I’m going to start by telling the story of someone else’s life, as much of it as they told me, scantly and in fragments, while we walked perimeter of a llama farm.
Officially, this person was leading a group tour of said farm. Unofficially, they were putting me and the eleven other members of this tour through one of the great spiritual tests of our lives. Some members of our party were as young as seven. Probably they will grow up to be either great saints or serial killers as a result of the experience. It was that intense. Sharon was that intense.
I’ve changed her name slightly in case Sharon, lost in a deep internet hole one day*, comes across this missive, reads it, and recognizes herself. I’m not worried Sharon will sue me, but I am worried this would hurt her feelings and I don’t want to hurt Sharon’s feelings because Sharon was a nice person. Sharon was just bad at her job. I’m bad at my job too. If anyone wants to write a short essay on how a morose barista named Shannabel ruined their Monday commute by salting up their coffee with real human tears, I guess this is their karmic go-ahead.
Sharon hails from New York, the state not the city. She spent the first era of her life driving a book mobile; she was a librarian with a license, a lonely life maybe, but one filled with purpose. No one can argue with literacy. Children are the future and, I imagine, Sharon liked to spend her days around children: children are sweet and friendly to grown-ups they don’t know; they might make fun of strange children, but they are merciful to the off-kilter adult, if only because they haven’t quite learned how to recognize one.
At a point determined either by law or fate, Sharon had to retire from her life of book mobiling, but she still needed a job. At a point before that point, Sharon had gone on a group tour of a llama farm in the North Carolina high country and was blessed (her words) to be able to get a job at the very same farm when she applied.
Sharon did not give tours right away. No, no. She worked her way up, first doing weeding and manual labor. We, the tour group, learned this detail while we stood outside an enclosure heaped high with llama beans. A llama bean is the name for a llama poop. It does look exactly like a bean and is a deeply burnt brown in color, distressingly similar to the coffee beans I professionally purvey. “No offense to the cows” said Sharon “but llama beans are better fertilizer, because they don’t have all the methane, so they don’t stink as bad.” As bad being operative. The beans did stink. By the time we made it to the bean heap, Sharon had been touring us for nearly ninety minutes and we’d gone less than a quarter mile. No one had the patience necessary to inhale the incredible methane-free feces whilst Sharon regaled us with a tale of how she once walked the property for hours looking for the ‘bean’ patch when she was still new to the crew.
It was not like Sharon hadn’t warned us. At the top of the tour, she’d asked if we had any place to be afterwards, saying she like to take things ‘leisurely.’ Later, my friend’s sister would point to this as our fatal error, hissing ‘she trapped us!’ while we death-trudged up a 30 degree incline to visit a pregnant goat, Sharon at the front, for our safety.
On this particular afternoon, Sharon’s victims consisted of a multi-generational family, coincidentally from the place where I grew up in South Carolina and us, a group of six women on a bachelorette weekend. Why did we go to a llama farm in North Carolina during a bachelorette weekend? Because we are fun and zany and too broke for Aruba. The bachelorette’s sister found the place online and we’d kept the excursion as a secret part of the itinerary. After a morning of mimosas in a hot tub, we blindfolded the bachelorette and tossed her in the back of the truck (she wanted to ride there and we were afraid road signs might ruin the surprise). We were hoping she would get a chance to pet a llama and, over the phone, the bride’s sister had been told there was even a llama that could give kisses and this prospect was objectively gross but also irresistible to us (it’s probably all to obvious, but everyone at this was white).
Unfortunately, the llamas would not perform for Sharon. We stood outside their pen while she called to each by name Mojo, come see us! Harley, come see us! Come see us! but the herd ignored her utterly, eating hay and rolling about in the dirt. Sharon explained the llamas were like cats; they interacted on their own terms and weren’t always into it. When we realized we weren’t going to pet a llama, the bachelorette party crew was no longer ‘into it’ either. There was deep sighing and suppressed giggles while Sharon toured us through the farm’s other attractions at a warp-slow place. I was afraid we would all loose it all at once and felt hyper-aware of how high school mean girlish it would be for the six of us to turn on poor Sharon.
Sharon presented a two-fold problem for me, the first being moral: I’ve always felt we’re not allowed to dislike anyone who isn’t a mean person. I think this is a solid principle, but I was finding it nearly impossible to prefer Sharon as she slowly zapped my will to live through longwinded explanations of the llama shearing process (they tie down all four of their legs). And llama fibers (22 naturally occurring colors!). And the incredible mind of the llama (the evidence for this was that the llamas knocked over a statue of Saint Francis in a pasture once and they seemed visibly distressed—‘Llamas are Catholic!’ said the still mimosa-buzzed bachelorette. Sharon considered the hypothesis and smiled: ‘Well, they are from South America’).
The second problem had to do with identity. Sharon’s a dyke. This is not a detail of her life she shared with us, but it was one that I, as her fellow, sensed ever so immediately. And so I felt solidarity with her and sympathy for her, because Sharon is old, and from New York the state not the city, and maybe Sharon is innately awkward and socially bizarre and obsessed with llamas, but I’m guessing growing up and living her life as herself in the place and time when she had to do it has something to do with how she got to be the way she is now.
There were moments during that bachelorette weekend, in which, I the lone lesbian, felt pretty damn awkward too. Being the only one is hard and if I was the only one every day, I might decide driving a book mobile up and down the coast for the rest of my life was a nice alternative. I’ve also had insomnia lately about my decision to spend my twenties working a low-paying day-job that affords me the time to ‘be an artist,’ which is in quotes because I’m less and less sure what I mean by that and more and more suspicious of the lofty connotation. I am certain of the status of my bank account (only because I just looked it up, in general I rest in the knowledge it’s hovering somewhere between the canned-tuna-salad for dinner zone and the if-you-think-you-can-afford-that-fancy-pouched-tuna-girl-you’re-wrong red area).
Meeting Sharon made me wonder if I might also one day find myself ‘blessed’ to be giving walking tours at a llama farm in my twilight years.
But damn. Sharon. Fuck. Did we have to talk about the llama beans right outside the llama bean pile for ten minutes! When we finally got moving, one of the dads from the South Carolina family said ‘Thank you!’ in a tone that made his wife give him a look and also rub his back in a conciliatory manner. I’d gathered she’d been the one to book the tour for their family as she whispered ‘I’m so sorry’ to her man. ‘Not as sorry as you’re gonna be’ he said to her, in a tone that didn’t imply abuse, but did indicate she’d be surrendering the entire DVR to him when they got home.
I felt a little better when I realized the other group was cracking. It wasn’t that we were total mean girls. Sharon was also impossible. I got focused on the tid-bits of her life she peppered between llama stories and I tried to feel gratitude about how Sharon had found this place in the world. Yes, she was the worst llama tour guide ever, but who cares, it’s not heart surgery(which is what I tell myself every time I make latte art that looks like a half-minced garlic) and she seems happy here and where, literally where, else would Sharon have gone?
After the tour, the bride-to-be asked another guide if she would take us back over to the llamas. This confused and annoyed me, as I was over llamas for life and my mimosa buzz was long dead, but, and I’m not sure what gave my friend the idea this might be the case, the llamas reacted totally differently to the other guide. If llamas are like cats, they are like cats who hate Sharon. Without her there, they were gregarious and hammy, shoving their heads through the fence while we took photos. They were like super cute aliens, with their mop top hair-dos and globular 360 eyes. The one who could kiss was white with long emotive lashes. He moved his head side to side in a way that was uncanny in its flirtatiousness. All of them had distinct personalities and I took a million pictures. I could see how a person might get really into them, might fall in love, might even decide to dedicate a lot of time to learning about them and teaching other people. And maybe, someday, Sharon will grow on them too.
*For Sharon’s emotional protection, I’ve also changed the name of the animal to make this less Googlable. While there were a couple llamas, this farm was primarily populated by another member of the camelid family, the one that is the domesticated version of the Vicuña. Investigate at your leisure.
About the author...
Annabel Lang is a writer, poet, performer, and somewhat reluctant barista, based in Chicago by way of the Carolinas. Every other Tuesday, she co-hosts and co-curates Junior Varsity, a bi-monthly, multi-genre workshop/show. In addition to googling hypo-allergenic dog breeds, she also enjoys coordinating a little gay basketball team. Let her know if you want to join!