peeping tom

 

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our old mall
Last summer I took my girls and grandmother to see a movie near one of my old apartments. The area had changed, and not for the better. My husband, Joe, and I only lived there a little while. He wasn’t even my husband then. We got married while we lived there, though obviously not in the apartment with its papasan chair and the security bar across half the sliding glass door. The apartment complex installed it after the peeping tom incident as a sort of half-assed but well meaning gesture. Joe had already been sleeping with an aluminum baseball bat on his side of the bed since I met him.

We were supposed to get a second level apartment overlooking the woods, but the rental office called and told us something came up. Would we be okay with a ground level unit overlooking the pool? I was disappointed losing the woods but they gave us an extra bedroom and knocked $20 off our rent and we signed the lease and moved in, joking that maybe it would be like living on the deck of the Love Boat. It was January then, and the pool and grounds were covered in snow.

The Blizzard of ’96 dumped 2 feet of snow and Joe dug his car out with a neighbor’s shovel so we could drive to the store to buy a shovel. He was from the midwest and still gets excited by snow. His eyes brighten and he gets a little color in his cheeks. As I recall, the store was out of shovels so we drove to another store that had shovels and board games. We bought trivial pursuit and monopoly and invited a neighbor over who was irritatingly better at both. I hate monopoly even when I don’t get my ass handed to me.  Still, it passed the time.

We hung a bird feeder just outside the sliding glass door so the cats would have something to look at. Joe went out one day to fill the feeder and noticed foot steps in the snow leading to the side of our building. There was a weird cut out area with a retaining wall behind it, a blind spot of privacy, and it was right next to our bedroom window. The foot steps stopped there.

We didn’t think much of it then. Maybe we assumed it was from maintenance guys. We kept the blinds down in our bedroom as a general rule, but it’s safe to say my attention to detail wasn’t great then. Spring came and the only action we saw outside was an upstairs neighbor who sometimes brought his cat down on a harness leash. The cat always got down low to the ground and refused to budge. The neighbor would scoop the cat up in his arms and carry it back upstairs and eventually stopped trying. Inside, the board games went on a shelf in the closet and we favored more outdoor activities like drinking in bars.

One night Joe and I got home late and I went into the bedroom to change. He was in the other room listening to music on the stereo. This part will sound funny, but I decided to try on an old fashioned pajama set his mother sent me in the mail. Why did she send me that? Did she send me other funny clothes? I only remember I was a little drunk and thought trying it on would be hilarious. It was mint green and had a short-sleeved button up jacket. There may have been fur trim on the collar but now it sounds like I’m making stuff up.

I was admiring myself in the mirror when I saw something shift by the window. The blinds were closed but they weren’t down all the way. This is what I meant by attention to detail. I’d left about a 2-inch gap between the bottom of the blind and the window sill. I bent down to look and saw someone looking back and I screamed.

Joe grabbed his baseball bat and ran outside. I could not go anywhere in my mint green pajama set with matching (possibly fur trimmed) jacket so I called the police. Joe ran up the hill with his bat and onto the street. There were two ways to go and he went left and saw a young guy walking alone in shorts and a wife-beater tee. Joe ran up with his bat and the guy stopped and threw his hands up like what the hell? The guy seemed a little out of breath and nervous, but Joe was a big guy with a bat. The cops happened by in a patrol car and got out with their  notepad, which is maybe something they don’t do anymore. They asked the guy in the wife-beater tee some questions and then they let him go. They told Joe and his bat to go back home and lock the doors and keep the blinds closed.

The rental office sent someone out the next day to install a security bar on the sliding glass door, which, for the record, wasn’t anywhere near the bedroom window. I put the stupid mint green pajama set back in its box, and it didn’t make the move when we broke our lease  to go south. It wasn’t the peeping tom that did it, but a better job and opportunity. The rental office threatened to sue, but they never did.

About a month before we moved out, we got married at an old mansion down the road. The night before the wedding, we threw a party for out of town guests. My sister was still in middle school and stayed with us that night, and I remember feeling protective of her. I drank, but not as much as I would have had she not been there. Joe and his friends drank freely and hopped the fence to the pool area and threw all the lounge chairs into the water. We all went to bed too late and the next morning I felt more hungover than I should have.

Our wedding day started out drizzly and gray. When we stood together by the purple flowering tree at the mansion and were married by mere words, the sun broke through a little. By the end of the reception, it was a perfectly sunny day. In a book someone gave me before the wedding, I read that the weather on your wedding day is supposed to forecast how your marriage will be. I know better now, that it doesn’t work like that. I also know the sunny parts are half due to luck and other things we don’t control, and the rest is up to us.

 

 

 

 

Prone to wandering

When I told my grandmother I took our youngest to the Science Center on New Year’s Eve and that I had fond memories of her taking me and my brother there many years ago, she said “Oh yeah, I remember that you both got lost and I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

I only remember two things from that visit:

  1. a metal ball that made your hair stick straight out when you touched it.
  2. a giant mechanical crab.

I do not remember being lost, and so I do not think my brother and I knew we were lost. My grandmother was always losing sight of us and fearing the worst. To her, we’d been thrown in the back of a kidnap van for 7 minutes of horrifying yet efficient torture, when really we’d just followed the ice cream truck over one block to see where all the lucky kids lived.

I do remember being lost at the beach once on her watch, and that truly was a terrible feeling. None of the buildings looked familiar and the beach was so thick with umbrellas that weren’t ours that I figured I’d die out there, sunburnt and alone.  This is not the beach disappearance my grandmother remembers, of course, and her version has me taking off to the store with a friend’s mom and not bothering to tell her. I don’t even think this happened but is maybe something she saw on a sitcom once.

I did not lose my daughter at the Science Center, though I could have. It was very crowded and rowdy and the carpet on every level was littered with confetti, adding to a sticky-jelly-hands post-apocalyptic atmosphere.  We crammed in as many exhibits as we could in an afternoon, but we never found the metal ball that makes your hair stand straight out when you touch it or the giant mechanical crab. The ball probably doesn’t exist anymore since delivering electrical currents to small children can be tricky, but I googled later and think I somehow missed the giant mechanical crab. Only I could miss this (also maybe my grandmother).

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via this

We had just enough time to catch a show in the planetarium on black holes. I thought it would answer all the questions I never thought to have about black holes, but instead it created more than I could have imagined. The show was like a black hole itself in that way. The narrator had a soothing voice and didn’t seem overly worried about any of it.

I had never heard the story of the waterbug who became a dragonfly, but the narrator told us and we listened. It seems there was once a colony of waterbugs who lived in a quiet pond. Once in awhile, one of the waterbugs would hang back from the colony and cling to the bottom of a lily pad and drift up to the surface only to vanish completely. The other waterbugs were curious but also worried, so one made the generous offer to come back and report what was on the other side if it happened to him. Sure enough it did happen to him, and when he got to the other side he was gobsmacked. It was a world unlike any he’d seen or could have imagined at the bottom of the pond. He was also now a dragonfly and realized he couldn’t keep his promise to go back and instead would have to wait for his waterbug friends to find their own way through.

My daughter said she nudged me to ask what happens if earth gets sucked into a black hole but saw that I had fallen asleep. Remember, the narrator had a soothing voice. So she asked later and I asked my husband and he said no one really knows what happens in a black hole, so I said I choose to believe it’s like coming out the other side of a pond.

Later my daughter opted to skip fireworks for putting pajamas on at 8pm because she is mine and I am hers. While my husband and older daughter went out in the cold and crowds at midnight, I woke to the gentle rumble of fireworks we could see clearly from our hotel room. I tried several times to wake my youngest, but she kind of snarled and drew deeper into the sheets. I watched them from my own bed and thought what a perfect year it was, really, how even all the shitty, scary moments seemed insignificant now that we had made it to the other side.

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The Creepiest Thing – a Halloween(ish) piece on Waltbox

Not to brag, but we were on the creepy clown bandwagon since John Wayne Gacy Jr. ruined clowns for everyone. Click below to read a guest piece on Waltbox and be sure and follow his blog so you don’t miss out on any creepy good fun through the rest of the month and stellar writing year-round.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otx49Ko3fxw

Clowns are pretty much automatically creepy. But what about a clown who does lots of very bad things, then paints a portrait of your spouse? Kristen of byebyebeer is the next guest poster of the season with this creepy piece about a creepy thing that is very creepy. Yikes! The Creepiest Thing from byebyebeer The creepiest thing I […]

via The Creepiest Thing — waltbox

Smorgasbord 

Yesterday was one of those rare September Saturdays when we had nothing to do, so of course we fixed that. The four of us loaded into the car and rolled past hills and horse drawn buggies into Amish country. When we stopped for gas, there was a young Amish man in a wide brimmed straw hat and suspenders pulling in on a bike with no pedals. He used a credit card at the pump to fill up one of those red plastic gas containers. The soft curve of his mouth and lack of forehead burrows suggested deep contentment, not unlike the usual expression of a dog or a non-Amish person napping at the beach.

Every time we head out this way, I remember the fantasy I have of running off to join an Amish farm. As with all fantasies, this one is not well thought out and I wonder where it came from. Are the peat farmers perched on gently swaying branches of my family tree to blame? Maybe it was just the smoldering Amish sponge bath scene (the first time the previous five words were strung together on purpose?) from Witness.

If you want to kill an Amish fantasy or any fantasy for that matter, take it to a PA Dutch smorgasbord. We line up like cattle to drink lukewarm pepsi from frosted plastic cups and leave half-eaten pieces of fried chicken for starving pigs. The best part of the buffet are these enormous diorama paintings in the lobby. Everything is over-sized at the smorgasbord, but these feel right.

On the drive home, we muscle through clouds of manure and a town where every resident had the same idea to haul their castoffs out to the lawn and see who will pay money to take it away. Soon the sun will set and they’ll have to pack it all back into boxes or bags and pretend they still love it.

Our kids beg us to have another yard sale, but really they just want to drink lemonade and eat brownies in the front yard while strangers appraise bad decisions with hands folded behind backs, heads cocked to feign interest before moving on to the next bad decision. I find it too embarrassing so instead we drag bigger household items to the curb the moment we’ve decided their joy-bringing days are over and later look out the window and they’re gone, vaporized or beamed to another planet for all I know. Clothing and shoes are tied up in garbage bags and delivered to donation bins within the week by a spouse who fights clutter like its crime.

Even though I’ve never read the book on the Japanese art of decluttering, I do the thing where I ask if each item brings joy and then get rid of it if it doesn’t. It may be unfair to expect that of a pair of boots in the first place, but I had three pair at the back of the closet that brought nothing but pain. Earlier this week I got rid of a pair of shoes because one made a sound not unlike a small squeak toy with each step. I threw them away on a whim at the carwash, placing them neatly at the top of a mound of life detritus and later hoped no one thought “oh look, a new pair of shoes!” It took the doc martens I bought in college over 20 years to start squeaking, and even though I can no longer wear them to work because the hallways are too quiet, I don’t throw them out because they still bring joy.

The cats, in their usual helpful way, take turns climbing into storage bins and on top of clothing piles I’m trying to work with. It gives me an idea for a series of books called Organizing With Cats. Organizing Your Kitchen With Cats, for example, would feature tips about the best way to clean and store cast iron pans alongside photographs of cats resting in stockpots or surveying progress from the top of the refrigerator (protip: assess cleanliness by checking the bottoms of paws) and would make the perfect addition to any yard sale.

How I spent vacation saving but also drowning (more) spiders

Welcome to anyone reading after a post I wrote about accidentally drowning a spider got picked for Wordpress Discover. What a surprise that was, but no more surprising than when I accidentally on purpose drowned another spider this week though saved another just minutes before and am now wondering if it was somehow the same spider. There was also that spider I saved in the shower last week, but he was paler and clearly not related. I should probably craft a tiny life preserver with eight arm holes and keep it on me at all times, even in the shower.

The latest spider rescue and subsequent drowning started 12 years ago at a small inn in the Adirondacks which alluded to a view of the lake in its name though you had to crane your neck just so to imagine it. Cars rumbled by on a busy road separating the cottage from the lake and on the interstate just behind a thin layer of woods. It was not as peaceful as we’d imagined but the charming couple that had only recently bought and fixed up the place left baked goods in the room and lured us out each night with a campfire and s’mores. It was just me and my husband and our one daughter then. I took this picture of them at the far away lake.

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This year we went back and the first thing we noticed was the For Sale sign out front. A different woman checked us into the same cottage, which felt smaller than we’d remembered and the bathroom smelled like body odor or ass depending on which one of us you asked, so we just kept the door closed. After settling in and wondering why the hell we’d come back, we headed down to the lake and attempted to recreate the beloved photo.

 

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We can’t help it that the pier and ‘no trespassing’ sign were long gone. My husband could have stooped down but it would have seemed forced. We let our other kid stand in and no one is in a diaper or cowboy hat because we suck at re-creating old photographs from memory.

The spiders, though, well I’m getting to that. The cottage stay came with unlimited use of a kayak and canoe, which by the looks of both hadn’t been used in some time. We did our best to clean them both out of wolf spiders, but we missed one. I think it hid behind my youngest daughter’s seat cushion because I first noticed it climbing up the back of her rain jacket. It paused a bit on the top of her head like one would on the top of a mountain to take in the view and then kept going until it disappeared from view and onto what I assumed was her face.

You can’t just stand up in a tandem kayak. You can, as calmly as possible, urge your daughter, who is sometimes afraid of gnats, to “just bat it off with your hand”. You will still only be able to see the back of her head, which is further obscured by a hood, so you may feel like you’re instructing someone you can’t see where to wipe away a pesky glob of ketchup if ketchup were hairy and horrifying. You will be able to see that her hands are maddeningly still by her side and you will hear her terrified whimpers, so naturally you will shout the same instructions only louder. JUST BAT IT OFF. YOU HAVE TO BAT IT OFF.

The good news is this spider came round to her shoulder to see what all the yelling was about and I used the paddle to fling him into the water. I didn’t feel great about it, but I had no choice. The kayak mood was killed after that. We paddled back to shore and my older daughter said she noticed right away that something was wrong by her sister’s posture and face and how her hair covered her face. She hadn’t heard the yelling, oddly. After I explained about the spider, my younger daughter asked “There was a spider on me?” She had no idea what I was freaking out about, though assumed a bug or horrible monster.Those were her words, by the way. Freaking out. I need to work on my calm voice.

Can wolf spiders swim? I think they might be able to because I rescued one with the same paddle moments before we launched the kayak and it kind of seemed like it was already heading to shore. My husband claims he accidentally flung that one into the lake and I got pissy with him, though now wonder if I didn’t somehow rescue it right back into the kayak. Anyway, I drowned the other (or possibly same) spider. Nature can be surprisingly quick with the whole balance thing.

We stayed a few nights at the cottage and settled into the sound of trucks rumbling by and even the body odor/ass smell in the bathroom. No one coaxed us out for campfires and s’mores so my husband built a roaring one and we bought supplies at a store down the road. We only ever saw one of the owners. The other, it seemed, was no longer in the picture. I thought for longer than seemed sane about buying the inn and running it ourselves, but those days of infinite possibility and hope are over. I’m fine watching Fawlty Towers once a year (usually around Thanksgiving) and being reminded why running an inn is a terrible idea.

You can’t always go back. You can’t save a spider without drowning another one. You can’t fix things that are broken because sometimes they’re meant to be that way. It’s sad if you look at something broken in the usual way, but over time the picture might change into something different, surprising even.

 

 

On Deal Island

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Pop-Pop
Deal Island is a three mile finger of land and tide about 15 miles off the beaten path in eastern shore Maryland. It’s where my great-grandfather, who we called Pop-Pop, lived until the (and his) mid 80s, which is also the last time I’d visited. Even though he’s long gone and the first word that always comes to mind when I think of Deal Island is mosquitoes, I had to get back. It should have been a tough sell to my girls, but they’re always up for adventure or maybe the challenge of seeing ordinary stuff that way.

We picked a sunny day with low humidity for our trip. If we’d gone the day before, I’m convinced westerly winds would have carried in biting flies like those from a particularly vivid childhood memory. Sure, I remember that time my great-grandfather’s cat scratched a perfect circle of blood around my wrist or the way the massive vinyl swing on his front porch creaked and groaned though never in a way that made me feel uneasy. But I’ll never ever forget the 2 mile walk that felt like 200. My brother and I were nearly eaten alive by greenheads and mosquitoes as we took a fun family hike along the bay. Our parents tossed back helpful tips like “walk faster so they won’t bite you” and other things I’ve surely never said to my own children, who are now more delicious than I. Deal Island was originally called Devil’s Island, though I’m not sure there’s truth to the rumors it was once a hotbed of pirate activity. If so, those were some tough pirates.

Driving in that clear day with its delightfully low dew point, the first thing we noticed was a perfect stranger waving to us. In fact, he didn’t even look up so wouldn’t have known we were strangers, though I don’t guess it would have mattered. I’d remembered it as a kind of Mayberry on the water, and not much had changed.

The old bank building was still there. My great-grandfather worked there until the stock market collapse of 1929. When there was a run on the bank, a customer who was also a neighbor waved a gun at him. It was panic, nothing personal then or when the bank closed like many small town banks had to. It sat empty for years and then someone converted the inside to a machine shop. It sits empty again and for $24,900, anyone can buy it.

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Probably the most anticlimactic stop was in front of my great-grandfather’s old house. It’s been so lovingly renovated that I couldn’t recognize enough to tap into nostalgia. Instead we kept walking down the street, past an old gothic revival farmhouse that could only be suitable to vampires. Only on the walk back did we notice an identical gothic revival farmhouse right next door. I did not take pictures of either and deeply regret this, but you probably wouldn’t have either.

Our next stop was the final resting place of both great-grandparents and also Joshua Thomas, Parson of the Islands. He predicted the British fleet’s defeat in Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key and our national anthem. Also, he was born in a place called Potato Neck and his dad died from a dog bite and his stepfather was a drunken lout who forever turned young Joshua off alcohol. I now remember why book reports were such a challenge. It’s tough telling which facts are weeds because they all seem important.

I can tell you that cemetery was the biggest challenge of the day. My dad had provided a quaint hand drawn map to find the family plot but failed to warn us half the people buried on that island share the same last name.

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The eldest at least a half hour in
Three passes after I’d first given up, I found the plot and yelled so loud I probably woke Joshua Thomas of Potato Neck. We piled back in the car and drove until the road dead ended by crab shedding facilities at Wenona harbor. On the way back, I snapped this picture of a crumbling beauty an 1877 atlas designated the “Colored Church and School”.

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I almost drove past another (mystery) beauty, but if you only get to a place once in 30 years, you find yourself doing asinine road maneuvers so you can go back and take pictures while your kid swats at bugs only kids can feel because adults are old and taste terrible

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The next to last stop was at the public beach, where someone else had already written Pop-Pop in the sand and we collected a generous handful of tumbled sea glass. The funny thing about that is I’d had in mind to treat myself to something at the 5 year sober mark, but nothing seemed right and then I found it.

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The final stop of the day was a bait and sundry shop where I purchased candy bars for the drive back. I picked a Whatchamacallit, which I also hadn’t experienced in about 30 years and my kids thought I’d forgotten the name and was just calling it that. Some days you look back and find yourself feeling lost and disappointed. This wasn’t one of those days.

 

 

A mostly true Valentine’s story

She was signing all their names on a card with much love and flourish, when the cat, the usual one, got his head stuck in a bag and, backing up like a blind idiot, knocked over a full cup of what must have been scalding hot coffee on his precious pink paw pads.

The coffee spread like a muddy puddle, soaking all of the cards and one heart-shaped box of chocolates and then trickled down to the seat cushion, where it left a saucer-sized stain.

She yelled to the cat “you ruined thanksgiving!” because she was upset and not thinking clearly and he had knocked over a full cup of coffee and she’d only had one, maybe two, sips or perhaps it was a premonition, but he was already long gone, hiding under a chair or inside the curtains that rendered him invisible, surely thinking bags were the devil’s handiwork but only for about five minutes because cats, this one in particular, are not very bright though their hearts are expansive and forgiving.

She knew herself to blame since she was the one who asked the volunteer at the animal shelter for the silliest, softest cat they had. Give me one who will hide under rugs and trip us, she said, who will wake us up at 2 and 4 and spill my coffee. Give me one to test the limitless boundaries of my love, again and again.

  

  
  

you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

I'm the green one. This might be what is referred to as foreshadowing.
I’m the green one. This might be what is commonly referred to as foreshadowing.
At Pioneer Camp, we dipped candles and churned butter and made salad from day lillies. In the root cellar of a 200 year old mansion, we dribbled red wax at the V of an envelope and eased a stamp into it to form our own seals. I also blindfolded Gigi Dixon and sent her tumbling down a scrubby hill, so it wasn’t all bad. I’ll never forget how perplexed she looked climbing back up with all those briars and brambles in her hair.

I’m pretty sure that was the same day  another girl and I had been squabbling over something (candles? stamps? whether or not one should actually eat day lillies??) when prissy Gigi admonished us with a “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The counselor smiled and patted her head so that her perfectly curled pigtails shook like they were snickering. I seethed and noticed the strips of torn bedsheet we’d just dyed with boiled elderberry would make perfect blindfolds.

There was also the great bookbag fight of ’81 – which I totally won because a  Strawberry Shortcake bookbag weighted with matching lunchbox wins everytime against someone who buys lunch – plus that unfortunate phase in middle school where I pushed friends into trees. Do I need to go back as far as the biting episodes in nursery school or doesn’t everyone go through that?

Anger and I are old friends, though I thought I lost him around the time I discovered alcohol, which seeped into and soothed the jagged cracks of my psyche. After alcohol came cookies. God bless the cookies.

The thing about addicts is we’re always addicted to something. Alcohol, cookies, blindfold tricks and bookbag fights…even Recovery. We’re hooked on the thrill of altered states, and the more painful the better! Anything to take the edge off excruciating boredom and loneliness and the dreaded feeling that yep, maybe this is all there is. And so the next bandaid gets ripped off and the festering wound underneath gives us something new to focus on. If I don’t wind up a perfect human being by this time next year, I’m going to be really angry.

Just kidding. But I have been addressing old issues with sugar and last week I felt terrific and this week I’m looking for things to use as blindfolds. Writing is a nice release. Phew. I feel much better. Thanks for reading.

George

George wears high-waisted tan polyester trousers with a brown belt and keeps a plastic liter of vodka on the kitchen table, which my grandmother carefully wipes around with a yellow sponge before setting out a glass dish with fresh cherries and another with salted cashews.

My brother and I drink cokes with maraschino cherries trapped at the bottom and sneak glances at our new exotic windfall – a drunken grandfather we never knew we had until that day.

We wear street clothes in the middle of a perfectly good beach day, which makes us feel formal and restless, like anything could happen.  George wears his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at first and then he is shirtless. He puffs out his chest and pumps both arms to show off his muscles. His body odor seeps into the kitchen and won’t leave.

The strangeness of it all forces me to reassess our other two grandfathers, who had seemed perfectly adequate up to that point.

One grandfather takes me for donuts and coffee at a place with spinning barstools and sugar encrusted coffee rings against gold-flecked formica.  We stare at the donuts behind the counter instead of each other, and this is better than fine.

The other grandfather lets me lie along the back console of his plush Buick – the flat area against the window where he normally keeps hats or a box of travel tissues . We listen to talk radio and wind along the beltway on some fool’s errand to please my grandmother.

Grandfathers in my family are benevolent background, busy cogs that keep family dinners moving. The grandmothers think they run the show but who do they think mashes the potatoes or ducks out to buy them in the first place?

My grandmother tells me George used to pinch my mother when she was a baby so he wouldn’t have to hold her. She couldn’t understand why my mother always screamed and cried until she noticed red welts on the backs of both plump baby thighs.

* * *

George puts his hand on my grandmother’s arm when she finally sits down and laughs when she swats it away. She won’t look any of us in the eye. George tells my brother and I to do good in school and listen to our parents without seeming to have any idea who they are.

We never see him again.

A few years later, I find a black and white 8×10 photograph of a man wearing a Viking hat slipped between the pages of a dictionary my grandmother gives me. She says the dictionary used to belong to George. There weren’t many personal effects. He died penniless and his body was not found for several days, even though he was rumored to have a longstanding lady friend. (I picture Faye Dunaway’s character from Barfly.)

The photograph is a close up of the Viking’s face, though I can tell he is at least shirtless and standing in a meadow. He is smiling, victorious, and has a wide gap between his front teeth and wild, long hair.

I will always wonder what the hell happened to that photograph. Losing it will haunt me forever, I imagine.

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Grandmother and George

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