By August I could only sleep at steep angles, midday, when the town dozed off for blocks. The window fan helicoptered me to a grass hut, and reporters in flak jackets filed the evening news from the high school lab where Dennis and I had met. Our teacher bent over me, horn-rimmed, tortoise-shelled, and I didn’t know what I had done.
In the morning when Dennis woke beside me I had been knotted awake for hours. Buses creaked toward Schenectady and the triplicate perfume of invoices he’d said I never had to fingernail apart again. None of the names we liked—Lisa, Peter, Jennifer, Michael, Paul, Christine—belonged to anyone.
“How about Chet?” Dennis called from the kitchen. I heard him: verse, refrain, bridge, proud Mary keep on boiling—boiling. He peered around the doorframe, his moustache a drooped grin.
All day we’d made sure to be ready. Those who believed in umbrellas in snow leaned tightly fastened umbrellas against their desks, and those already irked by the hat hair the forecast gave them an eighty percent chance of having by dinner time tripped over the umbrellas and handed them to their owners, saying, “You do know it’s snow, not rain?” In hallway conversations we were “much winter” and “not very March” to those we regularly volleyed references with, and though we would be the first to call our jokes lame and done, so done if questioned, so was winter, lame, and done, so done, except it wasn’t.
“So glad this is the last snow of the season,” Mindy said, and her supervisor said, “Right?” That was in the ten AM editorial meeting in the eighth floor conference room, which Mindy had to excuse herself from for a meeting with the Ad Sales director who was on fourteen and wouldn’t have heard Mindy’s line yet, and never would hear it from Editorial, who he’d only communicated with by email since Editorial had gotten the retina displays they claimed they needed. As though the Ad Sales director’s CPMs were easy on the eye! “The nice thing is, after today we’ll have no more storms,” Mindy said, mixing it up a little. The Ad Sales director Could. Not. Wait.
Downstairs, smokers shivered, and when Mindy went out to bring back lunch she thought soup because the next week, when the air would be sweet with earth that things were growing in, she would not want soup in the way she wanted to sip warmth and think of snow faltering past the window of some office with a window.
At three o’clock there was still the pre-snow damp and featureless overcast, and it was March and the light didn’t tip toward dusk until we were snapping our parkas, pushing useless umbrellas into bags they fit no better than they ever had, forgetting hats, somewhere dropping one glove, and God knows not going back into the building to not find the glove and get caught when the snow began after all. “At least after this storm, you won’t need gloves,” Mindy said, and, “I can never get a pair of gloves through the winter.” She couldn’t have said how exaggerated that might have been. But better to be someone who lost gloves, so the stranger in the elevator could go into the bright evening with the thought of having lost only the one.
I found their shells plastic empty red and a right of way warning rusted waist-high in vines I could not pronounce PETROLEUM I was scared not of the pipeline but of the sign
I found an atlas in brick cities nothing had been replaced nothing was intact I trusted my father’s moustache and my mother with everything else until the cold fled and the geese stayed and places came from movies just like this one and a dog named Molson ran away with the bird and took our windy cries for cheering
I have my own way of standing half astride today you must not think it’s a thing to get over if so then so is everything some other time some other game we would bring enough for everyone again
Now it’s meanwhile tall ships crowd the inbound tide indoor fireworks are due we have been in our fumes two centuries I am certain I was present and absent when spars collided and I am waiting for the sails I caught this afternoon
“When you start really letting go this is what it’s like. A lick of pain, furtive, darting up where you don’t expect it. Then a lightness. The lightness is something to think about. It isn’t just relief. There’s a queer kind of pleasure in it, not a self-wounding or malicious pleasure, nothing personal at all. It’s an uncalled-for pleasure in seeing how the design wouldn’t fit and the structure wouldn’t stand, a pleasure in taking into account, all over again, everything that is contradictory and persistent and unaccommodating about life.”—“Bardon Bus,” The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro (via scribblingcynic)
That last sentence is as apt a description of the satisfaction of reading Munro as I’ve seen.
“You cross the George Washington Bridge and dip down and around and slide into the gentle curve of the West Side Highway, and the lights and towers of Manhattan flash and glow before you, rising above the lush greenness of Riverside Park, and even the most embittered enemy of Robert Moses—or of that matter, of New York—will be touched: you know you have come home again, and the city is there for you”—Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity. Berman died yesterday. I remember the shiver, first reading this, and reading his descriptions of the Bronx blasted apart by Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway construction a few pages above it. His sense of the “sanctity of ‘things as they are’” was bracingly freed of nostalgia by the rigor of his inquiry, yet did not shy from acknowledging the affinity driving it.
I am four when this happens. We’ve had to move our tent from a site where sand and orange dry pine needles are soft under the pines’ soft swaying to the side of the park that’s not yet closed for the season. Our new site is much larger, but it is sun-packed dirt, bare to park roads on two sides. On of them the land drops sharply toward the lake that is still out of sight through the trees.
We have a Coleman lantern, red-hatted over a clear tube and tall gas canister. We stand the lantern at one end of the picnic table as we did at the pine site. Every time I look in its direction my glance bends to its mantle, mantle the same word as above our fireplace at home, but this one is a knit sack nose, gently alight at the end of the night after the marshmallows are finished and we empty dud popcorn into the fireplace, and my parents set the logs on end and stir ashes over the embers. A warm, steady, indoors kind of light, the lantern. Few lights of any kind show through the woods, even here on the rangers’ station side of the highway.
In the morning when we unzip the tent, the lantern is gone. Daylight at this hour is no longer summer daylight. Shadows are longer. There is no one at the ranger station until after breakfast. My father brings back news. The rangers have had several reports from around the park. It is this way every year, after Labor Day. We can buy another lantern in town—too bad about the cost—but for our few remaining nights, we’ll make do with the fireplace and flashlights.
I miss a time before theft, but I don’t miss the lantern. I don’t tell anyone. I’m old enough to sense that no one else is terrified of the red-hatted, mantle-nosed man who is out in the pines or miles down the road to town. When people came in the night to take him, and were right outside our beds, we didn’t wake.
“A brilliant night outside in New York City. It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants, jumping into taxicabs, careening from West to East by way of the underpass through the Park. What difference does it make to be here alone? Even now, just after eight in the evening, the trucks are starting their delivery of the Sunday Times.”—Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Flags are set out this morning, all around the neighborhood where I am staying, red flags among the plantings and along the edges of the properties whose owners have asked that their names be added to the management company’s list for no pesticide applications. The grass and flowers are dry; we heard thunder last night, north and south, and high nimbuses bloomed into anvil tops in late sun, but here they parted without rain, and this morning underneath the castanets of the cicadas or cicada-like insects that crank to a frantic pitch and snap off, the August peepers have begun. It’s cooler than it’s been for the past ten mornings, maybe more than ten mornings, and the dog has a merry quick-quick to her step and suckles at my fingers when I hold out her treats.
The trucks are curbside at the trunk roads into the neighborhood, white cabs, outsized for the white tanks melded to the flatbeds behind them, oblong tanks, corners slightly rounded—white yogurt containers elongated to draw the eye from ordinary yogurts, on the shelves of a supermarket stocked from bio-hygienic labs. The company that owns the trucks has green in its name, in green type, a two-word name I half-notice, and then turn to pull the dog from the lawns where white flags have been placed, with a green leaf and green letters, PESTICIDE APPLICATION.
The dog ignores the truck. She notices the men before I do, and pulls toward them—two men per truck, sturdy, not young. They wear yellow rubber boots and hats with wide brims, and walk bent with the length of the hoses they haul behind them, a hundred and more feet of narrow hose, semi-translucent, clotted, blotched yellow on the inside.
The men do not wear breathing masks. I suppose a carpenter’s or surgeon’s mask might be insufficient to screen out the application’s particulates. I feel more than smell them—a sparkle on the tip of my tongue, back along it and on the roof of my mouth, and then numbness, the sense of the mass where I have lost feeling. I breathe shallowly, and trot, and the dog picks up on my pace and I’m running to keep up with her, and we’re past the sprayed lawns and there is no scent at all. A rabbit, a young one, hops under a juniper. It is the only one I see, the duration of our walk. I hear no children, no dogs, no cats. Two women walking, and a man on a mobile phone.
I have been forwarded an email with details of the application. In seventy-two hours, the email says, it will again be safe to let children play on the treated areas. There is no mention of pets, or description of what effects, within those seventy-two hours, are to be avoided.
“The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen.”—Flannery O’Connor, with what continues to strike me as an incredibly succinct and useful piece of plot advice. (via mttbll) The entire essay ("Writing Short Stories," collected in Mystery and Manners), is the most refreshing tonic.
Last night, I taught my last class as a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota. I had struggled with how to end class—how to tell them what I wanted them to know—and I told them so.
We sat in a circle as evening came on, on a lawn that had been under snow as late as last week. This is a rough transcript of the letter I read them. (feel free to share with attribution, and please note I quote from Mary Ruefle’s “Remarks on Letters.” Big debts to my teacher Charles Baxter, as well, for his good thoughts on stories.)
Mud Luscious Press shuttered its doors very suddenly and sadly just as the forty millionth fucktonsnowstorm started fucksnowing outside my window. I am grading papers and listening to a Fleetwood Mac record. I am thinking of the 3rd years in my cohort who turned in all their great thesis work today. I am fixing tiny errors and moving little stuff very quietly inside my cows before I send off my final, final edits to Magic Helicopter tonight. It’s bruising to hear Russ has lost his book on the night I feel like my chapbook is one step closer to being actually real. All I did at AWP was take drinks of whiskey and then cry happiness. I also kept saying, “I am so afraid it’s going to be taken away from me somehow.” To know that that has actually happened to another writer, much less one who I have been collaborating poems with for over a year, who has been hugely important to my poetry being any kind of smidgen of visible in this dumb, shitty world, is rib breaking.
It’s sad because MLP is one of the first presses I ever really understood as being this small press that was DOING IT, that was publishing the exciting writers they really believed could show us something about Livinglanguage with that capital L.
Go buy out the rest of MLP’s stock here. Go show them your love everywhere.
GabeDurham’sFun Camp was due from Mud Luscious next month. Gabe was the first writer I met at UMass. Fun Camp has been in the works as long as I’ve known him. I read an early draft of it for workshop on a spring night as clear as tonight and could feel its plot and rhythms homing true on their good, funny, tragic work. Somebody needs to pick it up. I’ve never read anything like it and I have yet to read it whole.
No one said times were good, but words got us a long way. Some said out east, some back east, and rightly or not we guessed which skies they were pointed toward and which they assumed we, too, ignored. Wonder was at all times preferable—had you ever seen such silent contrails? Something in the sense of a late decade. You could reach all the back shelves with years to spare. Most likely tastes were as canned as they seem now but they were the latest we had. Daylight held hours after the sun. We turned off TVs. Someone had a Frisbee and someone sparklers, and the same kids cycled past until only their voices showed in the dark— no sound of traffic, and I thought how it would be if in fact everyone was where they were going.
I cannot say what anyone wore. Were skirts about the knee? Was it the year of crochet or of failed pants no matter how we belted? I remember we had squirrels. The weed killer men arrived while we slept. You rushed undressed and though we were soon hidden the way you stormed back to me I wondered who had seen you and what they would say if I knew who to ask. Later that week or the next you said: where did the squirrels go? We have the worst answers. In the passenger seat of a Honda Civic at dire speed over half New Jersey I felt the weather compel our flight while NPR considered all things except what we were thinking.
“The line that matters most to me might be, “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” And of course if I were writing non-fiction, the grammar would be, “Have I thrown …” I couldn’t correct it to that in the novel, though. The wrong voice.”—Renata Adler
The devil is taking down one person per day We would have country singers’ buses pulling up outside Like those sign-covered casinos along the reading room Greet visitors with a grid of the better The question is for producing change It also dies by that illusion And the moxie of turning government What remains to be stark I still sometimes find myself spoken Before they felt that they did Were you because you The lake responded exactly