

We met a stranger over cider in a quaint wine bar. Our inspiring friendship led us to fighting enemies in her defense, only to lose her to an enemy we cannot defeat. But we said goodbye with a blue stone under a blue sky, and we remember her with each sunset.

We encountered a creepy old man in a Gucci ball cap on a crowded Moroccan train car, whose magic prayer book failed to heal the coughing Armenian, but who taught us a song of life.

We encountered a family of strangers with dancing children, refugees of a war-torn homeland. And though we had lost our own father, we gained a new one…and learned to say yes to the hospitality of strangers.


Thanks to all our storytellers: Jacques, Cherie, Judy, Rose, Jennifer, Leah, Laura, Tessa, and Keith! And thanks to The Porch for partnering with us on such a lovely night of stories. Join us next Friday (9/2) for our 3-year anniversary fundraiser at Black Abbey Brewery at 7:30 for 9 retold stories from the last 3 years. And we hope you’ll come for our next regular storytelling night at Douglas for our annual “Nashville” theme on Sept 26. Pitch your story here! See y’all soon.

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Change – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s excellent Understory for July 2016’s theme, “Change.” 

Nashville, tonight we were changed.

Life changed in a moment in a gym full of grunting and bending and dancing—terribly exposed. But suddenly we felt in control…no matter what the crowd of mechanical gazelles thought.

We have changed from the self-absorbed 19-year-old in a half-way house. Now we are 37-Changehealthy, at home with our family…but she lies somewhere alone with an apology on her back.

After a long line of potential wives, and unfulfilled dreams of proposals, we saw her across the room…and pursued her, sometimes too confidently, till everything changed…and she said “Yes!”

After online dating apps led to a date with a green-eyed guy who applied for a loan, and ultimately to a moment of dating honesty—a month too late—our life has changed and we are happily dating-app free.

We hiked the 200 ft. block of mystery, till we crouched on the ledge, serenaded by a lotus-sitting flute player…and gave up. A second try revealed something had changed. We found we did not lack the courage—we had too much to live for.

Life changed when a frustrating, troublesome young woman, whose life had led from pregnancy to addiction to rape to desperation, told us “you don’t want to know.” And she was right…but now we do.

After a 10-year relationship, violating FAA regulations, offering lights to attractive ladies, and contemplating the possible benefits of eye patches, it all changed when we realized that Mom could outrun us—and we dumped our love.

We have loved passionately and lost, again and again, until after two weeks of solitary confinement we realized that we could see inside him, and everything changed. We have found mythic love with one we may never see again.

We had terrible visions—that came again and again—of crack and pleading and death and violation and hate and revenge. But that changed when the monster became a six-year-old boy whose mother tried to drown him. And we pray that Patricia rests securely…and that Ivan will find peace.


So many thanks to our storytellers–David, Jeremy, Amanda, Deepak, Jeannie, Michael, Veronica, Tony, and Hector. We hope you’ll join us for our next FREE night true stories when we partner with The Porch Writer’s Collective for “Strangers” on August 22. If you’ve got a story, pitch it here!

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