June Melby’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, LA Weekly, and National Lampoon Magazine, among other places. In 2011 she was a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and in 2003 received the International Artist Award and residency from the City of Hamburg Kulturbehorde (Cultural Affairs Department). In 2002 she was the winner of the Children’s Poetry Award at the Edinburgh International Poetry Festival. She lives in Decorah, Iowa. Visit her here. Below you can read an excerpt from her book, My Family And Other Hazards. Courtesy: June Melby.
‘My Family And Other Hazards’ (Book Excerpt)
The Ticket Booth: Prologue
The state of Wisconsin looks like a hand. Set the book down. Hold up your right palm. Stick out your thumb, and lo, you have Door County, a thumb-shaped peninsula of tourism lapping into Lake Michigan, where summertime visitors can drive on crowded roads and buy cherry pies, cherry liquors, cherry-painted shot glasses, and stay at overpriced cherry-themed motels. At the top of your hand, between your extended fingers, in the northernmost part of the state, sprawl lakes and rivers and other water-soaked lands generally too overrun with mosquitoes to be habitable except by extremists. I have heard that religious monks in Italy would slap leather whips across their backs until they bled, believing pure suffering could bring them closer to God. Or they could just spend some time in northern Wisconsin, say, five to seven minutes. The suffering is the same; the insects more deft at drawing your blood.
Across the center of the state, and the palm of your hand, are the fertile plains: fields of corn, alfalfa, and glowing soybeans, and pastures of reddish brown slow-moving cows, separated into farms by dots of broken-down silos, collapsing barns, and graying farmhouses. The winter is long and the climate absurd. No paint sticks to the sides of these buildings. As you drive up Highway 22, you can play the game “Abandoned House/Not Abandoned House,” looking for signs of human life between the abundant fields of abundant grains.
Also abundant fields of geometrically correct pine trees.
When my ancestors and yours came to the United States, there were thousands of acres of trees in Wisconsin to be sawed down and milled into lumber, and so they did. Then all the trees were gone. In the 1930s the U.S. Department of Agriculture looked at the bare sandy ground and paid people to plant more trees. Pine trees, they decided. Perhaps feeling glee at its success in organizing a military for World War I, the government encouraged planting in tidy columns, lining up the trees as if for inspection. Red pine, red pine, red pine. A steady ten feet apart. Row after row after row. Ten, hut! The trees look bushy on the top, rough and scaly on the bark, and completely at attention at the base. The forests of Wisconsin are for people who like their wilderness organized, who admire the beauty of crossword puzzles. While driving down state highways you can stare at the space between the rows and recall early lessons in mathematics, how parallel lines never intercept but only appear to converge near infinity.
Along the roadsides, like wildflowers, are strewn the carcasses of freshly killed deer. They bloom red and white and brown, all year long.
I tell you these things so that you will stay away.
Don’t go to Wisconsin. Don’t consider buying land in Wisconsin.
Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, say, ten, fifteen years ago. If I could have stopped people from clamoring for land, real estate prices would have stayed the same. Property values wouldn’t have risen. Taxes would not have gone through the roof. My schoolteacher-parents would have money left over at the end of the summer after paying their enormous property tax. Their income from their miniature golf course could be used for other things, like hiring local kids to mow the lawn, or paying a handyman to paint all the hazards, replace the carpets, or rake the leaves. My parents are sixty-seven and seventy-six years old; maybe once in a while they’d like a day off. Maybe they’d enjoy working less than twelve hour days, seven days a week, all summer long, just for the right to live in their house, which just happens to be on a lake, which means their taxes keep rising as people keep bidding up the value of the plots of land that surround them. Maybe—just imagine!—if their taxes were lower, my parents could even make a profit. Maybe they wouldn’t have had to sell Tom Thumb. So maybe it’s actually my fault for not speaking up earlier, telling everyone how terrible it is. Maybe I could have prevented the whole darn thing from crashing to an end.
The problem with Wisconsin: the lakes. Don’t ask me about the lakes. Don’t ask me about swimming through the clear water. Don’t ask me about floating over the surface in a canoe. I’m not going to tell you how beautiful they are. I’m not going to use words like sparkling or blue, or you will be clamoring too.
You see, yesterday I found out that the world is coming to an end. But if I told you that, you would probably think I was being overly dramatic. Of course I am. This is miniature golf.
Everything I say about the topic is going to sound like an exaggeration.
The news arrived in the form of a red blinking light, which meant I had missed a phone call. I was driving up Vine Street at the time, heading home from the YMCA where I swim.
I had just crossed Hollywood Boulevard in my fifteen-year-old Honda. The sidewalks were crowded, as usual, with afternoon sightseers. It looks most days as if every tourist in town has dropped something on the pavement. They walk slowly in clusters, canting together towards the earth, searching for the stars of their favorite entertainers. But they won’t find them here. Those of us who live here know that new plaques are found at the other end of the boulevard. This is where the has-beens are found, in front of pawn shops and the store selling discount men’s suits. As usual, I resisted the temptation to yell out the window, in a somewhat helpful tone, that they might happier if they just gave it up. I flipped down the visor of my car and headed up the hill. There is never any shade from palm trees.
At the corner of the pointy-speared Capital Records building I looked down at my phone. Red. Red. Alert. Alert. That’s it then, I thought. Don’t ask me how I knew before I had even heard the message. It’s my mother. It’s over. They’ve sold Tom Thumb.
Life is like that. Absurd. There are days you can barely find your car in a parking lot, and other times you know exactly what’s happening seventeen hundred miles and one half of a lifetime away.
It is July 26, 2003. On the hill above my apartment there is a sign that says hollywood, and for the last thirteen years I have lived below it in my one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment. I am forty years old. I eat a Fudgesicle almost every day. I won’t cut my hair. It is blonde and down to my waist. I used to be a comedian. I’ve done over two thousand performances. I celebrate most birthdays in the mountains at Sequoia National Park, where I go camping alone. For comfort I watch Jane Austen movies. I sip red wine that I buy for cheap.
When I was a teenager, I discovered that I can write backwards as well as forwards, using either my left or my right hand. It’s the kind of discovery that should be kept from a child, especially during tender ages when that child could get ideas, start believing that the normal rules do not apply. That she might have magical powers, or at least the power to beat the odds, to rise above the circumstances of her birth, to be more than common, to be loved and admired by strangers; and so she flees to the city, scoffing over her shoulder at her perfectly normal, mundane family.
One other thing: I grew up on a miniature golf course. It’s not something I talk about often. I never told jokes about the mini golf course at comedy clubs, even though I did stand-up for twelve years. Even though I spent my childhood summers in a place called Tom Thumb. It never seemed relevant. Or perhaps it seemed so very relevant that there was no point in trying to explain.
After college I left the Midwest and then moved to San Francisco to become “a rich and famous musician.” I arrived with big hopes, a suitcase in one hand and my grandfather’s accordion in the other. Less than a year later, I started doing stand-up comedy—a profession that seemed, after miniature golf, comparatively, realistic and practical. Then I migrated to Los Angeles to audition for acting roles, like the part of the “girl next door” or the “naive girlfriend from the Midwest.” I performed at the major clubs, wore short skirts, went to parties, took big risks, and acted in exactly one movie. I lived off the residuals for the next three years. Sometime along the way, comedy stopped being fun. But I didn’t know how to quit—the way a drinker doesn’t realize the whiskey has stopped working. Several years ago I finally gave it up, and these days write mostly poetry.
All the while, Tom Thumb Miniature Golf has been like a clock ticking in the background, my parents welcoming customers to the ticket booth as always, somewhere in Wisconsin, a reassuring tck tck, tck, like the blades of The Windmill at #9 sweeping across the sky, a cyclical, reassuring motion that says all is well, we are open, and all is continuing, continuing—ah, the sweet, sweet sound of continuing. I wonder if it’s easier to take risks with your life knowing that no matter how badly you fail, how badly you misjudge your talents, it is there: your old life continues. In a kind of parallel universe. Somewhere far away. Tck tck tck. Or in the case of The Windmill, swoop swoop swoop. A rotation as predictable as the sun rising in the east, the blades lifting from the left to sweep down to the right, first red, then green, then orange, and then blue.
Only now, it seems, that clock is about to stop.
“Hello, Tom Thumb,” my mom answers when I call back. “Oh, June! I have some news. We found a buyer for Tom Thumb.”
“Hey, that’s great,” I say in a happy voice, because I have taken acting classes.
“And they told us specifically that they are planning to run the mini golf course.”
“Great,” I say again.
“They said they won’t change a thing.”
“Well, good news then.”
“Yes,” she says. “We are happy about it.” She explains how the offer came from a local realtor and three members of his family. Because the property value had gotten so high, it took four people to come up with the money. “It’s the right time, June.”
“Great,” I say. “Well, hurray, I suppose.” I hit the brakes, turn left on Beachwood. “So, do you feel a relief?” I ask.
“Hmm, mm.” And she says the new owners will take over sometime after the season ends on Labor Day. Just over four weeks away.
I tell her I am happy for her. But there is a lot I don’t tell her. That I knew what the message was before I listened. That I feel sick.
I do not get into a car wreck, but I pull into my parking space and stare blankly ahead as if I had.
I have two sisters. I call the younger one first. Carla lives in Iowa, and she’s good in a crisis—for a job she answers phones at a suicide hotline. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal!” I say.
“It’s not like I was ever in love with the place.”
“I know. I always felt like the mini golf course was like the sick sibling that got all of the attention I never got.”
She says that as a child she felt so ignored that she even became jealous of our collie. “Dad would say ‘Good dog’ or ‘Good boy’ to him all the time,” she says, “but he never said anything like that to me.” She tells me she is okay with letting the whole place go.
It has been more than a year since my parents contacted a realtor. I admit to her that I’ve been dreading this moment. “But don’t tell Mom and Dad. I want them to think I’m happy.”
“Well, actually, they know. They told me they are surprised that you seem the most sentimental of all of us about losing the mini golf,” she adds.
“They know? Oh. Well.” I admit to her that I’d always assumed that I’d make a lot of money in Hollywood by this age. “I’d be able to buy it from Mom and Dad,” I say, staring off at the gray shades pulled over my windows. They were here when I moved in, left behind by the previous tenant thirteen years ago. The vinyl is torn, and the wooden sticks are held to the lower edge with an archaeology of dried glue and cellophane tape.
“Really? I thought you couldn’t wait to get away from Tom Thumb.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you think that’s the reason you’re the saddest of us all about the sale? Because you moved so far away? LeAnn and I have been living much closer. Do you think that’s the reason?” she asks.
I mumble some of my favorite vowel sounds.
“I thought one of us would buy it too,” she says.
“I don’t know. I just assumed . . . I think we all did.”
“Do you think Mom and Dad are mad at us? That we can’t buy it from them?” I ask.
“It’s too expensive. I don’t think they expected that,” she says. “And besides, they’re too nice.
They’d never admit it if they did.”
They are too nice, and now Tom Thumb Miniature Golf—the land and house and business that my parents scrounged to buy for forty-five thousand dollars over thirty years ago on a teacher’s salary—just got an offer for half a million dollars. I know I should feel happy for them, but I’m hoping the sale will fall through.
We haven’t always had Tom Thumb, of course. Once upon a time we were innocent and churchgoing and living peacefully in a small town in Iowa. Our house was painted white with dark green shutters on the windows. In front were two cedar bushes, on the right and on the left. One was named LeAnn’s and one was named Mine; it was the smaller of the two. Carla didn’t have a cedar bush because she wasn’t around when we claimed them. That’s how it is. You’re the youngest, you just lose out.
My parents were schoolteachers. The school system was our system. Monday through Friday. Saturdays: pancakes. Sundays: naps. Evening: news. Summer: vacation. Which meant visiting my grandparents in Wisconsin, in our pullout camper trailer.
And then that life was over.
“Well, kids,” said my dad. I remember standing together in the moonlight in the piney woods of Wisconsin, my parents, my two sisters, ages thirteen and six, and myself, age ten. It was August, we had spent the day with my grandparents, and we had returned to our campsite. The sky was dark and the woods were dark, and we stood in a circle looking, most likely, like a family-sized football team huddled in the moonlight. “What would you think if our family bought Tom Thumb Mini Golf Course?”
“So, girls, would you like that?” my mother added.
“What?” I said. I did not understand the question, really. Buy the mini golf where we had played that day? What does that mean? Would we be able to play more games tomorrow? It sounded like a full glass of pop, that is, something that my parents never offered. An indulgence.
My uncle Joe, who had a canoe rental business in the area, had visited our campsite an hour before. With a notebook in hand, he spoke to my parents in a low, booming voice that made you forget he was a younger brother. “If you get another mortgage on your house back in Iowa . . .” I didn’t pay attention to the rest and was probably running between the pines looking for a good stick.
“So, girls,” my mother said again, and then she waited for an answer. It was difficult to judge whether our mother was serious. Here it was, the biggest moment of our lives, and all we had to see by was the light of the moon. It was like the moment in the stage production of Peter Pan when he turns to the children in the audience and says, “We need your help to rescue Tinker Bell. Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap your hands!”
“Yes! Yes!” My sisters and I clapped, and thus our lives were changed. And thus went my childhood. And thus explains the putters you may have seen in the corner of my bedroom, or the golf balls in red, blue, green, and purple that I keep on the bookshelf in a glass mug shaped like a pirate head.
That was the end. Or the beginning. I’m not sure how to look at it. I remember the years before we purchased Tom Thumb, but if you ask about my “childhood,” I picture myself at age ten, the year Tom Thumb came into our lives. And that is just one more thing I can’t explain.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me tell you about Us.
Mom was tall and practical. If she were an object, she would be a pencil. Not fancy but handy, and streamlined in design. She could do just about everything.
Dad was thin and agitated. He was like a rabbit, only he had several hundred students instead of that many baby bunnies. He taught high school chemistry and physics. But he was unlike a rabbit because he didn’t like vegetables all that much. Didn’t frolic, but instead frowned and threw his hands in the air.
My older sister, LeAnn, was like an officer in the army. She was good at giving orders, and she tended to keep herself from us, me and my younger sister, like we were enlisted men. She was also like an American Indian. When she went to college in South Dakota, people asked her if she was. She’s not. She’s Norwegian like us. But she just happened to be strong and dark. Like Dad.
My younger sister, Carla, was like a teapot. She was pale and pretty and a bit fragile, but really nice to have around, especially on cold days. Because she smiled and laughed at my jokes.
Me? I was in the middle. I never learned how to do a cartwheel. I had a difficult time throwing the ball back when it was tossed to me, but I was good at trying hard, and that’s about all there is to it. Medium height, medium-colored, I was like a brown dog, easy to miss. But strangely
sarcastic when I got the chance to be heard, like the dog in a movie about a dog who, on occasion, gets the magical ability to speak.
That was it, the five of us. And later came a collie and then later still a cat who wandered in one day with a broken jaw.
There were eighteen holes. Each had an obstacle between the tee-off and green. We learned that the correct term for the obstacle was hazard as in “item of danger,” as in “risky.” For us the risk was that the hazard would fall apart. The Paddle Wheel Boat, at #17, had been turning for fifteen years already and once a month dropped a wet piece of rotted wood on the fairway. Hole #14 was sinking into the lake. The Swinging Pole, on #6, an eight-foot beam nearly the width of a telephone pole, was coming loose from the only bolt that held it aloft, and threatened to clobber one of the tourists who pushed against it each week.
Tom Thumb was built on reclaimed land, a phrase that always made me think of Daniel Boone and Indians, of machetes and determination. There had always been some ground along this side of Bass Lake, but when the original owner poured concrete and shaped it into a land of amusement, it was definitely evidence of wishful thinking. After heavy rains the ground began reverting to its former swampy state. Sea monster–shaped bulges rose in the blacktop between holes #1 and #2, and between #17 and #18. The roots of the maple tree pushed up further each year, threatening to upturn half the course. “I suppose we should take care of that in case someone trips and gets injured,” my mother said. “But what can we do?” my dad answered, throwing his hands in the air.
All of the fairways leaned. Hole #2 leaned to the left; hole #9 leaned towards the right; hole #17 leaned backwards. If your ball bounced off the paddle wheel, it would begin tilting, picking up speed as it rolled across the carpet, onto the blacktop, past the tee-off pad where you had started, and onwards towards the lake.
Hole #8, The Wishing Well, with the most dramatic lean of all, also had a ridge across the green. Short putts were nearly impossible to sink. “Greg must have made a mistake when he was smoothing that one,” we said to each other, shrugging when a tourist’s ball rolled across the carpet to stop, miraculously, along the invisible rim. Greg was the guy who built Tom Thumb using his own two hands and woodworking skills. Another misdirected schoolteacher with time on his hands, he squeezed the course into the side of the lot because he was good with tools, and it seemed like a fun idea at the time. Or so he said when he sold the place, handed us the keys, and retired.
The sun rises over the Hollywood Hills, above the flat square roof of the building next to mine, forms a fist, and starts to hit my bedroom window. “Bang bang bang!” In my bank account in Los Angeles there are three mice, two dust bunnies, and one piece of cheese. Which is to say, it is empty. My only asset right now is that I look younger than my age. Which isn’t technically even an asset, except in Los Angeles. I am not married; in fact, I’m so not married that it’s possible I have just been broken up with, but I’m not sure. Maybe he is just taking a break from phoning for eight weeks. He was fourteen years younger than me, only twenty-six. And even though he was the one who started it—he asked me out—there is one true and remarkable thing about dating someone fourteen years younger: if he leaves you, the entire population of the world will take no small amount of pleasure in joining up like a choir to say quite loudly, in a song they have been rehearsing lo, these many years, “Well, we knew that was going to happen.”
After a sleepless night I slump on the couch and reach for the cordless.
“Hello, Tom Thumb. Oh! June?” my mom answers. She always sounds surprised to hear my voice, as if Hollywood is on another continent, as if I am stationed with the raj in India, and I am sweating under a pith helmet, swinging a machete to get to the only phone in the jungle, and have finally gotten through. “Oh.” Pause. “June!”
“You’re coming back?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say. She tells me Carla plans to visit with her family, and LeAnn and her husband and their three boys might come too. “They want to make cotton candy.”
Our visits are going to overlap a bit, she warns me. “And some of you might have to sleep in the trailer.”
Everyone in my family is eager to work in the ticket booth one last time. Stand at the helm of the golf course, say “Thank you” to the tourists, hand out putters and balls, and remember how it was.
She tells me the “new owners” are walking around the yard this morning, looking at the shoreline and the docks.
“Why are they doing that now, while you’re still there?”
She explains that they’ve agreed on a price, but the sale isn’t actually a done deal. They will meet again on the “closing date,” and that is when it becomes official. They’ll sign the paperwork and hand over the keys. But in the meanwhile there are details to be worked out. Inspections of the property. Permits to be applied for. “They could still back out. Or we could.”
“We both have a right to back out, before the deal is ‘closed,’ in mid-September.”
“Why are they doing that to you?” I say, alarmed.
“Well, June, that’s how it’s always done.”
“Oh,” I say. I know nothing of real estate. But ask me sometime about Ramen noodles.
“But we’re pretty convinced it’s going to work out. So come if you want. This is probably our last summer.”
Our last summer . . . Thirty-six more days until Labor Day Weekend. Thirty-six more mornings to welcome customers to our backyard. And then my parents will lower the ticket booth flaps. And it will be over. The summer. Our last summer. Put a padlock on the door. My parents will be able to retire. For the second time. And I will finally have to let go of my childhood.
I stand in the doorway of my gray bungalow apartment and lean against the doorjamb. I gaze out at the courtyard. I’ve been here thirteen years? Over my car looms a twelve-foot poinsettia tree with stems like thick human fingers, twisting and bending as if accusing you of terrible things. They hold, overall, about five sickly leaves. It was a lovely little Christmas plant that some tenant stuck into the ground many years ago. Now it looks like the kind of tree you might see dying in the corner of a greenhouse on Mars.