birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Oh, Lovely Mule

I’m staring now at the greatest salt and pepper holder ever. It’s a little resin mule, carrying the salt and pepper shakers in baskets strapped across its back. The little mule does not care that he is a relic from the past when the miners hauled rocks from the caves, living in a modern 70’s Mike-Brady-on-acid house. He doesn’t care that something wooden and quirky and modern should hold our salt and pepper shakers. He’s happy to do the job.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have anything tacky. And god how I wanted tacky, like most little kids. Now that I’m a grown-ass woman, I can have tacky things right on display in my house if I want to! And my husband and children love them too. Oh precious, tacky mule!

The donkey, which I call it all the time even though it’s a mule, again, I’m a grown woman and nobody cares, came from Cave City, Kentucky. This trip to Kentucky was something else. I don’t remember why we were there; we had our middle daughter with us and perhaps this was connected to a college trip. We were visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, spectacular, other worldly, preserved and awe inspiring. Small deer ambled along beside the ruddy roads around the cottages. We weren’t staying in those cottages however; we were staying just across the border in Cave City.

Pink dinosaurs lorded over Cave City. “This is a perfect example of how capitalism ruins everything” my husband said as we crossed the line, away from the pristine wilds of the National Park. We saw the fattest people we’d ever seen in our lives in the Cracker Barrel, which took us forever to find in the first place. How can you hide a Cracker Barrel?

That night we lay in bed listening to a calliope playing eerily in the faraway background, and our daughter crying in the bed right next to us, as inexplicable as the never-ending fairground music. What could it all mean?

In the morning, we could not possibly return to the Cracker Barrel for breakfast, and drove into downtown Cave City where we found this adorable café. Everyone inside was smoking. The tables were Formica, and souvenirs were stacked throughout the place, teetering in old boxes covered in dust. I took a picture of an Andrew Jackson dream catcher, and might have bought it had it not been so completely covered in the blood of a thousand dead Indians. And on every table, along with the big squeezy bottles of ketchup and mustard, were these pack mule salt and pepper shakers.

No way was I leaving Cave City without one.

And now here it is, its left ear broken and Epoxied back on at least twice, a permanent fixture on the table. We have grandchildren now. Will they be writing about this donkey when they sit at their computers 50 years from now, remembering what they loved about Mimi and Joe’s house? They love it now, always asking for the donkey, talking to it, using too much salt and pepper.

Oh, sweet little donkey from Cave City. Oh, solid little sturdy beast, oh, friendly mule. Oh, tacky trinket, oh, sweet reminder that one night we listened to our darling Emma crying against the tinkling notes of psychokiller background music in a town ruled by putt putt golf and giant pink dinosaurs.

Tiny Space