Just Roll With It

By Emilee Phillips

I may have grown up in a small town, but stories of faraway places were as close as a Fourth of July picnic with my well-traveled family members and their extensive passport stamp collections. What a lovely thing it would be to be worldly, I often thought. Someone who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Imagine the conversations I could have, sitting on the beach with friends and a cooler of White Claws. “Cannes? Oh, dear, it’s simply too crowded this time of year.”

As luck would have it, I have friends who live in Germany. A situation ripe for exploring. This would be my gateway to European sophistication. My plan was simple — an eight-day nonstop odyssey. Joined by my friend Olivia, we would cross more borders than the Mongol hordes. The EU was there for the taking. 

I hit foreign soil running. First side trip: France. Oui, these Americans were going to grab some French culture by its breadsticks. Strasbourg was just a high-speed train hop away — if we hadn’t missed the connection. Let’s call it part of the learning curve. Luckily, there were plenty of (much slower) trains to get us there and, in a couple of hours, we were strolling the streets of this storybook city. 

Strasbourg, we discovered, is a lovely, confusing border town. Its traditionally German-looking buildings have some very French-sounding names, and the food seemed an odd blend, as if two households were forced to work in one kitchen with neither willing to give up on their own way of doing things. The language situation was no less confusing, so we opted to bounce between French and German, giving ourselves a 50-50 chance of being right. We listened to street performers, window-shopped and, because one can’t go to France without indulging oneself, did a wine tasting at a shop flush with wines from the Alsace region. We relied on a kindly French woman to translate for us and somehow walked out with six bottles that we had to lug around the rest of the day. Worldliness, it turns out, is a process.

So is planning, which we admittedly didn’t do very well. (See high-speed train, above.) In my head, getting back to home base in Germany would be no issue. We were doing things the European way, laissez-faire. Traveling the rails in Europe is as easy as driving a golf cart in Pinehurst . . . right?

Mais, non. 

High-speed train? Whoosh. Already gone. Next up, a regional train, which is something of a different beast. Despite trying to purchase tickets hours before departure, the one we wanted was fully booked. No restrooms, no cushioned seats, no bar car for us.

We stood at the ticket machine weighing our options long enough to make us look illiterate. “Désolé,” I said to the clearly annoyed man waiting in line behind us, hoping I chose the right language to apologize in. Our next option was the two-and-a-half-hour journey that included multiple stops and changes.

All Dorothy had to do to get out of Oz was click her heels together three times. We, on the other hand, had multiple delays and two trains announcing, in a language I barely understood, that we needed to switch lines. The last change involved sprinting, along with our fellow travelers, down one set of stairs and up another while hauling our six increasingly heavy bottles of wine. The train we jumped on was full but we squeezed in anyway, because who knew when the next one would be or if there would even be a next one. The learning curve was getting steeper.

Crammed in, I could feel the breath of the person behind me down my neck. By then, it was now close to 1 a.m. We were one stop away from our parked car, and the train came to a halt in the middle of a tunnel. This was it. My final straw. I was completely exhausted and would have laid right down on the floor if I had been able to move an inch.

I let out a pitiful sigh and looked to my left. While the rest of us were packed together like a box of crayons, holding onto whatever piece of train could double as a handrail, two women were sitting in the window seats, unbothered. One was dressed in head-to-toe black and the other in all white — including a white, fur-trimmed coat.

The epitome of chic, they were sipping Champagne brut. Out of real glasses. Where they got the drinks I couldn’t tell you. I do know I was getting a good dose of culture that day. I tried my best not to stare during the 30 minutes we were stuck on the tracks but I was in awe, jealous, and frankly, in desperate need of a drink.

When the train finally began moving, the herd of smooshed commuters began to cheer. All I heard, though, was the polite clink of glasses as the two women toasted. No language barrier got in the way this time. They seemed to say “C’est la vie,” an attitude I plan to carry with me more often.  PS

Emilee Phillips is PineStraw’s director of social media and digital content.



Home, Sweet Millennial Home

A baby boomer navigates Trader Joe’s

By Tom Allen

Retirement affords me the opportunity to sleep late, cross a few items off my bucket list, and the most joyful gift, “Tuesdays with Ellis,” babysitting my 11-month old grandson while his parents work. My wife isn’t so lucky. While she’s working, I make the morning drive to Raleigh, pick up my little buddy from a mother’s-morning-out program, then listen to Cool Jazz Radio, courtesy of Pandora, on the trip back to his house. After some play time, Ellis settles in with a bottle, a nap, then a book and more play time before Mom gets home.

As a baby boomer hanging out in the home of millennials, I’ve had my trifocalized eyes opened, and my digitally challenged brain stretched. Sound machines, monitors controlled from smartphones, swaddles and sleep sacks weren’t part of our parenting routine 25 years ago. Squeeze-package baby food may have been around, but jars of Gerber sweet potatoes or peas filled our pantry. Funky organic combos like carrots and kale or apples and mango weren’t on our kids’ menus. I was in my 50s before I ever ate hummus or an avocado, some of Ellis’ first foods.

While my grandson naps, I’m welcome to grab a quick bite from his parents’ pantry or fridge. My first Tuesday found me searching for something a little more appealing than Monday evening’s quinoa and roasted veggies. I discovered a box of Honey Nut Cheerio-like cereal. Alas, oat milk was my only option. Can’t a guy get a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and some 2 percent? And I wonder, can you douse a bowl of Lucky Charms with coconut water? I did find some slices of organic oven-roasted turkey breast. Ah, a turkey sandwich on sprouted wheat 7-grain bread. With mayo? Yes. An opened jar of Duke’s. What a good daughter we raised. Later, my son-in-law offered me a Hu Almond Butter + Puffed Quinoa Dark Chocolate bar. Not bad for an energy bar stamped Vegan/Primal. Primal? Isn’t that a scream?

Like lots of millennials, our daughter is a fan of Trader Joe’s, or TJ’s for the hip and enlightened among us. Ellis’ parents introduced me to TJ’s edamame (pretty tasty) olive tapenade with Kalamata and Chalikidiki olives (no thanks), mango nonfat Greek yogurt (I’m hooked), and magical chocolate croissants — magical because you take them out of the freezer and place on a baking sheet before bedtime, and the next morning they’ve tripled in size, ready to bake. Move over, Lay’s Potato Chips. You can’t eat just one.

Millennials do everything on their phones — banking, shopping, even telling their Pura Automated Home Fragrance Device when to let the lavender scent loose. And, as I learned last summer, adjusting the thermostat is as close as your smartphone.

But generations learn from each other. My kids may not be interested in examining my 50 United States quarter collection or hearing stories about what it’s like to “prime” tobacco, but they do ask questions, to which we sometimes have answers. “Ah, no, the plant we gave you at Christmas is an amaryllis, not a camellia. The camellia is that shrub you have in your backyard, with the blooms you thought were roses.” And sometimes, we respond to questions with a question — “What, you haven’t changed your air filters in a year?”

A plethora of newspaper and magazine articles will tell you millennials don’t want your stuff. It’s true. Granny’s cobalt blue fruit dish and matching candlesticks or Mom’s silver-plated serving tray? Donate to a thrift shop that sells stuff to help others. Minimalists though they be, you might hear them ask for Grandma’s tiny blue ginger jar or her potato masher that looks like it might be (and is) handy for mashing an avocado to spread on toasted, sprouted wheat 7-grain bread. Questions like, “Can I have one of Papa’s old shirts? They still smell like his aftershave,” or, “What are those yellow flowers that bloom around my neighbor’s mailbox? Can you tell me how I can grow some?” are welcome inquiries both sentimental and sweet.

For now, I’ll continue my weekly hangouts with Ellis. Quinoa and roasted veggies are starting to taste pretty good. Oat milk matched with my homemade granola ain’t bad. But grandparenting, ah, that’s still my cup of organic, de-caffeinated, rooibos herbal tea.  PS

Tom Allen is a retired minister. He lives in Whispering Pines. 



The Pinch Hitters

Now you see them, now you don’t

By Jim Moriarty

The year was 1959. I know this because my father, who was largely estranged from our family, took me to see the sensational new movie Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger. What 8-year-old kid can’t wait to see a gangster get his brains beaten in with a brick in dramatic black and white?

I was in my father’s charge that first week in May because my mother and both of my older brothers were off scouting colleges. It was a thing, even back in those days. My presence, under duress I’m sure, was not about to dissuade my father from his usual pursuits. The good news for me was that one of those pursuits involved watching the Chicago White Sox play the Boston Red Sox at Comiskey Park. Late in the game, a pinch hitter was announced. Ted Williams. My father leaned over to me and said, “Watch everything No. 9 does because one day you’re going to want to tell your children you saw him play.” I don’t remember a damn thing about what Williams did. I’m going to guess it wasn’t much, since 1959 was the only year of his career when he didn’t hit over .300. We were both in a slump, I guess.

Skip forward, if you’ll indulge me, to early May of 1974. A college friend of mine who was living in northern Michigan came south to visit, carrying a brown paper bag full of smoked chubs, and we bought tickets to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field. The sky was pewter gray, and the low that day was 32 degrees. If it got over 50 in the afternoon, it couldn’t have been by much. The wind was howling off Lake Michigan, and attendance at the game was beyond meager. As the afternoon wore on — Wrigley didn’t have lights in those days — like an advancing glacier, folks just naturally inched closer and closer to the field. The ushers didn’t care. They were freezing, too.

My friend, his bag of smoked fish, and I finished the second half of the ball game in lovely seats right behind the first base dugout. Being a generous soul, he was passing his chubs up and down the row, sharing with anyone who wanted to sample this freshwater delicacy. Sitting next to us was an older man and a young girl, about the same age I had been that day long ago at Comiskey, who I took to be his granddaughter. Having skipped school in the middle of the week, she was a devout and vocal fan of the home team with a spanking new Cubs hat to prove it. Grandpa was equally enamored of smoked fish. It was a genial grouping of box seat interlopers.

Late in the day, the seventh or eighth inning, a pinch hitter was announced. It was Henry Aaron. Roughly a month before, Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record. When he came out of the dugout, swinging a bat to loosen up those old muscles, I leaned over toward the little girl and said, “Watch everything No. 44 does because one day, you’re going to want to tell your children you saw him play.”

I confess, recycling this bit of generational guidance made me feel rather fine and noble.

As swiftly as that bit of wisdom tumbled from my windchilled lips, that sweet little girl turned to me and, in language so colorful it would have made a tugboat captain faint, reinforced her undying love of the Cubs and her utter and complete disdain for anyone, including me, who might get in the way of a complete and total Chicago victory.

Fifteen years had passed and I was still in a slump.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at



A Happy Discovery

The Google machine reveals all

By Tony Rothwell

Our son Max, down from Washington, D.C., for a visit, pointed to a large portrait in a gorgeous gold frame hanging near the fireplace and asked, “Who is that anyway?” I said we had no idea, that we just liked it when we saw it in an antique show years ago and bought it. When people ask, we usually say it’s the Fifth Earl of Rothwell. With this he took out his phone, went to Google and took a picture.

“Looks like it’s William Pitt the Younger,” he said, in the blink of a facial recognition app.

“You must be joking,” I said. “Let me have a look.”

Sure enough, there was “our” portrait with the William Pitt caption, going on to detail his years, 1759-1806. The portrait was practically identical to one by George Romney, who painted many contemporary notables.

We were amazed to suddenly find ourselves in the presence of one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers. Comparing the two pictures, the facial expression of quiet confidence, the hair, the stock at the neck, the high-collared coat, yellow waistcoat and buttons were all virtually identical, but the Romney was a little more finished and showed more of the body.

This, however, did not lessen our excitement. William Pitt the Younger was so-called because his father was also named William Pitt and had been prime minister in the 1760s. The Younger became prime minister of Great Britain at the age of 24, the youngest ever to do so, before or since.

He was an outstanding administrator and surrounded himself with competent ministers. In all, he held the position for 18 years (38 percent of his life!), during which time he reformed the Tory Party, dealt with the war against Napoleon and the French, re-established trade with America after independence, and reduced the national debt. Although somewhat colorless, he was seen as a minister who was determined to cut out corruption in politics and was nicknamed “Honest Billy” by the general public. He worked extremely hard but found solace in port wine. Indeed, he became known as “a three bottle man,” but the combination of port and hard work did little for his health, and he died in office at the age of 47.

The irony of finding out who was in the painting was that for years it had been hanging over our large book of 18th century prints by the famous English caricaturist James Gillray, over 80 of which featured the self-same William Pitt. We didn’t tie them together, probably because Romney was kind to his sitter when he painted him. Pitt had a long, sharp nose which, while blunted in the portrait, was a signature feature exaggerated — as caricaturists are wont to do — in Gillray’s prints.

Was our portrait a trial run by Romney or a copy by another artist done in his style? We may never know. But the painting, still hovering over Gillray, has taken on a whole new meaning. So much for the Fifth Earl of Rothwell. Alas, we hardly knew ye.  PS

Tony Rothwell, a Brit, moved to Pinehurst in 2017, exchanging the mind-numbing traffic of Washington, D.C., for better weather and the vagaries of golf. He writes short stories, collects caricatures, sings in the Moore County Choral Society, and with his wife, Camilla, enjoys their many friends in the Sandhills.



Chocoholics Beware

Lemon might be gaining on you

By Ruth Moose

A chocoholic I am not. On a desserts table with lots of chocolate and other dark delights I can take or leave the chocolate stuff. I leave it for those who would kill their own mother for a bite of anything chocolate. Not me. I don’t even, forgive me friends, like Oreos. No. Never. I must be in the minority everywhere.

A friend told me that once in the ditch of despair during a diet, and dying for chocolate, she had not trusted herself to have even the least bit of chocolate of any kind in her house. Then, in sheer desperation, she climbed high and hunted deep in every corner of every cabinet and finally hidden behind rusted tins of Old Bay and boxes of baking soda, she laid her hands on a long forgotten and now dusty can of pure cocoa. She pried off the lid and dug in, eating every smidge with her bare hand then licking her fingers. That’s desperation. That, my friends, is a chocoholic!

I grew up with good Scottish people who, if it came to the last crumb on the plate, would fight over a caramel layer cake or, even better, a brown sugar pound cake with burnt sugar icing. I’ve seen it happen at church picnics and potluck dinners.

In a show of support for anything other than chocolate I once entered a cupcake contest sponsored by the Chapel Hill Historical Society. First prize, $100. I wanted to see if something, anything, could beat chocolate.

So I spent some weeks developing a lemon cupcake. Not just any old lemon cupcake but an over-the-top and knock-your-senses-to-the-moon lemon cupcake. I mixed. I baked. I tasted. I added. I subtracted. Until I finally ended up with marinating some mango and embedding it in the middle. I made a lemon icing, fluffy and tart, and in a flourish, sprinkled on shredded coconut. It even looked prize winning.

On the day of judging the downtown historic house had three rooms filled with tables full of cupcakes. Rows, double and triple deep, with cupcakes. Every kind of chocolate. It was chocolate heaven. The air felt heavy with the scent of chocolate, so heavy you could taste it when you breathed in.

I felt very small, greatly outnumbered, and wished I had never in a million years decided to take on the world of chocolate. I was a very small David in a room filled with cocoa Goliaths. Until, out in the front yard, filled with cupcake lovers who paid $10 for as many as they could eat, the judges announced their decisions. Third went, of course, to one of the many, many chocolate cupcakes. No surprise.

I held my breath and hugged the tiny amount of hope I still had left. Second went to . . . Shaggy Lemon Cupcakes with Marinated Mango in the Middle. Mine! I got a fancy, official award certificate and a $25 gift card from a local stationery shop. Later, one of the losers said to me out of the corner of her mouth, “Your title’s what won it.”

I didn’t care. Lemon had placed. Lemon had beaten out chocolate.

The first prize, the big prize winning cupcake — when it was announced and the 13-year-old girl went up to claim her award and get her $100 check — was a plain-Jane vanilla cupcake with plain vanilla icing. After gasping, the applause was wide and astonished. Not only had lemon beaten out chocolate, vanilla had, too. The judges praised the texture of the vanilla cupcake and, of course, the delicate but absolutely perfect flavor of vanilla.

So there you go, chocoholics. You may outnumber those of us of other persuasions, but we still sometimes win a prize or two. Sometimes.  PS

Ruth Moose taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for 15 years and tacked on 10 more at Carolina Central Community College.



Eau d’Adventure

A little spritz goes a long way

By: Emilee Phillips

They say smells are the strongest links to memory. A whiff of something can transport you instantly through the years. Perfumes are like people, each complex and unique. One may sing a melancholy song but you can’t help but love her voice. Another might wrap you up in a big hug and hold you there no matter how long it’s been. A third can pull you into a hallway you haven’t dared walk down in years.

A new year is a chance to try on new versions of yourself as simply as changing your scent. You can have a signature perfume, or you can have the world at your door with the touch of an atomizer. I could smell like a girl who spends her days arranging flowers, drinking afternoon tea and wearing a pearl necklace. Or I could have a sultry scent and create mystery in the air as if, just walking past, it is possible to imagine being inside a luxurious yacht.

And I adore fragrance bottles. While many may be ornate, uniquely shaped vessels with ridiculous names on their labels, they’re my prized little possessions.

I have a round glass bottle of Chanel I got my senior year of high school. I use it sparingly, mostly on special occasions. Every pink spritz takes me back to seeing the world as an adult for the first time. Back to prom, my cap and gown, and first dates.

I have a bottle that’s yellow and cylindrical and reminds me of a trip I took to Ohio one winter, my white boots in the snow and my cousin, Maddy. We walked all around Cleveland, shivering with coffees in hand, finding unique storefronts and taking dramatic photos we dubbed “album covers.” A whiff brings us back together again.

People associate red roses with Valentine’s Day, as do I, though I prefer the look of peonies or carnations. Still, I opt for rose-scented spray on the 14th. Once, on my way out for dinner, I sprayed so much of it my coat held onto the scent deep into spring. My date rolled the car windows down, terrified, I suppose, that no automobile air freshener could ever put it right.

I secretly love walking through department stores with beauty bars and fragrance counters. The haze that hangs between the door and the shoe department is a fog bank I welcome. Even though most perfumes are overpriced and overly pungent, I enjoy over-sampling them all, sniffing test papers until my nose can no longer distinguish patchouli from pine.

I even keep a small gold metal bottle my mother bought in Paris back in the ’80s. It’s never been opened. She wanted to save it for a special occasion. Maybe one day I’ll test it out and cross my fingers that it doesn’t smell terrible. Maybe we’ll even wear it out together to create an aromatic memory all our own.  PS

Emilee Phillips is PineStraw’s director of social media and digital content.



The Missing Consonant

An extra letter can speak volumes

By Amberly Glitz Weber

Growing up in a military family, frequent moves ensured I never felt quite comfortable with the question “Where are you from?” But I could always tell you where my mother’s people lived. Every other winter, we traveled from wherever we were living up North to find my grandparents’ North Carolina ranch bursting into bloom, a front porch heavy with camellias as the longleaf pines stretched up into the blue.

The adventure started as soon as we touched down at the airport in Greensboro. Bringing with us an eau de oddity, my twin sister and I were both delighted and impressed that the shuttle bus played country music on the speakers, as we peeled off sweaters and coats in what, to us, was balmy summer weather.

I always felt a little foreign in this vacation land. “Bless their hearts,” my aunt once said, “they sound just like little Yankees.” I remember conspiring with my sister to fake an accent in the Goody’s checkout line, just to see if we could pass. We were sure our mangled, mostly Chicagoan syllables made us stick out, blatant as — in those days — Wingate’s solo stoplight. I pity any cashier who had to endure the performance.

Our speech marked us even more than our shorts in January, so different from the magic and strange mystery of the voices we heard in Rockingham and Hamlet. Not voices with the refined husk of Tara, but a warm, earthy accent that found space for an extra “R” in water — right after the “A” — turning the syllables round and deep in my grandfather’s mouth.

Today, I’m a proud Aberdeen homeowner, and my first daughter’s birth at UNC-Chapel Hill earns her Tarheel status. Already my husband and I detect a hint of the South in her speech. Sometimes it’s so strong we think she must be putting us on — or is she? I doubt it will ever reach the height of my granddad’s drawl, his gravelly voice ever saying in my memory, “Come here an’ gimme some sugar.” It was a voice grown in Carolina, on a farm of many children and countless passing farm hands working the land.

We won’t be moving again, not for a long while. How strange to think that as they grow, my babies’ answer to the question that plagued my childhood will be “from here.” Now, on my daily commute or a mundane dash for groceries, pine trees piercing the Carolina blue sky give me a sense of holiday adventure, no matter the calendar. Here, the camellias burst into bloom in weeks where other ZIP codes are buried in snow. And, though I love this busy life and my once-little town — I find myself missing that extra “R” in water.  PS

Aberdeen resident Amberly Glitz Weber is an Army veteran and freelance writer. She’s grateful for every minute among the murmuring pines of North Carolina.


Modern Conveniences

And the wisdom of the ages

By Ashley Memory

Newly married, the pressure to be everything — wife, fashionista, hostess extraordinaire — had never been greater. J.P. and I were just hours away from our first dinner party, and already I hated the way my trendy beaded bracelets kept lassoing me to the kitchen cabinet handles. There was a reason my grandmother Wilma never wore fancy jewelry while entertaining, but I couldn’t worry about it now. The turkey was roasting in the oven, and I had rolls to make.

“Can I do anything?” J.P. called from the living room.

The last thing I needed was interference. Better to keep him occupied with details. “Set the table!” I yelled.

As I entered the pantry for flour, a box of Wilma’s cookware caught my eye. After her death, the box had been passed to me. But, as much as I’d adored her, Wilma had always done things the hard way. Tonight I didn’t have the time to fool with old-fashioned gadgets. In fact, this box was already taking up way too much space in my pantry. Sadly, many of Wilma’s things would probably have to go.

“Forgive me, Grandma,” I whispered, “but this occasion calls for modern convenience.”

The voice I suddenly heard was loving but wary: Better be careful.

My new planetary action mixer boasted beaters that rotated on their axis just like the Earth, and a mixer head that turned the opposite way. All this with a 1.3-horsepower motor. I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but it sounded absolutely essential.

What it meant, I learned after I innocently stuck a spatula into the bowl as the mixer ran, was that it could fling objects, e.g., that same spatula, back at my face with a force strong enough to send Elon Musk’s Starship to the planet Mars and back again. Now I was the one seeing stars.

Didn’t I warn you?

“Everything OK in there?” J.P. shouted from the living room. “Hey, there’s a new space documentary on Nova tonight. Want to watch it?”

This was the last thing I needed to hear. “Are you kidding me?” I yelled back. “We’ve got people coming over, remember?”

Head throbbing, I retreated to the pantry and grabbed Wilma’s stout wooden spoon so I could mix the ingredients by hand. Then I looked down at my previously sparkly pink sweater. It was white with flour.

I heard that little voice again. Wilma. Might I recommend an apron?

I rifled back through the box and pulled out her red-checkered apron. Hardly haute couture, but I didn’t care. Once I put away the dough to rise, it was time to grate some cheese for the potato casserole. By now I was long overdue for some magic from my new food processor.

Do you really have time for that?

Sure enough, when I saw the shredding disk, I realized I had no idea how to attach it to the motor shaft. I gave up. “So much for modern conveniences.”

It’s OK, dear. Try my handheld grater.

“How’s it going?” J.P. called out. “Anything else I can do?

“Remember that box in the pantry? Bring it in here.”

“I thought you were donating that stuff,” he said, carrying Wilma’s cookware.

Now, now. Not so fast, dear.

I jerked off my bracelets and tossed them aside. “Are you kidding? The only thing I’m giving away are these stupid bracelets.”  PS

Ashley Memory lives in southwestern Randolph County, and when she’s not blowing up the kitchen, she’s outside hollering for the dogs.


Nekked Fighting

The ultimate element of surprise

By Beth MacDonald

Occasionally, I find myself in places where strange things happen so frequently no one bats a silky, fake eyelash at them. New York City, for example. I have never been surprised to see a citizen dressed as Superman directing traffic with ping-pong paddles. Washington, D.C., it seems, isn’t far behind.

I was in D.C. recently to visit some friends and do some work. Mason, my husband, was with me. He can’t hear well, especially when I am near him and ask him to do something. This very specific type of hearing loss is often diagnosed as “Mixed Marital Hearing Loss, Unspecified,” which means he can’t hear requests, plans, demands or the doorbell.

As with most hotel rooms that aren’t presidential suites, the bathroom is directly by the entrance door. It was 9 o’clock in the morning. The Do Not Disturb sign was hanging on the doorknob. I was showering and Mason was on the other side of the room, behind a partition that served as a wall/coffee bar. I knew he was there because he was singing. His voice is deep and buttery, so I usually enjoy his warbling; though given his hearing condition, they could probably hear him in Raleigh.

As I exited the shower, I heard the hotel room door click open. Knowing Mason was oblivious on the other side of the room, I braced myself for it. Nekked fighting. Combat Nu.

Because everything in my life is connected to some eccentric misadventure somewhere else, this one began in Arkansas, sort of. Years ago I had a boss who was from there. He was short, probably because the mosquitoes ate half of him, and his Southern drawl was so thick it could make biscuits. He started every workday with wise advice as he passed my office. One day it was this: “Nekked fighting! You’ll win!” I furrowed my brow and asked what on this glorious green Earth he was talking about. At the time it never occurred to me that this could actually come in handy.

“Think about it,” he stopped, very serious. “Someone comes at ya ready to fight. Git nekked. Then, when they stare at ya, naked and ugly, flabby and weird lookin’, you attack! You have the element of surprise. Use it to your advantage and you win!” With that, he and his cup of coffee moved on.

I kept that little nugget of wisdom in the back of my cap until that hotel door clicked open.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is the day I would become the champion of Combat Nu. It all happened in slow motion, like in The Matrix. Someone was breaking in. I turned toward the door, dripping, naked and weird looking. I came face-to-face with the danger, ready to fight. The blood-curdling scream that came out of the maid as she fled down the hallway convinced me I had won. But I wondered, is it two falls out of three? Am I a black belt, to be feared and respected?

I put on some clothes and went downstairs to inquire at the front desk if they had a moment to hear my testimony about naked fighting. The staff was so unmoved by my experience it was as if this was a common occurrence. Their only response was, “I’m sure she knocked, you just didn’t hear it.”

At that moment, I started to cry in the lobby of a lovely hotel in downtown D.C. while trying to convince the front desk staff that Combat Nu is not a matter to be engaged in lightly. They seemed blissfully unaware of the true severity of the situation.

Mason finally either got to the end of his song or he realized I was missing and came downstairs looking for me. He’s all too aware that I am a living, breathing, walking catastrophe with a certain je ne sais quoi. He put a pair of sunglasses on me, stood me against a wall, said, “Do not move.”

Then he headed over to the Starbucks in the lobby to get me a double caramel macchiato and probably a set of ping-pong paddles.  PS

Beth MacDonald is a Southern Pines suburban misadventurer, author and Combat Nu black belt.


The Haunted Fireplace

“Do you like scary movies?”

By Emilee Phillips

I was never much into ghost stories as a little girl, but that didn’t make me immune to the heebie-jeebies when something didn’t feel quite right.

The house where I grew up was built in 1875. It’s a rambling white farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time our home felt warm and cozy, especially when the whole family was together. It was during thunderstorms, or when I was alone, that I got scared.

The old house is the polar opposite of a modern, open floor plan. It has rooms of all different shapes and sizes, each with an atmosphere entirely its own. Every addition to the house brought with it idiosyncratic wall and floor configurations. Our house was imposing and roomy and, to a little kid like me, it felt like a mansion — not of the fancy or fairytale kind, but the big, mysterious kind.

Sometimes, it even seemed alive. 

The majority of the house was built with rough cut lumber. There are four fireplaces, two of them in working condition. The wooden mantels are all strictly utilitarian, devoid of ornate carvings or decoration. But the one in the green room is different. Very different.

I should mention that the house was often cold in the winter. We had a pair of furnaces, but their fuel efficiency may not have been up to 21st century standards. They often burned through all of the propane before the delivery truck could make it back for a refill. Or sometimes they were simply unable to ward off the chill of a high-ceilinged house. So, on the coldest nights, my family gathered in the green room around its oversized fireplace.

My brother and I used to wrestle on the worn brown carpet, rolling in front of the fire that always gave off more fumes than it seemed it should. I suppose I didn’t pay it any mind those first few years until one day I looked up at that ancient fireplace and watched the mantel ooze. My eyes got as big as saucers. It was as though I was watching a horror movie and I couldn’t look away.

The walls were bleeding.

Suddenly, every creak I heard in that old house came alive. I could imagine whispers coming from the flames. Every speck of blue dancing in the fire became a spirit showing itself to me just to see if I was paying attention.

When the fireplace was on I would tiptoe in and out of the room, keeping a wary eye on the hearth. If I was quiet, I thought, I would be safe.

It was creepy and sinister and a bit terrifying. And despite countless reassurances from my parents that a menacing otherworldly being had not inhabited that gaping hole in the wall, I wasn’t convinced.

Even now, when the fireplace in the green room is lit, amber fluid seeps from the mantel and oozes over the layers and layers of paint applied to disguise where all the previous drips have been scraped off. And, now that I’m older, I understand it’s not unheard of for old homes built of heart pine to drip resin for years, the heat triggering the flow.

Perhaps the old house isn’t haunted after all — except for the footsteps my father sometimes hears clomping up the steep wooden staircase at night. The steps, oddly enough, are carpeted.  PS

Emilee Phillips is PineStraw’s director of social media and digital content.