Tag Archives: Rural America


It was a big house but it was ugly. The house had inky-colored energy and smelled like old-people ass and chewing tobacco. True stench is thick. When you breathed you swallowed the stench. I had a bunch of male cousins growing up and my one cousin “John Boy” burped and I said “That smells so bad I can taste it!” He asked me, “Can you taste my farts too?” Boys were so gross. At six I didn’t know anyone who smelt worse than my boy cousins or my great grandparents. Fact I still don’t.

I had a special place. In Requa, I spent most my time outside, which nobody seemed to mind. Just had to be in by dark. Ish. I searched high and low for my special place. I knew my bedroom couldn’t be my special place since it was haunted. The inky-colored energy repelled me from that place. Rumor had it a woman slowly died of cancer in there. It was a bedroom Dad and I shared. We both had our own twin bed like we were brother and sister and we shared an old wooden dresser, other than that there was nothing in there. No toys. No photos. At night I would make my dad face me and watch for ghosts behind me. And I would face him and watch for ghosts behind him. Problem was my dad would fall quickly into slumber, tired from work at the road department. “Dad! Dad!” I would say, frightened white. “You’re not watching!”

There were a couple of rooms in the big, cold, inky, smelly, sad-memory-house that I wouldn’t even go in. One room had paintings of great aunt’s of mine that I didn’t really know. The one who lived on the hill behind us and talked to herself and the one who pulled her hair out piece-by-piece and the one who got away and never looked back. The eyeballs of the women in the paintings would follow me. Already an introvert, I didn’t want to be around anybody–even if they were just faces of paint. Hell, the paintings had more personality than the real women did. They smiled more.

Two other rooms had things in them that belonged to my great grandfather–I can’t even type his name out. Wayne. There. I did it. The room had Wayne’s things–rocks, stalactites, harmonicas, old newspapers, all disgusting things that I didn’t want to be around. Things I liked fine on their own but with his prints on them made me head in another direction. If only I could run in the opposite direction of him when I saw him. But I was raised up not to be rude. To respect your elders.

I didn’t want to be rude.
I didn’t want to be rude.

I tried to make the upstairs bathroom my special place but great grandma Faith had a big problem with that. I think she was worried I might drown in there, in the deep clawfoot tub. Drown like my father did. Before he came back to life. I didn’t realize the root of her concern until now. Tragedy upon tragedy.

I realllllly wanted my special place to be upstairs, because the villains couldn’t climb the stairs. But it was really just too inky up there. Downstairs wasn’t an option. Downstairs was a quiet battleground. Even when Dad came home from work I wasn’t safe cause the villains were that good. They were sneaky and I didn’t want to be rude.


Up at the house on the Winchuck River one night it was decided I’d be moving with Peggy to Arizona. We’d leave in two weeks. I told my Dad over the phone and he sounded a bit wounded but he assured me it would only be temporary until he and Lisa found a house. I’m not leaving you. You left me. Remember that, Dad I thought but didn’t say.

Peggy and I went down to the DHS office in Crescent City, met with a social worker named Pam, signed a couple papers and it was a done deal. There was no inspecting Peggy’s house, calling references, or privately interviewing me. You just looked at Peggy and knew she was the real deal. There was virtually nothing wrong with her. She was my perfect temporary guardian. She was my perfect permanent guardian but nobody wanted to go there yet. And I mean nobody. Not Peggy nor me. They talked like it would just be for the school year, but Arizona was hundreds if not thousands of miles away and as soon as we headed south I knew, I just knew the miles were coming between me and my old life. And a good part of me was really, really happy about that. The other part tried to remember landmarks for my runaway escape. Ch-yeah, ’cause that had gone so well the first time..

After a couple days of driving we ended up in Arizona. Peggy recalls what I said when we got there: “Where’s the water? No, seriously, where’s the water?” I found out the water came from faucets and deep underground, not pouring from the mountains like it did back home. We stopped off at an outlet mall outside of Phoenix and Peggy bought me some Levi’s, t-shirts, and a couple of new bras. We drove for another five hours south and finally ended up in what looked like the middle of nowhere. You could look in every direction, north, east, south, west but there was nothing there, just the horizon. We ended up in Sunsites, Arizona. Peggy owned a funny-looking little eggshell-colored house on Geneva Street. Geneva Street had a ton of funny-looking little eggshell-colored houses that Peggy called “stucco”. Stucco was this certain texture the paint had. The houses were boxy and had red-tiled roofs. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice.

School would start in three days. I would be taking the school bus to another town (El-fucking-Frida), where the high school was. Sunsites was initially supposed to be a retirement-only community but they ultimately couldn’t afford to keep the young folk out so it was ninety-percent retirement and ten-percent everything else. There was a ghost town a mile away. The nearest grocery store was thirty miles north. There was no mayor. There was a golf course which was a big deal. Tombstone was over a hill to the west and Mexico was forty minutes south.

Snakes and Blood and Sticks

You think my snake stories are over? Not just yet:


The mountains in California have rattlers but in Arizona the rattlers are in the mountains and down low and everywhere in between.

At my high school boyfriend Woody’s place we went looking for rattlers just for fun, cause it was like fishing in a stocked pond–they were always there.

And this was sad, but, they always got shot. We didn’t know any different. We didn’t know any environmentalists. Even my dad the Hare Krishna had that rattler under our porch killed; that’s just the way it was with rattlers [to us].

The fattest, longest one we killed just off the gravel driveway under a yucca and that big boy didn’t want to die you could see it in his eyes. But Woody had a younger brother and that’s how he (it wasn’t my idea) justified it. That and we were three towns from a hospital so we didn’t want anyone gettin bit.

We found a rattler in the tool shed and shot him too. Not me. Woody.

One night after dark I was heading over to his place for dinner and I parked my car and skipped up to the porch to ring the doorbell. Along the way I stepped over a long, thick stick and I thought that stick must be something Woody’s little brother picked up in the wash and then the motion light kicked on, I rang the doorbell, looked back at the stick and saw that it had the most intricate diamond-shaped pattern–it was a rattler.

Woody’s mother opened the door, I pointed at it, she screamed and the snake recoiled into the, by this time familiar to me, cow patty position.

Woody’s mother snatched a garden shovel out of thin air I guess and she pinned that giant snake to the gravel beneath it.

Someone handed her a rifle and she handed me the handle of the shovel, said Terah for god’s sake keep that thing pinned down.

She hefted the rifle up to her shoulder–closed one eye and met her target.

Oh I can’t do it she said and handed the rifle to Woody.

Agh I don’t want to do this I squealed and Woody’s mother rolled her eyes and grabbed the shovel keeping the snake pinned as Woody blew through the thing’s body in one clean shot.

I stood to the side shaking.

Snakes and Blood

Five years later my dad and I find ourselves in the Siskiyou wilderness on a mini backpacking trip with a man named Rick who claimed to be our cousin (boy I hoped not) and his girlfriend whom I cannot recall the name of now, our goat Sugar, my first or second or third period, but I still didn’t know what the hell was going on, some beans, saltines, swimsuits and for the couple–a cardboard jar of rolling tobacco, which Sugar later ate, which didn’t end up well for anyone as you can imagine.

We were oh, two miles down the trail and six miles from where we were going. We each have our backpacks and my dad has a sauce pan tied to his. Sugar has a rope leash but its dragging on the ground cause he stays with us anyway.

I’m on my period so I’m not talking just sad just teenage just in between whimsical-childhood and dependent-on-everything-adulthood. There wasn’t too much of an in between for me (childhoodadulthood) but if there was–this was it. I still looked to my father for entertainment. I was at the age just before I would be stealing cigarettes from Rick and whatsherface. I’d tried cigarettes but not enough that I owned them yet. You know what I mean. That smallnarrowstage.

We were walking along over a strawberry-blond single-track trail of serpentine soil and I’m admiring the irises because its summer time again and I think I hear the creek and I hope it’s the creek and I’m so bloated and I’m going to secretly wash my crotch and thighs in the creek in a corner under a fallen log or behind a boulder. I’m going to go underwater and open my eyes cause that’s my favorite thing to do and oh I’m going to be clean and fresh.

I see my Dad smack himself in the face. Now granted my dad sometimes did funny things–smacking himself on the face wasn’t exactly one of them. Whack. He did it again.

“Bees!!!” He yells from the front of the line.

I too feel a small flying creature swoosh past my face, my ear, and we all start runnin’.

Run run run down the trail–the goat too.

Run run run until we finally outrun the bees and the two smokers are red in the face and panting.

Just as we stopped however Sugar leapt about a foot into the air on all fours–spooked by something just like a human would be–wide goat eyes and then we heard it: the steady movement of a rattle tail.

Run!!! Someone yells and we all start runnin’ again, Sugar in the lead.

Around a bend or two and we’re sure we’ve outrun the bees and the snake and we stumble into a large opening in the forest and see about four naked hippies sitting around a fire.

Bees, rattlers and now this?

My dad perks up as he naturally does with new people, especially hippies, and he gives them his warm smile which gets us an invite into the hippie circle.

We all sit down to catch our breath and I bleed my period blood onto a makeshift leaf pad in my shorts, having outrun a hundred bees and a rattlesnake but not my womanhood.


I’ve seen long fat ones and I’ve seen little ones.

Me and Jessica Philpott on the absolute hottest day of the summer–it feels like that in my memory anyway–a not-a-cloud-in-the-sky Rock Creek day. A boulders-are-so-hot-you-actually-need-shoes kind of day.

Jessica and me sitting in my dad’s little red Sprint–one of our early, decent cars–listening to Great White or Mike and the Mechanics or Tom Petty. I won’t back down. I stand my ground. Jessica said you should ask your dad if you can spend the night. (Despite my dad being an unconventional parent, he still always, up until my last day with him and Lisa on A street, insisted that I ask permission and that he knows where I am and who I’m with). I sang Okay and leapt out of the passenger’s seat (Jessica was the kind of friend who would get the front seat in my daddy’s car).

To paint a picture–the Sprint was parked in the dirt yard right in front of our cabin nearly in the garden. It wasn’t always parked there, and I don’t know what it was doing there on that day, maybe we’d been unloading seaweed from the trunk and dumping it in the garden like we sometimes did.

Anyways, so I jumped out of the car and with Jessica still in the passenger’s seat ran/skip/hopped onto the front porch which was raised up about four inches from the ground and as soon as my leading foot, my right foot landed I heard a thick rattle. I’d heard enough warnings in my life to know what it was and it was true boy howdy when I looked down right there under the porch was a fat silver rattler.

“Daddd!!” I hollered through the open cabin door, “Rattler!!”

I don’t know if my left foot even made it to the porch cause as soon as I saw that snake it was leading the way right back to that little red Sprint.

Snake! Rattler! I yelled to Jessica. Quick, on top of the car!

Sitting on the hood of the little red Sprint I said “Ohh noo I hope my dad doesn’t come out the front door!”

But my pa was quicker than that. He’d somehow detected sincerity in my voice as I’d hollered despite the many times I’d played jokes and cried wolf.

He leapt out the window of the cabin into the goose coop and hollered to us that he was going to get Fabian’s gun.

Jess and I looked at each other with horror, we hadn’t intended to get anything killed.

My dad returned with Fabian and his gun and more of the neighborhood of course.

My dad didn’t kill things. And if anyone was gonna kill anything with Fabian’s gun it was going to be Fabian. Of course.

The boys–John and Butch were so excited they were jumping up and down. Jess and I remained in our front row seats on the hood of the car.

The boys and men slowly approached the rattler under the porch.

I made a secret plea that the snake had found itself elsewhere.

The loud ramble of its rattler as the boys and men tip-toed near it told me it hadn’t.

Without a countdown or a warning Fabian fired his rifle and got the fat boy on his first shot.

Then he took the ol’ boy home and the William’s ate him for dinner.

Good Little Woman

One Red Elephant by Helen Lewis

This is a piece of photography art created by Helen Lewis of Suffolk, UK. Inspired by this photograph, I wrote the following story Good Little Woman (below).

For more information about the SPARK Project check out getsparked.org where you can also look at plenty of other art duos. Get involved!

Good Little Woman by Terah Van Dusen

The armpit of Humboldt County. That’s what I’d call that place. And I mean that in the best of ways. See armpits aren’t popular. And I don’t like popular. Plus armpits are warm, one way or another. Warm when they’re not wet. Just like Orick, California.

Orick wasn’t a one stoplight town. This was a no stoplight town, bordered on one side by lagoon and on the other side by a tall forest of redwood and fir. The small town was, oh a forty minute drive from Arcata to the south and Crescent City to the north with a whole lot of wonderful nothingness in between.

I lived in Orick for one summer and half a school year but the memories linger, and viscerally. I shared a room with my younger brother Jesse in a small yellow house my mom and step dad rented behind a burl shop. My mother was making jewelry at the time—beaded rainbow-colored earrings that hung long. Earrings for gypsies.

In the summer, my mother sunbathed outside with a neighbor lady. The neighbor lady had a big, scary dog she kept behind a short, brown fence. She had two daughters my age whom I played with regularly. We played Saved By The Bell and they wouldn’t let me be Kelly Kapowski even though they were both blond and I had long brown hair just like Kelly Kapowski. But it guess it was fair after all because one of the blond girls would’ve have to be Lisa Turtle and she was black. So I was Lisa Turtle, the peacekeeper.

At school, I learned all about saying Bloody Mary into the mirror three times. Which was scary even if “nothing happened” because the bathrooms were always dark and gloomy because that’s how Orick was because that’s how Humboldt County was—shrouded in fog and with a mean tree cover to boot.

It’s not as if nothing ever happened in Orick. But mainly, nothing ever happened in Orick.

However one time, the circus came to town.


I had the best teachers in the world and though I don’t recall their names, I’ll tell you about them: That’s right, there were two. Not one teacher and one assistant: two teachers. They were husband and wife and they held equal power. When they weren’t teaching they were archeologists. I suddenly wanted to be an archeologist too.

I didn’t even care that they usually had me on “orange” status (i.e. yellow=good, orange=almost pink, pink=bad). That was the coding we had on a big board in the back of the classroom—it’s how they kept track of us kids. Three pink slips meant a trip to the principal’s office. I didn’t have a chance to make it that far, I moved back to Rock Creek after the insides of my ears healed but that’s another story.

My two teachers taught us kids about dinosaurs and whales and they fed us mussel’s they’d collected themselves at the nearby shore. They taught us paper mache, let us paint using real paint brushes (not just the foam on stick bullshit) and always informed us of local current events.

Like the circus.


We were sitting in class when the wife-teacher showed us a big colorful flyer for the circus, said it was happening on Saturday and not just in Orick but at Orick Elementary School. Why not at the high school you ask? Because there was no high school.

To my surprise, a brown-haired boy who sat behind me nudged me and handed me a small square of notebook paper. I took it in my hand and looked at him but he nodded toward a bright blond boy who sat behind him. The blond boy shyly waved at me. I turned bright red, shoved the note in my coat pocket and turned my attention back to the wife-teacher because I was already on orange slip for the day and I didn’t want to get a pink slip (story of my life).

Side note: you know why I was always on orange slip? Because there were two teachers not just one.


Back at home I isolated myself in mine and Jesse’s bedroom. Jesse was outside playing. I sat on a bed near the window and it would be the first of many times I would fantasize about a boy while in bed. This first fantasy was tame, mind you.

I looked at the folded square of notebook paper and feared the worst: it would say how ugly and stupid I am.

I eyed the note. I could tell by its corners that it had been folded once and never opened. I looked at the bedroom door, wishing I could seal it shut with only my mind, and just for the moment. It would be so embarrassing if my mother caught me with a love note (at least that’s what I hoped it was). I slowly peeled the note open. It read:


I like you. Let’s go to the circus together on Saturday.
We can eat popcorn. It will be fun.

Saturday: I’d managed to get my mother to take my brother and I to the circus without telling her I didn’t really want to go to see the elephants, just a boy. We walked to the school-circus from our house—my twenty seven year old mother in her signature frayed, worn jeans with holes and a long-sleeve plaid man’s shirt. Her girlish fingernails and cigarettes fresh from the pack. Me with long hair and a long dress with flowers and pockets and lace. The only dress I wore that previous summer. A hippie dress.

We got to the circus before dark. We waited five minutes (which was a long time in our town) in line to ride the elephant. I rode the elephant as the sun went down behind the hills to the south. Where the redwoods are. I sat strait up on that elephant and my girl hips moved with it as it stepped. Up on that elephant I didn’t give a care about the blond boy who was suppose to meet me. I didn’t care about the blond girls next door who were lucky to have sisters not just brothers. I didn’t care about my ear problems or my mom and dad problems. I didn’t care that I would grow out of my favorite dress.

Sadly the elephant ride lasted only a moment. Two minutes at the most. Much like a really, really good song or that time I danced on stage in NYC or all the times I’ve dove under water in a clear, clean river, swam to the bottom and opened my eyes and no…one…could…touch…me and I didn’t even have to hear myself, let alone anyone else.

Some moments let us be untouchable.


Later, in the audience, I’m just like everyone else. I’m sitting on cold and flat and watching the untouchable trapeze artists and the little boy who can blow fire. I’m waiting for the next big thing.I patiently watch the circus show with my nine year old hands clasped in my lap—ever so often scanning the crowd for my blond date. All of town was there, and down from the hills too cause the place was packed.

Then I saw him. His patch of blond hair lit up under the dark canopy of circus tent. The boy was dressed in a black tuxedo, white collared shirt, black bow tie, shiny black shoes. My first thought was that I didn’t think I could find the courage to approach him, let alone allow him to buy me popcorn. My second thought was: who’s that?

Next to the blond boy who’d specifically asked me to be his date to the circus was a pretty little girl in a light blue dress. They were standing together near the popcorn. The fury rose inside me like a ring of fire. Why would he invite two girls? I reread his note in my head: Let’s go the circus together. We can eat popcorn. It will be fun.

It will be fun? This wasn’t fun!

Like a good little woman, I kept my head low until the circus show was over then I led my mother and brother Jesse home on the darkest possible route as to not be seen by the blond boy leaving in his limo–as clearly he was loaded. I didn’t talk to the boy at school on Monday, I never mentioned the note, and he never apologized either.

If I didn’t already know she was his date, I would’ve thought the little blond girl was the little blond boys sister.

SPARK Project: A Fortune Teller Once Told Me (True Story)

Here’s my submission for SPARK. My partner Helen will respond with a photograph inspired by the piece. You may or may not remember this poem but it made an appearance on my blog many moons ago. Enjoy! I hope some folks are considering learning more about SPARK–you can participate in the project from anywhere.


A Fortune Teller Once Told Me (True Story)
By Terah Van Dusen


Several years ago
I had a psychic reading
Not at one of those hole-in-the-wall places
with the flashing lights
and crystal balls

It was done in my living room

My former roommate, Sydney, had her future read frequently
Sydney had the same lady come over to our house
oh, every couple months or so
Always when nobody was home
I don’t remember how it was arranged
but the next thing you knew,
I too was signed up for a reading
Sydney promised not to tell the “medium” a thing about me
That way we could insure accuracy

The medium didn’t wear a long, flouncy dress
Or bring a satchel full of rocks and crystals,
She showed up in her Subaru car,
dressed in a North Face pullover and jeans
Said to me, this isn’t my day job

We sat facing each other in the quiet house
Nobody there except for us,
That was one of her rules
That nobody else be there

She took a few minutes to gauge me,
Had her eyes closed, seemed to be sniffing around at the air
Like she were some kind of animal.
I closed my eyes too, I was tired

Maybe its custom to start out by saying a
few nice things about the person.
Because that’s what she did at first,
mentioned a few of my qualities,
built me up a little bit.
She said she noticed that I was a writer.

She told me:
Keep writing, someday there will be people helping you.
As you can imagine, I was pleased
This lady was good

She went on to say that there was a person from
my past, a person who wished to speak to me.
From a past life, from a past life, she clarified.
The medium then, with her eyes still closed,
began speaking in a stranger, lower voice
I realized that the spirit was speaking through her:
It’s you! It’s you! I cannot believe I can finally speak to yyyooou!
The emotion that came with this voice brought tears to my eyes
Ooooohhhhh, youuuuuuuu!
Oh, oh, you are sssso lovely in this life!

The voice was truly eerie,
but my, what a compliment! Lovely?

The medium broke the contact with the spirit
She looked at me and said:
Whoever that was they sure are fond of you.
But, know that not every spirit is good.
Spirits, like humans, are both bad and good.

Let’s move on, she said

I have some advice for you, based on what I’m seeing:
First, know that a good way to gauge your happiness, is that
you are happiest when you are light on your feet.

I would imagine…

Second, you should eat less spicy food. More fresh food.

No and okay.

You are very serious, watch more funny movies and TV shows.

Now, I have given you some advice about how to better your life,
I’d like to mention just a few other things before we close

You are wondering if you will have
everlasting love: you are not the type.
You will not be with the same man for all of your life.

I’ll show you!

You are wondering if you will be happy when you move from Arizona.
You will be happy, you will be more
whole than you have ever been.

In the distant future I see you standing up on a hill,
inside of a prairie or meadow.
Your arms are wide open.
You are rejoicing because
you have finally reached the place
where you’ve been headed all your life.

I will keep my eyes wide-open for that place…

That was the last psychic reading I’ve had
The only psychic reading I’ve had
The woman told me all I needed to know,
and then some.
Knowing your future is not fun.
Whether its true or not.
I mean, there’s the good:
I should keep writing!
People will be helping me!
I’m going to stretch my arms out wide like a crazy
person while standing in a high-elevation prairie!
And then there’s the bad:
I should give up Thai food,
No relationship I will have will last.

Enough is enough,
I know enough now.
I will seek that meadow where
I will be whole and free
and I will try my darndest to have a long,
happy marriage someday.
Regardless of my “destiny”

I paid the psychic $25 bucks that day.
She told me a whole lot more
But its been so long that I forgot it.
I hadn’t written it down because
at the time I was sure I’d remember it all.

Miracle Boy

This piece I wrote in Lidia Yuknavitch’s writer’s workshop. The prompt was: write about the “peak” of an event, from someone else’s perspective. The narrator in this piece is my aunt Dorothy, the year was 1970, and if you don’t know by now–Robby is my father and a major character in my memoir.

                           “Where’s Robby?” I heard mom’s voice. She turned around and looked directly at me.
                            Her drunken gaze was unusually fixed, “Where’s Robby?”
                           I couldn’t respond before she said it again, “Where’s Robby?”
                           I looked out at the water and there was just a woman and a toddler sitting in the shallow water on the shore, a scuba diver gearing up and an older man in a bucket hat rowing a boat. The last I’d seen Robby he was swimming over by the big rock pile people liked to jump off of. But he wasn’t there anymore.
                          “I dunno where he is!” I told her, annoyed. She acted like I was the goddamn second mom. I was the oldest but I was only fourteen. If she thought I was gonna go looking for Robby she was wrong. She was the mom and she needed to remember it.
                           Mom started panicking and walking up and down the riverbank. She was asking other families if they’d seen her little boy, he was wearing a mask, she told them.
                           “Was he wearing a snorkel?”
                           “No, we haven’t seen him. Not since earlier, not since lunch.”

                        Fifteen minutes went by. Fifteen minutes.
                        I watched mom look. She searched the parking lot. Robby wasn’t a parking lot kind of boy. She scanned the bushes, the tree trunks, the fields, she scanned the opposite side of the river—the wild side. No Robby. I started to get a sicky feeling in my stomach. Marie didn’t know what was going on. Robby’d gone missing before, but this just felt different, ya know? Mom felt it too. She was yelling Robby, Robby! I started yelling too. Robbbbbbyyyyyy!
                       Mom approached the scuba diver who was a few feet from the shore. She waved her arms and he wattled over on his flippers through the shallow green water. “Can you look for my son? In the water?” She asked him.

                          Ten minutes went by. Ten minutes. I saw the flick of a blue flipper make a splash on the calm surface of the water and then I saw the scuba diver’s head followed by my brother Robby’s head in front of him. He was carrying my brother Robby and he’d brought him up from way down in the water. Robby’s head was limp at the neck and there was a mask around his head still, it looked like it was weighing him down. It was my daddy’s mask. The first thing I thought was: Robby’s dead.