Titles are hyperlinks unless otherwise noted.
When I was six, I took my first and last dance lesson at Juanita Mauldin’s Furniture & Dance in Jerome, Idaho. The building, a battered brick bunker, squats on Main Street, wisely rechristened Mauldin’s Dance Studio, between Impressions Hair & Spa and the banana-cream office with a monstrous red awning where my friend Danny Lloyd’s dad, Harold, ran his dental practice. I don’t know what my mom was thinking, trying to punch my ticket to Julliard by smuggling me into a bumper-pool morgue that moonlighted as a shuffle-ball-change clinic for kiddies, but there was no stopping her. After I was married, I asked her why she made me take dance lessons—well, lesson.
“The place said furniture and dance,” I said. “Didn’t that give you a clue? I was the only boy in a class of twelve girls.”
“You had rhythm,” she said.
As a child in Brighton, England, I would point from far away to the tall, red brick house whose gable stood head and shoulders above its neighbors. “Look,” I would say to my friends, “that’s our house—number 26!” And I would wrap myself in the glory of living in the tallest house—the one that intersected the skyline with its confident A-shaped roof. From a distance at least, I was happy about that house.
09:31 As I step out of my hotel and onto the bright streets of La Paz, Bolivia, I am struck by a distinct traveler’s freedom. I can go anywhere and do anything as long as am I back in La Paz on Saturday to catch a plane. The amazing geography of Bolivia presents a host of options: Do I want to see Potosi, the highest city in the world? The giant Lake Titicaca? The salt flats of Uyuni? These ideas flash through my mind but one stands higher than the rest: the jungle. I had yet to experience the deep, sweaty jungle, and the town of Rurrenabaque is circled on my map. By my crude estimate, it seems to be about an eight-hour bus ride away, a perfect distance for a weeklong trip, and with my small knapsack I flag down a taxi-bus and start across town.
Alla hu akbar…the call of the muezzin begins and I hear it as if from inside a jar. Propped up against the foot of a bamboo bed which sits under my millet-stalk-roofed veranda, I’ve been lost in my notes, studying Bambara vocabulary since dawn.
Alla hu akbar…the muezzin repeats, calling the faithful to morning prayer: “God is great.” The mosque and my concrete-block house sit on the edge of the village of MPessoba and five times a day this swooning chant wafts through the African air.
My dog Wuluni returns from his morning foray and noses my hand. He is sleek and muscular, a perfect specimen of African mutt. “Today we work,” I whisper to him, excitement squirming in my belly. A flock of guinea fowl rounds the corner of the house, honking in a discordant chorus. Wuluni chases them off and then returns to my side, panting.
I am sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room. My back is against the couch, legs are stretched out on the gray carpet. I have my computer on my lap. The computer contains just over five hundred pictures of my deployment to Afghanistan, and the pictures are why I came here. My parents want to know what happened. I came here to show them.
Coach Hinds had threatened multiple times to do a jock check on the entire eighth-grade boys soccer team. Jockstraps were required for every boy in sports—it was a school rule. So far he had never followed through, but I feared it was only a matter of time before he found out that I didn’t wear one. Mom had given me money the year prior to buy a jock, but I had been too embarrassed to purchase it, so I just spent the money on Pac-Man and soda. Luckily, I’d never been found out for that egregious mismanagement of funds due to Mom’s fleeting attention to the details of the family laundry, but it was a short-lived reprieve.
As I was preparing for my annual rereading of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I happened to listen to an episode of Writers on Writing, a podcast that included an interview with Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. Plotnik was a delightful interviewee— witty, thoughtful, enthusiastic, and highly inventive in his locutions. His reading from Spunk & Bite made me want more, so I checked the online library catalogue and found a copy at my local branch. Great, I thought. I’d been wanting to inject some freshness into my writing, and Plotnik’s funny, irreverent tone caught my fancy. Perhaps I too could dress some unicorns in pajamas.
My father and Uncle Number One’s son, Hoy, accompanied my mother and me on the hourlong train ride from Hong Kong to mainland China. Skyscrapers and congested streets had given way to flat, open country. We skirted long stretches of crop fields and vast plains, and patches of scraggly, gnarled-limbed trees pocketed the landscape.
I turned to my mom beside me and asked, “Who are we seeing again?”
“We go visit your uncles in Canton. Uncle Number One have house. Number Two, Number Four, maybe they come visit.”
“What about Number Three?”
She shot me a scathing look. “Your father Number Three.”