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The Hamburg Sisters in Nebraska

Sylvie Baumgartel

The Hamburg Sisters in Nebraska

We don’t talk about that.
We make fruitcakes.
We love our husbands like cardboard.
We keep our nails trimmed close.
The skin under our eyes is like
Drowned moons.
The skin between our eyes is
Gathered like skirt pleats.
We hide our purple nipples.
We forget our language.
You can’t speak it anymore anyway.
We crochet dresses from bakery string.
We stink of candy grease.
We collect dolls with soft cloth
Bodies & hard limbs.
At church they say to us:
You stink of doughnuts, poor idiots.
The folks who eat our
Doughnuts call us “hamburgers.”
They think it’s funny.
Moving from South Dakota to Nebraska.
To Iowa. Back to Nebraska.
Town to town after the bakery fails.
The children stink of bakery grease.
We can’t wash off that smell
Even when bathed in kerosene.
We press violets in dictionaries.
We starve in the basement
During a tornado.

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Rebel

Sylvie Baumgartel

Rebel

Savonarola was hanged & burned
With two others in the same
Square where he had called for the
Mass burning of paintings,

Mirrors, books & makeup.
A giant bonfire of all that
Takes us away from
Pure joy, he said.
Savonarola condemned
Corrupt papal power.

The Florentine children
Danced & laughed
& threw stones at the
Dangling, burning men.

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Works

Piedra de Sol

Lawrence O’Dwyer

Piedra de Sol

The workshop is a cluttered, busy space. There are clamps and drills, chisels and burins; the tools might be those of a cobbler or a stonemason. Drawers are stuffed with wires and molds. A cast-iron disc is lost in a blur of speed. There is a microscope on a bench behind me. A middle-aged man in a white coat is talking excitedly. Between index finger and thumb he’s holding a blood-red stone as he tells me that it’s the high percentage of chromium that makes it burn so brightly. The man I’m talking to is a master craftsman, a main d’or. It’s a ruby that he’s holding in his hand.
The technique that he’s explaining is the mystery setting, the serti mysterieux. It involves setting precious stones side by side in such a way that the underlying metal cannot be seen. For a bracelet of rubies, the result is a corona of light that has a lustrous, velvet shine. Patented in 1933, the mystery setting is a secret that’s passed on from master to apprentice in the workshop of Van Cleef & Arpels. The work begins with sketches and drawings, followed by models and mock-ups that establish volume. The the “rails” are prepared, thin wires made of gold or platinum that hold the stones in place.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a wooden lapidary stick tipped with heated wax was used to hold the stones against the rotating disc. Today, the stick is made of acrylic resin, but little else has changed. Tools are handed down from master to apprentice; hammers are engraved with the names of mains d’or who are no longer alive though their tools are still in use.
Having worked all his life with precious stones, he has a fine appreciation of chemistry and mineralogy, but what he’s trying to achieve is a psychological effect, and his most important tool is a cast-iron disc. Sprinkled with water and diamond dust thickened with oil, it spins at 3,600 revolutions per minute. The noise a stone makes when laid on the grinding wheel gives him a sense of position and inclination; coordinates are aural as well as visual and tactile. Each stone has a different feel—sapphires are softer than rubies; diamonds are harder but more brittle than rubies. Each gem is carefully selected. Only stones classified at the top end of the scale of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) are used; stones with a grade of D or E—the scale extends all the way to Z. A ranking of flawlessness is also used. He may work with stones that are designated IF (internally flawless). Rarer still but not unknown in this workshop are stones that are free from both internal and external blemishes, which are designated FL—perfectly flawless stones.
After cutting and faceting, tracks are carved into the gem that are used to slide it into the gold bezel. The secret within the secret is “the door,” a removable part through which the cutter inserts the stones; it is then closed and soldered shut. The door is the key to the architecture of the entire piece.
I am asked to praise the jewels but see the hands instead—the dirt under the fingernails. The craftsman has dedicated his life to the serti mysterieux, and it is this obsessiveness that delights the mind as much as the eye. The workshop is just a few blocks from the flagship boutique of Van Cleef & Arpels, on the Place Vendôme. We are in the center of Paris.

The French take jewelry seriously. To begin with, they have two words where English has one: bijouterie, for precious metals; joaillerie, for stones with a minimum of metalwork. But the history of the maison—it is not a company—begins in the lowlands with two Jewish families, one from Amsterdam, the other from Ghent. In 1864, Léon Salomon Arpels moves to Paris, where he becomes a jewelry merchant. He is joined in 1867 by Salomon Van Cleef, a specialist in the art of cutting stones. His son, Alfred, is apprenticed for six years to the lapidist David & Grosgogeat before he establishes himself as a maker of precious stones. In 1897, Alfred marries his cousin Estelle Arpels.
If the folktale of Van Cleef & Arpels is a love story, its language is Dutch. A seagoing nation with a kingdom as small as a ship in a bottle, not fond of loose or ragged talk, the Dutch do not say “I love you”; instead they say “Ik hou van jou,” literally “I hold to you”—a maritime expression full of anchors and stays. A curious blend—the French and their extravagant poets; the Dutch and their sober merchants. It is that mortar and pestle of high and low—the dirt under the fingernails, the fire of the ruby—that’s at the heart of the workshop. Amid the garage-like clutter, with his microscope and cast-iron disc, the main d’or reminds me of a scientist. The workshop looks very much like a lab I used to work in—a patch- clamp lab.

Patch clamping is a technique that revolutionized neuroscience. With a glass pipette pressed gently against the membrane of a neuron, it lets you listen to the fine Morse code of the brain. The technique earned its inventors, Neher and Sakmann, a Nobel Prize in 1991. A long apprenticeship is needed before you can record the microscopic currents that flow through the brain. It is an art as much as a science; from the “pulling” of glass pipettes to the building of a patch-clamp rig, everything is artisanal.
I worked in a lab in the Department of Physiology at Trinity College Dublin, where shafts of sunlight struggled to pass through the great bay windows; the glass was grimed with the fumes of the city. On the shelves were tinctures and chipped cups, brushes and boxes, jars of bolts and screws. The rig was attached to an inner wall, an outer wall being more susceptible to vibration. It sat on an anti-vibration table. Every aspect of the work was sensitive to movement.
I would peer through a microscope, inspecting a slice of brain that was resting inside a little Perspex bath that was perfused with a constant flow of bubbling liquid. The slice was the size of the nail on your little finger. Lowering the pipette was like lowering a needle onto a record, only the needle was made of glass.
The rig was enclosed inside a Faraday cage—a wire-mesh box, open on one side, to allow access to the slice. Without the cage, the recording would be drowned in fifty hertz noise—the frequency of the mains supply. I used to disconnect the wires that earthed the rig just to watch fifty hertz waves rolling across the screen  of an oscilloscope. The green crests looked quite beautiful.
The stimulating electrode was made of Stablohm wire, an alloy of chromium and copper. The recording pipette I made myself. I would place a thin glass straw about ten centimeters long between the grooves of two metal clamps insider a “puller.” After I closed the lid and started the laser, a beam would focus light onto the middle of the pipette until it glowed red. The clamps pulled the glass apart, slowly teasing out the strands, before the final gunshot bang. Opening the lid: two perfect little spears of glass.
When I first arrived at the lab, there was a rig left over, but I was advised to take it apart and put it back together before starting any experiments. It wasn’t really advice, more an unspoken rule. It was the only way to learn how each part worked. After I’d built and rebuilt the rig, I had to learn how to prepare brain slices. The dissection took months to learn. The best handiwork with a scalpel I ever saw was that of Jianqun, a former surgeon, who asked me once to guess his fastest time removing an appendix. I can’t remember his record time, but the grace of his work was a joy to watch. The dissection needed to be fast— the tissue would die if it wasn’t transferred to a recovery bath in less than two minutes.

A delicate slice, a precious stone: as the main d’or showed me the ruby, he dropped it on the floor. I took a deep breath, somehow thinking that I was responsible for a mishap with serious consequences, that my presence was the cause of this lapse in concentration, but the way he got down on his hands and knees reminded me of how many times I’d dropped a slice of brain on the bench of the lab. After rummaging about, he got back on his feet with the ruby in his hand. He carried on, unperturbed. A brain slice is similarly robust; as long as it is wet and perfused with oxygen, it can handle a little tumble.
Another similarity between the two places was their unusual relationship with the digital world. Although patch clamping and stonecutting are manual skills, computers nevertheless contribute to the work. The electrodes in the patch clamp were connected in series, first to an analog-to-digital converter, then to an oscilloscope, and finally to a computer, where the voltages of neurons were transformed into peaks and troughs on a screen before being stored on the spinning disc of a hard drive.
After my tour of the workshop, I was brought to another room, where four designers were working on new prototypes. No garage-like clutter here, no lapidary sticks or melting wax. As I leaned over the shoulder of one designer to look at a rendering of a bracelet on a screen, he reminded me in a perfunctory yet polite tone that I should be aware of the secrecy of this work. Jewelry is a hermetic world. It is also competitive. We were just a few blocks from the Place Vendôme, the epicenter of the rarefied world of high jewelry. It is not by accident that Van Cleef & Arpels opened its doors here in 1906. By then two of the most exclusive hotels in Paris, Le Meurice and the Ritz, were already established on the Place Vendôme. Other neighbors included the rival houses of Boucheron and Lalique. Chaumet followed in 1907. Mauboussin arrived after the First World War. Just for color, Franz Mesmer and Frédéric Chopin lived there in the nineteenth century. Around the corner, on the rue de la Paix, you’ll find Cartier. With celebrity comes its corollary, secrecy. In that room full of computers, intellectual property was precious. In computer terminology, the operating system was closed.

Anyone who does four years of research ends up knowing at least one or two things about science. For my part, I know that the last page is always the first, and that neither would ever be written without the help of others.
Those were the opening words of my thesis. Research is a collaborative affair. Every thesis is a log of an apprenticeship. What I’d really learned was how to go about the art of science. There are a few simple rules that you assimilate, ethics that enter your soma. If you don’t know something, always say so. Read as much as you can. Share your knowledge. Even when you think you know something, be assured: you know almost nothing.
I studied the wiring of the brain, how memories are formed and stored. Along with memory I learned an architecture with many secret doors—orphan receptors, magnesium- gated channels, phosphorylated chains. After three years of research, I learned something else: I’d had enough of slaughtering animals. At the end of each day I would bring a bucket full of rat heads to a freezer in the basement. I wanted to work with humans, not rats, so I turned to a new technique after my thesis had been accepted: MRI, magnetic resonance imaging.

The first medical scanner I used was manufactured by Siemens. In 1857, Wilhelm Siemens invented the regenerative furnace, which led to a boom in the production of cheap glass. Until then, glass had been handblown, mostly green and brown, and quite expensive. The sudden availability of cheap glass had many consequences, but one that historians rarely mention is the boom in the art of the ship in a bottle. The first recorded date of this art is 1810; naturally enough, it comes from the seagoing nation of the Netherlands. Before the arrival of the Siemens furnace, glass would have been too valuable to be used for such a frivolous art. But a ship in a bottle is a beautiful thing. On days of shore leave, sailors made them from the leftovers of drinking sessions—matches and plug for mast and hull, a torn shirt for a sail—and then traded them for cigarettes and beer. Whenever I see a patient being reversed into the bore of a magnet, I can’t help thinking of a ship in a bottle.
Scanners have two main modes of operation. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies the activation of neurons—a kind of oceanography of the storms and currents inside the brain. I was more interested in structural MRI—the mapping of the hemispheres, simple cartography, the discovery of New Spain.
My first postdoctoral work after the patch-clamp lab was in Frankfurt. Alois Alzheimer’s grave was a short walk from the psychiatric hospital where I worked, and my first job was to analyze 1,054 scans from a study of Alzheimer’s disease. It was my introduction to “big data.”
To begin with, the scans needed tidying up. The way a photographer might crop a frame or equalize tint and tone, I corrected for motion and cropped the skull from each frame. Then the serious work began: alignment with nonlinear algebra. I had to find a template, a reference brain that would be the most representative of the entire sample. All brains would then be warped onto the globe of that reference for comparison. In short, more nonlinear algebra than a single computer could handle. I needed a supercomputer. I needed to learn how to code.

The Linux operating system is open-source, free. Almost without exception, it is the system of choice for every academic supercomputer. The reason is simple: for complex parallel computing, no other system is as powerful or as stable. Linux was conceived at the end of the twentieth century when Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, posted a message to the internet asking for some suggestions as to what people might like to see in a new operating system that he was hoping to build. He received useful feedback, as well as offers of help. Two months later, the first version of Linux was released, together with its source code—the program’s DNA. Without the source code, a program cannot be altered or developed by a third party. Linux was characterized from the beginning by its openness.
The kinship between Linux and the academic community is not accidental. The first computer scientists came from a small group of programmers who called themselves hackers. Today there are many kinds of hacks and hackers—good and bad—but the term originally referred to a small group of scientists working in MIT in the late 1960s, people who were passionate about writing code. It was only in the 1980s that journalists started to use the term loosely to denote those who specialized in writing computer viruses. The difference between black-hat and white-hat hackers is much like the difference between a chemist who is interested in making crystal meth and one who is interested in making insulin or quinine.
In his book The Hacker Ethic, the Finnish computer scientist Pekka Himanen describes an enthusiastic attitude to work that he pits against the idea of work as an obligation, even a moral imperative, an idea espoused by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Weber’s treatise, work is primarily a drudge, more often than not devoid of passion. By contrast, hackers are driven by a desire to create, often within teams that form spontaneously, as was the case when Torvalds and a small group of friends came together around the idea of creating a new operating system. Most of all, there is a commitment to share one’s skills. Individual breakthroughs are handed back to the community for the advancement of the project. Share early, share often is the hacker’s mantra. With many eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. This was the community that I was about to get to know.

A friend of a friend gave me the email address of a physicist who specialized in MRI at a research institute in France. I wrote to him. Despite the fact that he knew very little about me, he invited me to his lab. I gave a vague explanation to my supervisor and booked a flight. I had no idea what was going to happen.
The man I met on that cold December morning in Normandy seemed quick and sparrow-like. He was informally dressed, in his mid-forties, with short black hair and glasses; his words were fast and clipped. He seemed interested in the “project”—my code word for a big problem that I had no clue how to solve.
Only later did I learn how fortuitous my timing had been. Franck had been managing the supercomputer at his institute for many years. He was also running his own experiments—almost on the side, though it was supposed to be the other way around. A smoothly running supercomputer (which doesn’t exist) depends on a team of dedicated computer scientists working round the clock to keep a very complex machine purring over. Hundreds of emails needed answering every week—regarding software bugs, hardware upgrades, and the allocation of computing time, which gave his job a quasi-political tone, as research groups are always in competition when it comes to using a valuable resource like a supercomputer. The week before I showed up, he had handed over all that oily, dirty work to a colleague. I caught him in the transition phase: he was still enjoying the luxury of not having a hundred bugs to fix before the end of the week.
Curious, then, that his first meeting was with a stranger. As he settled into his desk, I noticed that his screen was filled with lines of green code—a command-line interface. No GUIs—graphical user interfaces. If you work on a laptop, you know what GUIs are: the windows and tabs that we click on every day when we use Facebook or Zoom or Instagram. In computing there is a clear distinction between the front end and the back end. Veteran programmers are notorious for building dated-looking home pages. What counts is the code; it is almost a point of principle for those who spend their lives working at the garage end of things to spend as little time as possible with something as frivolous as a GUI or a home page.
It didn’t take Franck long to realize that he was looking at a very “heterogeneous” data set—another code word, meaning a mess. As he called up images on the screen, lines of code started to flow. He asked me what I wanted from the “pipeline.” Maybe a T1-weighted analysis? What about tractography? Yes, tractography was what I was after—a technique I was attracted to primarily for its beauty. Tractographic maps trace the vast arboretum of white-matter pathways in the brain; the images this technique creates are the equal of any serti mysterieux and a good deal more complex: color-coded labyrinths of tangled trees and roots, a botany of forking paths that no one will ever fully understand. The timeworn analogy of the brain as a computer is lazy and incorrect. As an organic structure, its complexity is far closer to that of a jungle than a computer.
As the hours went by, some semblance of understanding began to form, but it was more feeling than understanding. I was beginning to see what the back end looked like. Ultimately, I wanted the “pipeline” to crop and turn, to warp and calculate every kind of analysis we could think of. Each scan consisted of three-dimensional pixels called voxels. Each voxel represented about a cubic millimeter of brain. Once we’d made a tractographic map for a single subject, each voxel in the map had to be projected into the coordinate space of the reference brain. These transformations with nonlinear algebra needed to be performed on each and every voxel. The total number of voxels in the data set was roughly equivalent to 1 followed by enough zeroes to fill a hundred pages. Neuroscience is a form of jealous counting.
On my second morning, I got to the lab at about nine thirty. We had worked for ten hours the day before. By the third day, even if I couldn’t keep up, I was familiar with the speed of Franck’s thought. In the manner of a chess player, he was always projecting three or four moves ahead, scanning the horizon for openings. The code itself was engraved with his own peculiar touch: he called the pipeline “Bushmills”; for debugging, he often named his variables “Moo.” But what I remember most from that first week is the way he would pause after he’d reached a confluence or a barrier in the code. I could see him working out the solution, but before he veered down any new line of attack he would always say, “I propose.” He made it sound as though I might have an alternative point of view; as though I might be able to point to something that he’d overlooked. But it was indicative of his way of thinking—a reflex and a style at once. Never presumptuous, that pause before the lines of code would start to flow again. Always “I propose.” For Franck, problems were adversaries to be outwitted. But there was an etiquette to his attack. On my last day I gave him a present of a black belt.

The academic model is far from perfect, and my circumstances in Frankfurt should make it clear that I am not naive about science. I lived on Weberstrasse, and the drudgery of the Protestant work ethic that Himanen had railed against was alive and well in Germany. I was based in a psychiatric hospital where patients danced and screamed in the garden beyond my office window. I might have even been working on the scans of some of those patients who were dancing in the garden. This hospital was the most hierarchical environment I have ever known. The director was a well-known autocrat and bully. He parked his Mercedes-Benz by the front door, where he insisted on having a space marked with his initials. A psychiatrist once mentioned in passing that he knew where the score would fall if he could ever get the director to complete a questionnaire measuring clinical psychopathy. The atmosphere was one of fear; the director’s strategy was to pit researchers against one another. Dozens of doctors left the department. The board of the hospital made an unprecedented effort to dismiss him.
I was immune from these politics, mostly because I’d found a way of working absolutely alone. It was made clear to me that if I didn’t produce a paper, I would be out of a job, but I was the only one automating MRI in the lab: they needed my code, or rather Franck’s code. It was an old-fashioned place; my colleagues were expected to squeeze a few drops of research out of the nanometer gaps in their clinical schedules. They had no time to learn new techniques. I was not a clinician, so I spent all hours of the day and night logged on to the supercomputer in France. Once or twice a week, Franck would also log on and we’d work together on the command line. I felt an acute sense of having to be on my toes for those joint sessions. I was slow, but how far I’d progressed can be noted by the simple fact that I had not coded before. Franck saw that I was learning. He must have also seen that my learning was a direct result of his teaching. That kind of feedback loop can go a long way.

Competition is integral to all work, and the open-source model of Linux uses competition to develop its operating system in an innovative way. Different versions are made by competing groups, and then Torvalds and a few principal developers decide which versions will be incorporated in updated releases of the software. If there is disagreement with Torvalds, any individual or group within the community is free to develop the project in whatever direction they choose by releasing their own version of Linux.
That sense of constructive competition was entirely absent in Frankfurt. Despite repeated threats from the director, conveniently conveyed by a middleman, I did exactly as I pleased. I felt no loyalty to anyone in that lab, but I did have a loyalty to Franck. I wanted to make use of the work he’d done. In the hacker model, work always begins with a problem that the hacker finds personally interesting. I enjoyed that sense of combat that I’d learned from Franck. I could feel how satisfying it is to write good code. Working with an inert mass of zeroes and ones, I tried to get light to pass through my code.

In the week that I sat alongside Franck, there was one ritual that took him away from the pipeline. He called it his “technology watch”—the half hour or so that he set aside every day for reading the online forum of the MRI software we were using. It was a program developed at the University of Oxford, also open-source. Beginners, professors, postdocs—everyone could be found there. The questions were often as useful as the answers—they pointed to new analyses that needed tweaks and hacks that might take the code in unexpected directions.
As I got used to asking questions on that forum, I was struck by the informality of the community. The only protocol was that you should read the documents provided by the group in Oxford; if you couldn’t find your answer there, then you should look for your question in the threads of previous discussions. If you still couldn’t find your answer, you were guaranteed to get help from the community. I was surprised when one of the original creators of the software answered a question that I posted. No “Herr Professor,” as was the case in Frankfurt. It was Steve, plain and simple. Another feature of the back end: titles were irrelevant.

I wish I’d known about Prince Boris when I worked in Frankfurt. I only learned about him before I visited Van Cleef & Arpels. Aside from his assertion that he came from a noble family of White Russians, not much is known about Boris’s life before he pitched up in Andorra in 1934 with the idea of becoming the monarch of that tiny principality. We do know that he arrived in England after fleeing the Russian Revolution without even a passport to his name. His flair for languages landed him a job with the British Foreign Office. After that, he claims to have spent time at the Dutch royal household, whence the further supposition that Queen Wilhelmina had granted him the title “Count of Orange” even though the title “Van Oranje” is a privilege of the royal family that cannot be given to a commoner. It is true that he became a Dutch citizen; the Dutch consulate at Dijon issued him a passport in 1923. His given name in that document is “Monsieur le Baron Skossyreff.” A year later, he appears on a list of “prominent foreign revolutionaries” compiled by the Dutch Central Intelligence Service. More succinctly, they call him  “an international swindler.”
On his brightest adventure, Boris was accompanied by an American millionairess, Florence Marmon, the ex-wife of Howard C. Marmon, owner of the Marmon Motor Car Company of Indianapolis. Using a generous allowance from her ex-husband, she provided the financial backing for Boris’s “reasoned presentation of his claim to the throne of Andorra.” The quotation is from a confidential dispatch preserved in the archive of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Some days later, the Council of the Valleys of Andorra, essentially the Andorran government, expelled Boris along with Marmon, who was acting as his secretary. When he decamped to the Hotel Mundial, in La Seu d’Urgell, three miles down the road, he was, according to contemporary accounts, sporting a monocle and generally affecting the airs of a prince.
While in “exile” he printed ten thousand copies of the constitution of his prospective kingdom, which more than irritated the bishop of Urgell—who was, and still is, the de facto co-prince of Andorra, together with the president of France. Remarkably, on July 8, the Council of the Valleys met at the manor house of the Casa de la Vall, the parliament of the principality, to discuss the matter further. With its wooden benches and rustic dais, the chamber of the Casa de la Vall is more like the banquet hall of a medieval fiefdom than a seat of government. At that meeting, the attorney general affirmed that the “dynamic outsider” was committed to making Andorra one of the most important business centers in the world. The vote of the chamber was 23 to 1 in favor of installing Boris as the new monarch. We should note that the mayor of Encamp refused to support the motion. The council met once more, on July 10. Another vote was taken—23 to 1. The mayor of Encamp would not be swayed, though it hardly mattered, as the new monarchy had been declared on the previous day and Boris was already busy outlining to journalists his plans for the kingdom: “protection for the needy, education for all and sport, a lot of sport.”
Sadly, the new sporting paradise was not to be. On July 12, he issued a proclamation declaring war on the bishop of Urgell, and the following week the Spanish Civil Guard sent three constables and a sergeant to apprehend him. His “subjects” watched as he was handcuffed and packed off, first to Barcelona, then to Madrid, where he was interviewed at the central police station by a number of journalists, to whom he displayed a fine knowledge of the Andorran dynasty from medieval times to the last incumbent of the throne, the Duke of Guise. When asked if he himself descended from the duke, Boris clarified, after some hesitation, that his claim was based not on historic rights but rather on “principles of chivalry.”

“Well, I could tell you that I’m Prince Boris, and if I was going to buy that watch over there, you’d have to say, ‘Thank you very much, Prince Boris.’”
I was talking to the manager of Van Cleef & Arpels’ boutique at the Place Vendôme. Leafing through an old ledger, my eyes had rested on the name of a princess who had bought a necklace in the 1940s. Her name contained the z’s and y’s beloved of the Polish language. The watch I was pointing to had a price tag of 126,000 euros. From Boris’s pre-Andorran days, I’d read a newspaper article about an attempted swindle of a gold watch.
Earlier, I’d asked the young man about the Alhambra, a line of jewelry based on the motif of the four-leaf clover and inspired by a recurring pattern in the sultan’s palace in Granada. It is one of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most recognizable motifs. Although my guide had an impressive knowledge of the titles of his clientele, his knowledge of the Alhambra was less formidable. The work on display was the same as what I’d seen in the workshop—near perfect, technically flawless—but if the workshops breathed an air of obdurate craftsmanship that elevated the work, the showroom had the opposite effect. The Queen of Persia, the Princess of Monaco, the Prince of Wales: the price tags were discreet, but titles were everywhere.
A monarch’s desire for precious stones is natural enough—all rare and beautiful objects are signs of power—but it goes a little deeper than that; probably it goes back to water. Glittering stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water. Our innate reverence for gems as simulacra of flowing water has been coded into our DNA.
We can exist for only a few days without water. Stagnant water is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria. Early nomadic humans were more likely to survive where they were able to find fresh water, especially clear and flowing water.
After I put the old ledger back into the glass cabinet, I was brought to an inner chamber. An automatic door opened and closed behind me. I was in a space like an egg, with a velvet lining; the young man informed me that only a select few of the maison’s clientele were welcomed into that egg. A panel on the wall opened to reveal a floor-to-ceiling mirror in which a princess might admire a diamond necklace. But it was a minaudière that I was shown next, a rectangular box made of gold and lacquer. Conceived by Charles Arpels in 1933, the first minaudière was designed to replace a lady’s vanity case. Although its function is largely redundant, it still retains an air of exclusivity, possibly because it is now a purely ornamental object. The interior and exterior of every minaudière provides ample opportunities for the designer to show off his skill. The store manager showed me a hidden watch that could be looked at discreetly when raised from the surface of the box.
“It would be rude for a princess to be seen looking at the time,” he added. Almost on cue, his mobile phone went off. Turning aside with the tick of a smile that reminded me of a grasshopper, he took the call.

Authenticity is difficult to define, but we know when we are in its presence. True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive. What is purely ostentatious is no more than fashion, and fashion is based on novelty—the mother of death, as Leopardi noted. In a letter to a friend, John Keats described how we dislike poetry that “has a palpable design on us,” poetry that tries to catch our attention by grabbing us by the scruff of the neck. How the flowers would lose their beauty, he said, if they called out, “Admire me, I am a violet, dote on me, I am a primrose.”
The most perfect gem I know is not a stone; it is a song of thirst and water. I’m thinking of “Piedra de Sol,” a poem by Octavio Paz that begins with a river and flows for 584 lines before turning back to its source. The first six lines are the last six lines. There is a line for every day of Venus’s journey around the sun. The eleven-syllable—hendecasyllabic—lines are as finely carved as the facets of a ruby in the mystery setting. As a work of art, Paz created a song that shimmers like a sunstone: it is light-in-a-word. As the main d’or works with rubies and Franck with code, Octavio Paz carves words. Looking through a microscope at Van Cleef & Arpels at a ruby that had failed quality control, I could see a crack at the tip of a facet. We feel the same errors in poetry when a line is broken by ugly enjambment, the turning point where a phrase is folded over two lines. The finest work should flow in such a way that the river feels inevitable. We say that it must be so—it could be no other way. Or at least, the work gives us the illusion that we know in advance what comes next because there is no alternative; what is flowing is something that we have always felt, even if we have never experienced the current before. Few works of art reach this plane, but those that do surpass their creators.

Working on code and working on poetry are not as dissimilar as you might think. For a start, both almost always begin with too many lines. The first pass is full of bugs. Algorithms and poetry throw error messages in similar ways—stumbling rhyme, a lost quotation mark, a stranded dollar sign—blemishes that take a long time to find and fix. Another rule of code that applies to poetry: If five lines can do the job of fifty, the shorter code always wins. This isn’t only a question of computational resources, or the possibility of sending a program into a tailspin, although both are important considerations; it is primarily a question of style. Poets might call it something else, but they would certainly recognize what computer scientists call syntactic sugar: well-written, elegant code. In 1913, Ezra Pound published his Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” in the magazine Poetry. The first draft was thirty lines long. The final poem is two lines long. William Carlos Williams was rebuked for calling his poems machines, but I think he was correct when he said that prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship, while poetry is the machine that drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. “As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”
But before I get too carried away, I should add that poets are very earthly creatures. Williams called his rival T. S. Eliot “that bastard” and went so far as to say that the most influential poem of the early twentieth century, The Waste Land, set him back twenty years. Make no mistake, competition is also an integral part  of poetry. The high and the low, the mortar and pestle—we seek to lose ourselves in work, to be consumed and absorbed by it, but the mulch and juice of our lives  is never far away,  even if the goal is to live for just an instant beyond the fray of  the world.

After months of writing code, I had a working “pipeline” that was built over endless hours of sharing scripts back and forth with Franck. There is nothing  more satisfying than submitting a “job” to a supercomputer, pressing the return key and, wonder of wonders, no error message is thrown. By the magic of parallel computing, I see that my single “job” has exploded into 1,054 sub-jobs. The code is working, and all engines are whirring. For comparing a patient group with control, MRI analysis often uses something called permutation testing. It’s a bit like playing a fruit machine five thousand times and logging the results of each spin. There is no greater pleasure than programming a machine to automate that kind of drudgery. Millions of calculations would still be running when I left the office on a Friday night. They would run through the weekend. They would be waiting for me when I logged on to the supercomputer on Monday morning. Some calculations whirred for more than a week before they came to a halt. Something complex and pleasing had spun out from the simple base pairs of our collaboration. Just over a year after my journey to France, our first paper was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. I sent Franck a bottle of Bushmills.

The atelier of the jeweler, the lab of the patch clamp, the command line of the hacker, the white page of the poet—at the back end, the work is much the same. In all four cases, Gaudi’s dictum holds: love, then technique. It is only at the front end that differences emerge.
When I read the word poem inside a poem, almost always it is a sign that something has gone badly wrong. In my mind, an error message is thrown. When we call attention to the work at hand in such an obvious way, we are usually in the realm of the secondhand car salesman, the first cousin of Prince Boris. If there is poverty in a language in which there is only one word where two would be preferable, the opposite is also true. “Piedra de Sol” has been described as a surrealist masterpiece. I call it, plain and simple, beautiful. In the boutique on the Place Vendôme, I heard the word poetry so often that it reminded me that I once counted the number of times I heard the words “mi corazón” blaring from the stereo of a chicken bus that was taking me over the Andes. The scenery was sublime, the pop music less so.
The other tension between the back end and the front end is economic. Poetry has almost zero economic impact on the world, and that is, partly, its strength. As the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert said, the problem of commercially exploiting genuine tears is a real headache for technologists. “Piedra de Sol” is not an expensive or an exclusive work of art. It is not a $126,000 poem. Likewise, a main d’or does not earn enough money to be able to buy the bracelet he has created. Yet he possesses it in a way that is more profound than the Polish princess who wears it on her wrist.

Back end, front end; open, closed. We have an obsession with dichotomies that really don’t exist. Everything sits on a spectrum. It is true that there are differences between left and right brain functions, but they are more subtle than the usual clichés would suggest. We create a belief system about ourselves and the world around us by merging information from the senses with our memories. This belief system is constructed to a large degree by the left hemisphere. If there is anomalous information that doesn’t fit into this schema, the right hemisphere may smooth over the discrepancy in order to preserve the image we have of ourselves. All of this is inevitable and to a certain extent useful. A degree of optimism is necessary for all tasks beyond the trivial, especially for work that may consume us for many years. The architect of any dream needs a breezy indifference to the enormity of the task ahead. We must focus on the day-to-day details while keeping the final goal just a little bit blurred. Too near a focus and the problem overwhelms us; too soft a focus and discipline dissolves.
If our optimism—or our delusions—have their uses, there is also a limit, and we cross the threshold of that limit when we fabricate information to such an extent that we end up sounding like Prince Boris. But even Boris deserves our sympathy—a man who lost everything in the Russian Revolution, a man who arrived in England like thousands of other émigrés, looking desperately for a way to survive. The newspaper accounts of his life are always black-and-white: the swindler-thief in a land of gullible peasants, the operatic prince seducing the craven millionairess.
We are all fractured creatures striving to reconcile our contradictory natures. The profoundest experience that life can offer us, said Octavio Paz, is the possibility to discover reality as a oneness in which opposites agree. Gems also have a divided soul; it is difficult to reconcile a glittering ruby with the mine from which it came.
Mineralogy is a dirty business; it needs arsenic as well as little railway tracks that go deep down into Hades. Soot and dust fill the lungs of miners. Outside the town of Potosí, Bolivia, are the mines of Cerro Rico. Half a millennium after they were first opened, they were still in operation when I visited them at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is impossible to know how many people died in   those mines. A reasonable estimate might be five million souls, although there’s nothing reasonable about the history of mineralogy or mining. Descending into a shaft with head bent low, I came to a shrine for El Tío, the devil-god, the lord of the underworld. The miners still offer him cigarettes, dynamite, vodka, beer. He has a large erection. It is his union with Pachamama, the earth goddess, that created the bulging veins of Cerro Rico. El Tío has an insatiable appetite for souls. The miners try to appease him every day.
In the boutique at the Place Vendôme, a lady in a blue dress walked past me on a carpet that was as deep as snow. She bore a tray with little distillations of black: espressos for two sheikhs I’d seen at a desk looking at diamonds. Perhaps those two cups were an offering, a libation poured for El Tío.

I should add that I, too, ended up at the shiny end of science. After Frankfurt, I moved to Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, where I became the coordinator of what was at the time the largest clinical study of autism in the world. Front-end, jazz-hands kind of work. I thought I could continue to collaborate with Franck just as I had before, but the circumstances were very different. It wasn’t just me and Franck anymore. It was me and the Dutch Research Council, the ethical committee, Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel, EEG recordings in London, the translation of clinical questionnaires into five languages, PhD candidates to interview from Monday to Wednesday. I had time left over to code with Frank for a half hour in Thursday mornings. Each time I called him, I was unprepared. I felt terrible. I was relieved when I decided to call a halt to that scrappy coding after three short weeks, though I carried on with my jazz hands for another three years before I’d had enough.

On a bright morning in May, I left my apartment on Van Spaenstraat, in Nijmegen, headed for the Pyrenees—by bicycle. On my way to the mountains I called on Franck, who had moved to a lab in Lyon. He welcomed me into his home. In a peculiar way, that journey reminded me of my work in Frankfurt. I was free again to do whatever I wanted. Just as I was consumed by Bushmills, I was obsessed now with a single goal: I wanted to complete a hundred-mile trail run over the peaks of Andorra. I didn’t know it at the time, but that project would take me four years. There are quicker ways to get to the Pyrenees but there was no rush. Once arrived, I would have weeks by myself in the mountains to prepare for that trail race. I’m sure Franck understood that obsessiveness. Whatever I was going to do, I definitely couldn’t contort myself into a managerial post. The shiny surface, the Jesus bug walking on water; all that fla-fla, as Franck would say.
It was good to be at the back end again. The first six hundred miles had taken its toll. Franck was in the garden tinkering with the gears of my bike. He had the right tools for the job; he said that his grandfather had been a bicycle mechanic, that he’d grown up with chains and gears and oil. While he worked on the bike, I put my dirty clothes into the washing machine in the basement. I had a day of rest
before I would hit the road.

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Uncategorized, Works

I’m Hungry if You Are

Natanya Biskar

I’m Hungry if You Are

 

The call comes from a number in Todos Santos, Mexico, and at first I do not register what that means. One student has just left and I have ten minutes to clean, breathe, return emails, collect myself, finish paperwork, use the bathroom, drink three glasses of water, be a different person, and wipe down the yoga ball before my next student arrives. I let the call go to voicemail.
The office for my occupational therapy practice is a trailer parked near the edge of the school’s property line. My job is to take jittery, brickled children and send them back to their classrooms calm. Or take low-tone, gloopy children and send them back full of verve. To accomplish this, I have an office that looks like the props room for a failing circus. I have a slackline, acres of Velcro, and a pillowcase full of stress balls. I have sequin cloth made for petting—one way and the sequins flash silver, the other way purple, and the children never seem to tire of this predictable transformation. They are amazed every time.
My school is not private, I correct people, it is independent—as if it’s just learned how to do its own laundry. It’s mostly white, though you wouldn’t know that from the website, where photos flash in rotation on the homepage. Two Asian American girls pose with their apple dolls. A Black boy angles a magnifying glass over a bug. The one Latina teacher writes an algebraic equation on a smartboard. The school has money, and so they have me.
On Tuesdays, the diffuser gurgles tea tree oil.
“Tuesday smells terrible,” Neve says when she bangs through the trailer door.
She is a loud, rumpled child, constantly tugging at her clothes as if they’re trying to kill her. She wears dresses that look like they were stitched by an embittered grandmother who believed in the reforming possibilities of high necks, lace collars, and lines of tiny buttons, as hard as experience. Neve’s fingernails are long, with black crescents of dirt. Once, I showed her how to scoop the grime out with a toothpick; the sensation made her twitch and writhe, even when she tried to do it herself. She is the kind of white child whose paleness appears bluish from her veins, the kind of girl whose hair has a constant snarl left from sleep. Every day, Neve comes to me like a newborn foal. She walks as if the ground is pudding, her legs nothing but knees.
“I’m in the red,” Neve says, as always.
She points to the top of the Feelings Thermometer on the wall. Is she sure? Not the green, or the yellow, or the orange? Her whole body shakes, thrashing like a severed wire. Red is angry, scared, out of control. Red means the weighted blanket or, in Neve’s case, her beloved tub of dried beans. The tub is deep enough for Neve to submerge her hands up to her wrists. Her favorite thing is to bring her hands out slowly and level, her palms down, carrying a layer of beans on top. Before the beans, I make Neve run through the exercises she likes less, starting with infinity breathing, her finger tracing a lopsided figure eight in the air. Next, I tell her to hold plank position while she lists the classmates she likes from least to best, because that’s more interesting than counting. Her bare legs shake. Her mussed braids sag onto the floor. She likes everyone the best.
Imagine living all day for fifteen minutes with a tub of beans. Neve plunges her hands in and sighs. As she curls and uncurls her fingers, the beans shift and click, though these aren’t the sounds that catch my attention. Hee, hoo, haa. I turn, expecting to see my mother, because those are the precise noises she makes whenever she enters a body of water. Like breathy laughter slowed down. Hee, hoo, haa. I see her so clearly—she walks into the pool in her condo building, her face cast in orange from her visor. The chemical clarity of the air. Her shirt ballooning around her hips.
Hee, hoo, haa. The phone call from Todos Santos. Where my mother lives. And I think, Something has happened. And I think, When was the last time I sanitized these beans?
“Sausage roll?” Hank asks later when I tell him I’m worried.
Hank is the teacher I’m not married to. He is half Chinese and often featured on the website kneeling next to his students in his khakis, which ride up his legs to reveal wacky socks.
“Sausage roll,” I answer.
Nodding, Hank arranges the weighted blanket flat across the scratchy carpet. I stretch myself along the edge, and he rolls me up. I’ve asked Hank to join me before, but he always says no. He’s too fragile for infidelity. Still, it would be nice to be in the roll of blanket with his body, his erection nudging me in the butt, that funny way the penis has of advocating for itself.
“I thought the two of you don’t get along,” Hank says, meaning me and my mother. The layers of blanket between us muffle his voice.
“Is that a reminder?”
“I guess it’s a question.”
Inside the tight roll of blanket I struggle, enjoying the feeling of confinement, the idea that Hank could do whatever he wants to me.
“Silence,” Hank says.
My trapped breath spreads back over my face, a warm, stale fog, a cheesy smell.
“Did you listen to the message?” Hank asks. “If you’re worried, why don’t you call back? I guess I don’t get why you’re worried.”
I tell him about the sounds, the hee-hoo-haa, and, Hank being Hank, he understands that is enough.

At home in our kitchen, Pat doesn’t understand. Pat is the doctor I am married to. Eight months ago, I found his texts with a colleague named Yvette. I imagined her tidy, pink vagina, like a tasteful seashell. If her vulva were a living room, it would have white curtains and neatly stacked piles of Good Housekeeping.
What did I expect, marrying a man? This from my mother on the phone when I told her. We really did talk on the phone sometimes. We did.
Pat wipes the cast iron with its special rag, then anoints the pan with oil. He tells me I cannot know my mother is dead from imagined sounds. “Auditory hallucination,” he says, “is very common. Unbelievably common. Ask me how many times I have patients who come in because they heard the voice of their grandfather or their boss. Ask me.”
I don’t ask him.
Maybe Yvette would like to ask him.
“Please, let’s not bring Yvette into this.”
But she is, always, into this. She is the kind of woman whose hands are like a purse made of veal. She probably didn’t even use lube when she jerked my husband off in the medical supply closet. The worst part? I always begged Pat to play doctor. He never, ever would.
Actually, that isn’t the worst part. Couples counseling has been the worst part. Now that Pat’s working through his own issues with his father, it seems that my opening to leave him has narrowed. Who leaves a man mid-breakthrough? So great that he’s working on himself, my friends say. They can’t stop saying how great it is. But he crashed the goddamn car! He crashed the car and now he gets credit for the repairs.
Pat smears the oil around the cast iron with a paper towel, and I try to not feel jealous of the tenderness he shows to our kitchenware. When the second call comes from the same Todos Santos number, I’m not ready, and I back away from the phone. Pat takes it. His Spanish is better than mine. As he speaks, I dedicate myself to picking bits of food from the sink’s mesh guard. In this moment, I would convert to a religion that required the cleaning of mesh guards. Egg, it looks like, congealed over the mesh in a gummy paste. I scrape at it with steel wool.
“Hey.” Pat’s hand rests between my shoulder blades. “Hey, hey.” I scrape harder, strands of the steel wool unraveling. “Look,” Pat says. “Something has happened.”
I drew a cartoon once of a steel-wool ranch where shiny sheep looked sadly at regular sheep. Can’t remember what was supposed to be funny about it. No, Pat doesn’t know where that cartoon might be now. Nor does he think I missed an opportunity to have a career as an illustrator.
Don’t I have anything to say?
Only one thing.
“Told you so.”

In the morning I find Pat on step seven or eight of the process he believes is the only correct and civilized way to make coffee. Much equipment is involved, beakers and a silver scale and a thermometer with coarse wires. It is both tiring and comforting to watch him, this specific person who, for reasons I cannot remember this morning, is in my house, making coffee. White-robed like he’s in a hotel. Gray chest hairs. He still has a beautiful neck. The skin has started to loosen, but this only makes his neck seem more vulnerable—so exposed and hairless—and often, I have the urge to wrap it up with a scarf, or with my hands.
“I thought you were going to take the day off,” he says, smoothing the thermometer’s wires.
“Why would you think that?”
His neck skin creases when he looks up to the ceiling, beseeching God, maybe, to grant him patience. Years ago, before our relationship crossed the boundary between having fun to something serious, Pat told me that he liked that I was complicated, as if I were a tricky crossword puzzle, or a trade deal. But it gave me permission and a role to play. I suppose the trouble is that Pat expected to solve me eventually, that I would loosen like a plied knot. I sense that he hates me a little because I am not solved or loose, and I hate him a little, too, for wanting me to be different.
“Why do they call it a wake?” I ask.
“Your mother wasn’t Catholic,” Pat says, as if I forgot.
“You know what they should call a wake? They should call it ‘Remains to be seen.’”
Pat looks at me in a way that feels like he’s trying to figure out what stage of grief this is, the cracking-jokes phase. I’m aware that I should feel sad, or something more profound than sad—but I don’t. I feel like I’ve misplaced something vital. Where is my mother? Surely she’s in her condo in Todos Santos, just waking up, dissolving pellets of instant coffee in a mug. Pat says that we can talk tonight, because we should really discuss arrangements.
Ah, arrangements. The prospect of complicated logistics—it comforts Pat. Now this is a project.
“You’re in shock,” Pat says. “That’s normal.”
Never happier than when he’s diagnosing someone. Here is your problem, see? Right here. Your mother is dead.
Sometimes I need to escape Pat when we’re in the same room, so I travel back to yesterday, when Neve’s eyes went wide as I plunged my hands into the beans next to hers.
“Grown-ups need beans, too?” she had asked.
Shocking to feel, in a bucket of dried beans, the warm aliveness of one of Neve’s knuckles.
To Neve, I answered, “Not all grown-ups.”

This early, the school is dark, the copy room empty. In the teachers’ lounge, I flick on lights and press a new filter into the coffeepot. I check my mail cubby in case someone has, overnight, decided to give me a raise, or an award. My cubby holds only catalogs, thick publications featuring children whose smiles suggest coercion, that a nefarious someone is forcing them to be thrilled by mini-whiteboards, plastic counting bears, bags full of foam shapes.
The copy room is an open nook off the teachers’ lounge that feels more private than it is. I like the smells and the warmth, the reams of copy paper still wrapped. The sense of organization—letter size over here, the card stock over there. This morning, I feel odd affection for the sign someone typed and printed, its repetition soothing: Cardstock is ONLY for VERY special projects ONLY.
Strange how marvelous it is, a death. At least in part, at least this morning—how free I feel from all the little tasks I had been using to tack together my life. These papers I need to copy, I don’t really need to copy them. And the students on my schedule today, they will be fine.
“Knock, knock.” Hank lifts his arms, hooks his fingers onto the upper door frame, and leans forward, his chest out. He always arrives early because he’s dedicated, the kind of teacher who remembers, even years later, all of his students’ names. I’d like to wrap my legs around him. Grind against his hips until I turn his bones to gravel.
“Did you call your mom?” he asks.
And I realize that other people don’t know. It’s unfair. It’s dumb. That I must tell them and make it true all over again.
Hank holds me. Through his shirt I can feel the nubs of his back moles.
“It’s OK,” I tell him, because he seems to need to hear it. “We weren’t that close.”
But Hank only squeezes me tighter. He is so ready to be the person who allows me to cry, and who am I to not let him be that person? But I do not cry. Hank talks into my scalp, and I imagine his words seeping through my skull, sliding into the, my brain that does not understand yet what is happening. My brain where my mother is still unquestionably alive, shelling peanuts, flicking her cigarette ash, saying she is bloated, insisting that she is not asleep when she clearly is. She is asleep in the orange recliner, our macaroni dinner burning on the stove.

At ten, I go to Hank’s classroom to shadow Neve. He leads the class in song. Hank’s eyes follow me as I make my way to the rug, and it is impressive how, though he stares, he does not break the rhythm: “Hi! My name is Joe! And I work in a button factory.” The song has movements—“I push the button like this! I turn the knob like this!”—and Neve cannot keep them straight. She yanks the button, punches the knob. Kids nearby give her a wide berth.
In the copy room, Hank had asked me, “Should you be here?”
I suppose no one wants to be around the newly bereaved. We might as well be corpses ourselves, flailing about, our skin rotting off, trailing a slick of internal juices, pointing to others at random to remind them that they will die.
When it is time to sit in a circle, Neve tents her oversize T-shirt across her knees, her arms disappearing inside, the sleeves flappy. She rocks back and forth, and I whisper, “Whole-body squeeze.” She compresses into a ball, holds, then releases. From across the room, Snakey Wonder seems to want my attention. The snake waves her head behind the glass, looking like a puppet.
“Are you my mother?” I ask the snake, in a whisper, from the rug.
“Pardon?” Hank asks.
Twenty-one pairs of eyes fix on me. Hank looks concerned. He has, for a reason I have missed, a sock puppet of a fox on his hand. The sock puppet also looks concerned.
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought the snake was someone I know.”
Candace wrinkles her nose. Wise Julian nods with understanding. Several children sit up on their knees, craning to check if Snakey Wonder is someone they know, too. Hank regains their attention with a singing bowl, then carries on with his lesson. The fox wants to play with the duck, the squirrel, and the mouse, but they do not want the fox to play with them, I assume because the fox is a predator.
But no. Hank asks for suggestions from the crowd. Why do we exclude?
“The fox has shoes that don’t match,” says Candace. She is the kind of child who looks like she could give me unflinching advice about my marriage.
“The fox had tuna fish for lunch,” says a boy. “And tuna makes your breath stinky.”
“That isn’t nice,” Julian says.
The tuna fish boy shrugs. “Sucks to suck.”
Neve is about to blow. She quivers. She has started to hum under her breath. Candace tells her to shush. I tell Candace to shush. Hank is very involved in making the fox puppet cry. Now he wants solutions. What can be done to solve this problem?
“The fox should go play with someone else,” Candace says. “It’s obvious they don’t like her.”
Candace looks pointedly at Neve, who does not seem to notice because she is struggling to extricate one arm from her T-shirt tent while holding her other hand over her mouth to prevent herself from speaking out of turn. I pinch the back of her shirt to hold it in place. Her arm flies free and smacks Candace in the face. Hank sets his puppets down. “Peace Place,” Candace says. Hank nods. His eyes ask me to help and also question whether this is a good idea.
The Peace Place is a table covered with a batik cloth; sitting on the table are a snow globe and a lavender sachet. The snow globe contains a surly-looking dragon and features a banner with the words GREETINGS FROM EPCOT. Candace shakes the snow globe while taking deep breaths, taking her time to choose her “I” statement from a list: I feel … hurt, confused, angry, upset, worried, excluded, sad.
“I felt hurt when you punched me,” Candace says.
“It was an accident,” I say.
Neve looks up at me, sucking on the end of her braid.
“She’s supposed to echo,” Candace tells me.
“But it was an accident,” I repeat.
“It doesn’t matter,” Candace says. “Hank says only feelings matter.”
Of course. Such a Hank thing to say. I had argued that I should be allowed to sleep with Hank as a “freebie.” Pat and our counselor disagreed. Hank himself also disagreed. Perhaps that is why I chose him. Always, always, this urge to destroy. Hi! My name is Joe! And most of the time I feel dead inside!
“So, you felt hurt when I punched you in the ear,” Neve echoes, hopeful.
“Like you mean it,” Candace says.
Quickly, I imagine killing Candace.
Neve echoes Candace’s words again, pressing her hands on the table and pushing off in little leaps. Now they are to shake hands. Candace holds out limp fingers.
Neve skips away. She thinks this has gone great. With a clatter, she knocks over a wooden display of the solar system, and planets roll across the rug. Candace looks at me over the rim of glasses she will one day wear.
“Are you, like, Neve’s mom or something?” Candace asks.
Candace knows who I am. All the children do. I stare Candace down.
“Her mother died,” I say, the lie coming easily. “So you better be nicer to her.”
A flicker of confusion crosses Candace’s face, and a satisfying amount of worry. When I turn, Julian is there, holding out his hand. Mars, Jupiter, and tiny Neptune.
“It’s OK,” Julian says, setting the planets onto my palm. “Neve does that every day.”

In our weekly counseling session, Pat says I do not give him the right kind of affection. That I colonize our relationship with my anxieties. I imagine tiny me planting tiny flags of worries. I claim this hour for plane crashes and house fires and earthquakes!
Our counselor clears her petite throat. She owns the same sweater in several different shades of oxblood. It is a wrappy, drapey affair, and it makes her look like an abstract painting of a human heart.
She writes something in her notebook.
“What’s the score?” I ask her.
The point of her pencil hovers. She wants to know what I mean.
“What I mean,” I say, “is who’s ahead?”
“That’s not what we do here,” she says.
I rise from the couch and lie on my back on the floor. The ceiling is made of those speckled panels, the kind you can push out of their frames.
“So would you say that I am now losing?” I ask. “Because of that question?”
I can feel Pat and the counselor look at each other over my body. Near my face, the counselor’s feet are crossed primly, one ankle over the other. Under her chair are dust bunnies and the anguished cage of a dead spider’s upturned legs. Pat would like me to please get up now.
I could. I could get up. Sit back on the couch beside my husband. But if I did, I might slap him, and then I would truly lose points with the counselor, whose right foot turns in small circles like it is telling time. I could get up from the floor. Or Pat, he could join me.
I should, apparently, not be ridiculous.
But. A shuffling of wool. The setting down of a pencil on a hard cover. Our counselor’s body is unbelievable, even when it lies next to mine. I can feel her breath in the way her arm draws close, then retreats.
“It is healthy,” she says, “to change perspectives from time to time.”
What does Pat think? Impossible to tell. He is on his best marriage counseling behavior. He does not join us. His leg does that jiggy bounce that all men’s legs do when men are forced to sit still and have a conversation. Our counselor does not want this gamble to be a failure. She hates to insist, but Pat ought to try. So he sighs, and rises, and stretches flat, managing it all without touching even one part of me. The three of us splay on the carpet, waiting for one of the others to do it, to be the first to change.
Our counselor, inspired by her own quirkiness, says we both ought to say something we have never said aloud before. Because I am understanding and good and easy, I let Pat go first.
“Sometimes I think the reason I cheated on you is because you deserved it.”
The speckles on the ceiling panels are manufactured to look chancy. Planned randomness. Because you deserved it. The counselor says nothing. She thinks I deserved it, too. Now it is my turn to share something I have never said aloud.
“Someone ought to vacuum under your chair,” I say.
The counselor turns on her side to face me, and her posture feels so intimate, my eyes bristle.
“Do you want to change?” she asks, her head propped on her hand. “Most people, they would rather die than change.”
The counselor’s lipstick is two shades darker than her sweater.
“All right,” I say, “but are those my only options?”

Friday, again. Eucalyptus. On lunch break, Hank stretches an elastic band in my office, rolling his shoulders. He straddles the exercise ball. Bounce, bounce. Next week is Thanksgiving.
“Who’s taking care of Snakey Wonder over the break?” I ask.
“Julian.”
“Makes sense. Not a burner.”
When Hank bounces, the flaps on his jacket pockets lift.
The first time we spoke, I caught him returning office supplies that he had borrowed. He was crouched in the closet with all the sticky labels, paper clips, and whatever toner is, the back of his pants pulled into a V to reveal his boxers: purple, with little white dots. A rip in the waist, elastic bulging. I told him he could keep the whiteboard markers and no one would mind. He said he would mind. There is something frightening about his sincerity. But he would also be the first man to break my string of partners who have names that are also commands: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. And he has a sense of humor about working with children. Some days, we play Burner-Not-a-Burner during recess duty, where we decide which children will one day attend Burning Man.
I had told my mother about the pattern with names: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat.
“You always liked to be told what to do,” she said.
Of course, there were other men. Scott. Two Jeremys. But I told my mother only Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. Because I thought it was funny. And unique. And because I knew she would make a quip of it, or a barb. Of most of my life, she made so very little.
“Let me take the snake.”
Hank, finally, has stopped bouncing. “Julian will be disappointed,” he says. I can see him arguing with himself: Disappoint a child, or disappoint this woman who frightens me?
Am I sure? Also, isn’t Pat afraid of snakes?
Why yes. Yes, he is.

But Pat is in Todos Santos for the holiday. Retrieving my mother’s body. Closing up her condo. Immersing himself in his beloved logistics and working up an appetite from the strenuous effort of not sleeping with other women. He’d bought two tickets, but then I discovered my passport had expired. Pat was annoyed but also pleased: my lapsed passport confirmed my flakiness, my hopelessness with life’s fundamentals. It was just as well, because I couldn’t face my mother’s last house, the bed where they found her. I’d have to imagine her slack mouth, her blue lips slid back and away from her teeth. Her body. The stubborn, sad fact of it. “Stroke,” they said. “No pain,” Pat said. Best-case scenario.
Taking care of a snake, it turns out, is not a good way to fill time. Every day, I check Snakey Wonder for signs that she is my mother. In a leather miniskirt and silk camisole, I ask the snake what she thinks of my outfit. Does her snake tongue flicker in judgment? I don’t know. She’s a fucking snake.
Leave it to my mother to not bother to haunt me. The day I left for college, she said, “Having kids, it’s just preparation for death.”
Another thing my mother said: “Life’s motto is don’t get too attached.”
So she practiced. From when I was little, she kept her distance. Summers, we watched her soap operas all day. What else can I say about her? She always smoked outside, never in the house. We lived together for eighteen years like two sovereign nations with equally catastrophic arsenals. Peace through stalemate. You can’t destroy me if I destroy you first. But she was my mother. The only one I had.
I open the school’s website and bide my time through the rotation of homepage photos until I see Hank. I try to take a screenshot, but the transition is too fast and I end up with a copy of a Black girl’s flying braids as she runs full tilt. So I wait. I know it is sad and a little ridiculous, that the only comfort I can find is the sight of Hank’s socks—green with pink arrows pointing this way, that way, this way—and imagining him sheathing his bare feet in the privacy of his mornings.
Pat calls from Mexico. Says if they cremate her there, it will be cheaper, easier. All right? All right.
“I kind of miss you,” he says.
I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of saying it back. I say it back.
“Quickie?” he asks. He sounds like a little boy, but I am achingly horny. It becomes apparent that the woman Pat is imagining sucking his penis, making coy eye contact—she is not me. But it is OK, because the man eating me out, he is not Pat. He is not Hank, either. He is no one I know, and he is every man I have ever fucked, and he is me, watching, as my husband’s voice encourages me—gently, with a kind of love—to come. We stay on the phone breathing.
“Leave it to your mother to fix our dry spell,” Pat says.
I still hate him, but I laugh.
“She never liked you,” I say.
I want him to say, She never liked you, either. I want something unforgivable, a clear door to walk through. This is over. But Pat cannot say that. Because I am in grief, he has to be patient and understanding with me.
“How’s the snake?” he asks.
“Withholding. Mercurial. Bit of a cunt.”
“So. Just what you like.”

Thanksgiving. I order takeout Thai and eat rice and green curry and pad see ew in one big heap from the last clean plate. “And what are you grateful for?” I ask Snakey Wonder. She is small and beautiful. Cream-colored, with thick orange stripes and thin yellow stripes and red eyes. The frozen mouse I left for her thaws near the water bowl. This is promising. My mother also had a strained relationship with food. When I was old enough to cook, she left meal planning to me. For a time, I treated it as an opportunity to please her. Spaghetti? Garlic bread? Omelet? Are you hungry?
Even when my mother wasn’t smoking, she exhaled as if she were.
“I’m hungry if you are,” she said.
It’s a terrible thing, to be a child in charge of an adult.
The internet tells me how to trick a snake into eating an already dead thing. Warmer than room temperature, the internet says, so I microwave the mouse. When I open the door, its fur steams. I tie a string around its gummy tail and “walk” it around Snakey Wonder’s enclosure. The mouse rakes moss and sawdust and snake shit with its limp paws.
Inside her hollow half log, Snakey Wonder’s coils tighten. I leave the mouse tied to its string. The mesh cover of the tank, along with the rock that secures it in place—I leave those on the floor.

The next morning, the mouse is gone. Also gone is Snakey Wonder. Part of me is impressed that the snake, who had shown so little interest in anything, would muster the energy to escape. But then I think of Hank. Why do other people occur to me too late?
The internet is too cavalier about my situation. A video says: “Your Snake is Loose! Now What?” Make sure no windows or doors are open. If they aren’t, your snake is in the house, and he could be hiding just about anywhere. Look in warm, cozy places, along baseboards, behind books and knickknacks.
In this way, I discover that Pat and I have no knickknacks. What have we been doing? Perhaps this is the source of our problems: a lack of evidence of our years together, our time served. Couples who tchotchke together stay together. Because they realize what a fucking hassle divorce would be, divvying up commemorative shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Pietà.
Think like a snake, not a human.
This stumps me. I can think like a snake as much as I can think like my mother. Still, for Hank, I try. No snake behind the liquor bottles, or in the tub, or in the bed. Just in case the snake is somehow harboring my mother’s wayward soul, I turn on daytime television, hoping a soap opera will tempt her from her hiding place. On the show, little has changed since I was a child. The living rooms full of tropical plants, the light striping through the blinds against the walls, the long conversations that include at least two moments when a man grabs a woman by the arm and spins her to face him. There is much brooding, punctuated by sudden outrage. My mother’s favorite was General Hospital. She had been a high school math teacher, so summers we were stuck together, time sliced into blocks of programming. The morning talk shows until eleven, then Jerry Springer, then the soaps through the sleepy afternoons, then Jerry Springer again. She pointed out things about Springer’s guests: “Look at all those piercings!” “That man couldn’t possibly be the father, look at how tight his pants are, he’s probably sterile.” Many of the women on the show dressed like teenagers or little girls, in cutoff overalls over Mickey Mouse T-shirts, their wrists strung with those thin plastic bracelets that everyone had in the nineties. Something terrible had happened to them. The women were stuck and stunted, slouching in their chairs as they told Jerry about their troubles. In one episode, “My Mom Stole My Man,” a white girl with cornrows chewed the insides of her cheeks. When Jerry introduced her mother, the audience booed. The mother carried a small purse that she clutched with both hands in front of her belly. When she sat, she set the purse in her lap. She stared at an anonymous spot on the floor in front of her feet, which were small and clad in plain white sneakers. As the daughter told of how her mother had tried to seduce her boyfriend, the audience jeered, and the mother stared at the spot she had chosen until, swiftly, she swung her purse and whacked her daughter across the face. The daughter fell and screamed, and the audience rose to their feet, and Jerry shook his head. The mother stayed in her seat. The daughter pointed and fumed and cried. The mother crossed one ankle over the other.
“See?” my own mother said at the commercial break. “I could be worse.”

On Saturday, Pat returns with an infuriating tan. He bends to kiss me and at the last moment I offer my cheek, which flummoxes him. His kiss lands on my ear. Pat sets something heavy and pale on the coffee table. A box. White cardboard. Its edges neatly taped.
“She’s smaller than I thought she’d be,” I say.
“It’s pretty big,” Pat says.
My ear is still wet from his mouth.
Pat sighs, says I would not believe the paperwork. The number of times he had to initial. His hand practically fell off from filling out forms. “Good thing you didn’t try to handle it yourself. Very complicated. Anyway, how was your time at home?
And why is there a blanket over the snake’s tank?”
For you, my dear idiot husband. For you.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break all move toward one anticipation: Revels, the annual all-school holiday performance. In my office, Neve tells me about Wee Willie Winkie with her hands in the beans. The second grade always does “Wee Willie Winkie” and she really wants to be chosen as Wee Willie Winkie, and she might be, because the music teacher says she is doing better in class since she started seeing me and do I think she will be? Chosen?
“I have no idea.”
The selection process for Wee Willie Winkie is both secretive and utterly predictable. A quiet, pliable, coordinated second grader, not the most popular or powerful, but someone everyone likes, the child equivalent of Dolly Parton. With her wayward limbs and cement-shoed feet, Neve does not stand a chance.
Later, I carry Snakey Wonder II in her tank to Hank’s room. Outside, the children’s recess games proceed as usual, in continuous near disaster. I check the snake, curled inside her hollow faux log. Not bad for a replacement, if a bit smaller than the first Snakey Wonder.
From behind me comes a small voice. Neve is lying on her belly in the Reading Corner, singing a little jumbled song. I tell her she ought to be at recess.
“Hank lets me sharpen the pencils,” Neve says, log-rolling across the circular rug. She joins me and Snakey Wonder II, pressing her nose to the glass.
“I don’t like recess anyway.”
All the typical responses flash through my brain: fresh air, exercise, “I bet you’d like it if …” If you could run without tripping over your own legs. If you had the right clothes. If you didn’t wear dresses that looked like haunted nightgowns.
The warmth from the heat lamp makes my skin feel tighter. I ask Neve if she wants to practice for Wee Willie Winkie.
I have seen the dance every year for the past three years. As pairs of kids link arms, turn right, turn left, then patty-cake, Wee Willie Winkie flits between them, holding an old-timey lantern. When the pairs lift their linked arms, Wee Willie Winkie passes beneath the bridges. Then the children fall asleep, slowly melting down to the stage.
Between the tables, Neve does not flit. She skips, trips, rises, and resumes her jerky cantor, like a drunk horse with a limp. She spins with her arms straight out, making the posters on the walls lift at their corners. Inevitably, she crashes dizzily into a chair. “Ouch,” she says, and keeps dancing. In no way does she follow the steps, but what she does is better, weirder; she is a chaotic Wee Willie Winkie, a delirious spirit, the embodiment of frenzy. I cannot take my eyes off her. When I tell her to go under the bridges, she drops to her knees and crawls under the tables, twisting and writhing over the carpet. Army-crawling, she collapses at my feet, breathing hard. Her face when she looks at me is red and beaming.

Hank conducts a Class Meeting. He reads from the notebook of Community Problems where children have written down what they have noticed. Sam has noticed how kids are still hiding pencils in their cubbies. Marla has noticed that the class is leaving crumbs and wrappers after snack. Hank leads the class in earnest discussion about the problems, and there is something hopeful about it, even when Liona, wearing what appears to be a leather shirt, suggests that children who hide pencils in their cubbies should no longer be allowed to use pencils and should have to dictate all of their work to other students and skip lunch.
Hank dismisses the students for snack in groups. First, everyone wearing blue shoes, then everyone wearing stripes, then everyone wearing fancy socks. He leaves it up to the children to determine whether or not their socks are fancy. Neve’s socks have a scalloped trim, and even though they also have several brown stains at the edges, I assure her that they are, in fact, quite fancy.
Hank turns on the audiobook the class listens to during snack. I have missed the beginning. There is dramatic music and the sounds of a storm. A woman speaks in a squeaky voice that sounds like an impersonation of a mouse on amphetamine. The children munch and slurp. Neve still hasn’t returned.
I find her sitting on the floor in the hallway. When I ask what’s happened to her snack, she shrugs. In the depths of her backpack, which is full of crumpled papers and hair bands woolly with strands of her tangled hair, I find her lunchbox, the plastic filmy with age, on the front a faded image of princesses, or so I assume, in dresses the color of tongues.
“Here it is,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
Inside the lunchbox is the problem. I drop the lunchbox and it lands, gaping, on the floor. Inside is an ancient-looking sandwich in a cloudy bag. An apple core. A sticky thermos. All of it crawling with ants.
“My parents never remember,” Neve says.
I kick the lunchbox closed and tell her to follow me.

On one wall of the teachers’ lounge is the graph of Our Strengths, an activity from the August retreat. According to the quiz, my top three strengths are Thinker, Ruminator, and Individualist. Every teacher’s name except mine is listed under Nurturer. Even Brenda, the vice principal with her scary suits and dead tooth, is a Nurturer.
The teachers’ lounge is reliable as a source of coffee and free food. Around the holidays, the table fills with boxes of chocolates and homemade cookies and Toblerone bars. Today the table has all that, plus a pink box of donuts, grease darkening the paper. I gesture to Neve to take what she wants. I feel bountiful, generous, as if any of this feast were mine to give. Neve selects a donut with frighteningly pink frosting and brown sprinkles. Like a predator with a kill, she crawls under the table.
“You don’t want to go back and hear the story?” I ask, folding myself to fit under the table.
Already, Neve’s mouth is stained magenta. She shakes her head and I understand. Based on what I heard, I wouldn’t want to listen to the story, either.
“Do teachers get to eat donuts every day?”
“Yes. We don’t need to drink water, did you know that? We only drink hot chocolate.”
“That’s not true. My mom drinks tomato juice.”
I think: I’m pretty sure that’s not just tomato juice.
“How come you never write in the Community Problems Journal?” I ask.
“About not liking recess.”
“It never helps,” Neve says.
She holds the last bite of donut in both hands. She tries to make the frosting last, darting her tongue to lick it off in tiny specks.
“Do you want another one?”
I know that sugar is the last thing this kid needs. Her body, on a normal day, is already gripped by a tremendous and savage energy. But that is a problem for later.
For now, there is no sugar crash. Now there is only airy dough and pliant frosting.
Secret fillings of jam. And sometimes we need exactly what we don’t need.
At least that is what I tell Hank later in my office when he describes Neve’s sugar-crash afternoon. Two breakdowns, he says. She couldn’t complete any of her work. I have a hard time accepting donuts as the cause. But it’s not just about the donuts. Candace told Hank that Neve’s mother died.
“Why’d you lie?” Hank asks. He is unusually still.
I tell him the truth, ridiculous as it sounds.
“I thought it might help Neve. Get her some … sympathy from other kids.”
Hank nods.
“You see other students,” Hank says, as a suggestion.
It is the meanest thing he has ever said to me.
“Sausage roll?” I ask.
“No sausage roll.”
Whatever was not happening between us, it has just ended.
At the trailer door, Hank says, “Julian’s gonna be Willie Winkie.” As if I didn’t know.

I run low on ways to tell Pat without telling him that I have no interest in touching him. In one week, I have suffered five headaches and two bouts of probably-just allergies.
In counseling, Pat says he feels I’m not supporting his self-actualization.
Our counselor looks at me from the coils of her oxblood wrap.
“But I do support that,” I say.
“You see what I mean?” Pat asks the counselor.
The counselor snuggles down into her sweater.
“I do see what you mean.” She turns to me. “Do you see what he means?”
“It’s triggering,” Pat says. “My dad, you know, I never felt supported by him, either.”
Then Pat is crying, and our counselor is thrilled, handing him a flurry of congratulatory tissues. All I get are side scowls that indicate I have failed at counseling. No points for second place.
I do not feel the right feelings. I am supposed to be sad about my mother, but the greater sadness came years ago, when it became clear that she was not interested in making up for lost time. I visited her in Todos Santos, thinking maybe Mexico had loosened her in that vague, romantic way foreign places are supposed to stretch you at the seams, make you think of your life in America as unbearably >small and too full of parking lots and cheeseburgers and class envy. My mother’s condo building resisted the town’s charms. No bougainvillea. No phallic cacti in artisanal pots. Inside her condo, we could have been anywhere. We watched television with the blinds drawn, ate microwaved meals. We walked by the ocean and swam at Punta Lobos beach. We did not talk more than we had before, which is to say, we talked very little. My mother was happy to have me so long as I could fit into her version of time—a silent shadow, a temporary guest. The visit was sad and confusing. I looked at her in her recliner, rocking, content. And I thought: Why don’t you want more? Why are you happy?
Lack of recognition, though, travels both ways. She could not understand why I wanted to marry Pat when there were hundreds of thousands of men left to screw.
“What a waste of the good skin I gave you,” she said. “And great hair!”
On that trip, I felt so enlightened, so superior. But what did I know? My mother knew what she loved—ocean swimming, convenience store Chardonnay, talk shows with surprise paternity tests—and she loved it without apology.
“Nice visit,” my mother said at the bus that would take me back to Cabo. It broke my heart that she meant it.
“I know she loved you a lot,” Hank had told me.
Maybe. But she loved her freedom more.
And I—I can understand that.

The weekends become long stretches of freeway Pat and I must drive straight through. Saturday night, I call Pat from the laundry room. He is on the couch.
“Tell me what you’re wearing,” I say, even though I know what he’s wearing: sweatpants and a button-down.
Something clanks in the dryer. A zipper maybe. Loose change. I can’t dip into the image of myself watching as I eat myself out. Clank goes the thing. I stop and kneel to tug warm, damp clothes from the dryer. The clothes are streaked with something pink and oily. I find it, the clanky thing, a tube of my own lipstick, the pink leaking out from the seam. Why this, of all things, should make me cry is not clear. Pat must think my sounds are ones of pleasure, because his breath quickens as I bury my face into the pile of ruined clothes, melted lipstick smearing into my hair as I rend the strands. And there is something thrilling about that, about my body knowing what to do, and it is not so different from sex, in that one way. I rend and rend.
The heat has left the clothes by the time Pat nears the big finish. When I get up, I will gather what I need. What do I need? Only the snake, who I had seen earlier in the living room near the heating vent behind the sofa. When I reached to grab her, she slinked away, and I thought, All right.
“Oh,” my husband says, “oh my, oh my.” Pat gasps, grunts, sighs. I love that moment, with all men, how tender they are, how in those seconds you can tell exactly what they looked like as scared little boys. What do I need? I have no idea, but I do know exactly why I keep the phone on speaker. How rare it is, clarity. Better than happiness, because I don’t need to share it with anyone, not with my husband. I leave him on speaker because I know his sounds—this sound, and that one—are part of the last time.

Neve and I practice the steps for Revels. Left, right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up, then fall asleep. Neve wants to fall asleep all at once, as if she’s been shot. “Slow,” I tell her. Together, we fall to the ground like melting candles.

“Where have you been staying?” Pat wants to know on the phone. “Hotel,” I tell him, though really, I have been sleeping in my office. It gets cold at night, but there is a nice view, and I can leave the diffuser on as long as I want, pouring every oil into the tank until the smell feels like someone yelling right into my nostrils.
“You can come by and get your things,” Pat says, “whatever you need.”
He cannot believe how generous he is being. How well he is handling this.
“Don’t need to,” I say.
I have toiletries, a sleeping bag, and my mother, tucked in the cupboard under
the sink where I now wash my underpants. “There is,” Pat says, “one more thing. Yvette and I, we’ve been spending some time together.”
“Right.”
“It’s been very hard on me, this whole thing. It hasn’t been easy, you know.”
This whole thing.
On the wall, the Feelings Thermometer tells me I should be in the red, but I am not. I am in the green—calm, content, in control—when I tell Pat he should have the house. Outside my windows, the woods do nothing. Nothing falls or snaps or bends in a breeze. Everything stands still as if suspended in gelatin.
Pat can have the house? With Yvette? Am I sure?
Oh yes.
I hope it happens while they are making love. All that human warmth. Snakey Wonder will not be able to resist. Sensing the heat on the tip of her papery tongue, the snake candy-canes up the bedpost, slithers under the sheets. Silently, I cheer her on, that future snake. Not there, Snakey Wonder, don’t stop—go further, toward the warmest, wettest place you can find. Go.

The night of Revels, the parents arrive with their children. What is it about children in Christmas clothes? I do not hate it. The preponderance of small red sweater vests and gingham dresses with full skirts is festive in a recognizable way, the way a commercial is festive. In head-to-toe velvet, including an odd red velvet hat, the music teacher is stressed and loving it, darting between parents, bending low to give children last-minute reminders. “Come in with the violin on the eight, remember? The eight!”
I expect Neve’s dress to be tragic, but it’s surprisingly modern and fashionable, a purple tube slick with sequins. Someone in her household has sense: the dress is short. One less thing for Neve to become tangled in. She wears the same old tennis shoes as always, shoes that were probably white once. When I reach her through the lobby crowd, I tell her she looks nice.
She shoots glances this way, that way, her nervous system overloaded with sound. As she brushes and brushes the sequins of her dress, several fall off and flicker to the carpet.
“You can always do a whole-body squeeze,” I tell her. “No one will notice.”
Neve drops, right there, and hugs her knees into her chest, her eyelids wrinkling with effort. When she releases, she sighs massively and stretches over my feet like a cat.
“Where are your parents?”
“Not here,” Neve says from the floor. Nearby, a boy turns and stares. When his mother catches where he’s gazing—at Neve splayed across the floor—she does that mother-arm-shoulder thing and draws him back, protective, as if Neve were dangerous.
“What?” I say, too loudly, to the woman’s back.
can tell the woman hears me, because her shoulders tighten beneath her glossy bolero, the color a sickly-looking silver, the shade of paper money.
“Do you have something to say?” I ask.
She turns, her arm still wrapped around the shoulders of her son. She looks at me, then down at Neve, then back to me.
“A shame,” she says. Mock pity.
“Sucks to suck,” I tell her.
Now she has both hands on her son’s shoulders. He wriggles underneath her grasp, trying to shake free. Then the lights flicker and save us all, and the woman strides away, or strides as best as she can manage while also trying to steer her flailing son. Neve leaps up. “I have to go,” she says, and dashes away.
Inside the theater, the stage is ringed with fake wreaths and electric candles. From the dark, the piano starts with a slow “Deck the Halls” as fifth graders file onto the stage with bells on their ankles. They dance, followed by fourth graders in formal wear, boys and girls struggling not to giggle as they link arms. Half the third grade wears reindeer antlers, the other half bejeweled clogs. They jig and lift their arms and the audience claps asynchronously, and it all feels like being inside someone’s addled mind. Lights down, lights up. Second graders flitter onto the stage, now dressed in matching plaid pajamas and nightgowns. They sing, high-pitched and haunting:

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock
“Are the children in their bed, for now it’s ten o’clock?”

Neve and her partner spiral left, spiral right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up. Julian brandishes his lantern and weaves under the arm bridges, his old-fashioned nightcap flying behind him. Then they do it all again, singing, and Neve only becomes confused once, when she turns the wrong way. Patty-cake, arms up. Neve falls asleep. Beautifully. Just as we practiced, and better. She falls slowly, fake-yawning, stretching. She is the slowest, the last child to lie on the stage. The crowd makes a collective “Aww” and there is
the silence that happens just before applause.
Neve sits straight up. The rest of the children are still asleep, as they should be, eyes closed. Go back to sleep, I plead silently. She smiles out to the crowd. She stands. The piano player, courageously, plays through the last bars again. And Neve. She takes a breath. Lifts her arms. Cartwheels. Bows, then falls asleep again.
And I am on my feet. It doesn’t matter that when she goes over, her nightgown slides up and shows her baggy underpants. It doesn’t matter that I have no fucking idea how a child who cannot cross one foot over the other figured out how to cartwheel. It doesn’t matter that her classmates stay asleep, that they don’t know why the applause has come three notes before the actual end.
In the lobby rush, I try to spot Neve, to tell her how great she was. The crowd is hard for me to see, though, because I am thinking about my mother again. How she came to my performances, all of them. Sat in the back with her purse in her lap, the strap held together with staples. Did I ever thank her?
Through the lobby windows, I see Neve skipping. Beside her, a white-haired man, her grandfather, I assume. He wears one of those thin khaki jackets that are issued to all men when they reach a certain age. He nods his head at Neve’s endless monologue. He holds her hand while she leaps and hops, yanking his arm. It must be uncomfortable. But he doesn’t let go.

After, I return to my office, unroll my sleeping bag. The trick is to stay and help clean up after school functions. People cannot help but offer you bottles of opened wine, platters of picked-over food. I bounce on the yoga ball, and eat pepper jack and honeydew and salami. I drink a third of a bottle of table white, then half a red.
When I turn off the lights, the woods out the windows undarken a little, and the Douglas firs lace over one another. Neve’s grandfather’s car probably has one of those pine air fresheners dangling from the rearview. Is he mad at Neve? No. He is amazed by her. What guts! What gusto! Just like him. Who said that children are our way of casting ourselves into the future? They might be, but they do just as much casting themselves, sending us back into the past. Neve’s grandfather played Sky Masterson in high school, I imagine. He sang “My Time of Day” like Marlon Brando, with wounded longing. That’s what Neve reminded him of, I think—himself, young again, feeling like Marlon Brando.
And what did I remind my mother of? I can easily make up a whole life for Neve’s grandfather, but for my own mother—impossible. Like a dream you know you’ve had but can’t remember.
I lay out the weighted blanket, stretch, and sausage roll.

Just when we thought it would never come, it arrives, the last day before break. Like any other day, except with an exhausted kind of anticipation in everyone’s tone. It is also, as it happens, my last night in my trailer. I have found an apartment, a secondfloor studio in a part of town too young and hip for me. I will miss the hours at the school when no one else was around, when I could wander the dim halls, through the patchy glow of red exit signs.
I have gathered my belongings back into my suitcase. My mother, I feel, I cannot pack, so I set her on the kid-size table. I use child-safe scissors to cut through the tape. Inside is a plastic bag. The ash looks dusty, like it would stick to my hands, and it does, I find, after I open the bag and plunge my hands down in.
The trailer door bangs, and I withdraw my hands quickly, sending some ash into the air. Wearing huge rain boots under her dress, Neve clobbers over, unsteady as ever, dear as ever, and kneels and puts her hands in the ashes. Part of me wants to yell—yes, it does—but that part is small and mean and I don’t have to listen, because as her hands work under the surface, Neve settles. Her body relents and releases her.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s weird,” she says, “but also nice.”
I put my hands back in. Sometimes I feel Neve’s fingers and sometimes I don’t. The ash is soft, speckled with harder bits that I know are my mother’s bones. We don’t talk. We stay like that for a long time.

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Works

1900

Jennifer Moxley

1900

An old cuss in a MAGA mask
limps past me, going against
the taped arrows on the aisle
floor. I get a close-up view
of his milky eyes trying to
focus under the fluorescents,
one arthritic hand cupping
a gallon of boxed ice cream.
Before his about-face, I had felt
the need to avert my eyes
from the pink chapped skin
and butt crack visible above
the failing strap of chestnut leather
as I awaited my turn in the
cooler. Even from six feet away.
        “At least he was wearing a mask,”
says Steve, admiring the human capacity
for ideological paradox, when I recount
the run-in. As I move through
the grocery store I attempt,
beneath my social timidity, to project
exasperation solely with my eyes. Like a child
who has learned that smoking is bad
and can’t help finger-wagging
at the adults. A docile New England
citizen, I usually settle for a
Horton Hears a Who! harrumph
upon reaching the safety
of the Subaru. My internalized State
is deep, good, and fair, and I cannot
bear to part with it.
        Running this market gamut weekly
we enter prepared, geared up
for a surgical strike, strategy in hand.
“Generalísimo Moxley,” Steve calls me
as I grip the four-by-six grocery list
and lay out the plan of action.
We enter through the touchless doors
to face the rows of sanitized carts.
The greeter stands before a table
of masks wielding a gun of cheap
disinfectant. He’s young and deserves
to live, I think. Someone with
his same job was just shot dead
in a Michigan Dollar Store
by a man who proclaimed before
his quivering family that he
“thought this was a free country.”
        My ugly “Covid clogs,”
consigned to outings but disallowed
in the house, have acquired a piece
of parking-lot grit, a test of my
“Princess and the Pea” proclivities.
        But we’re more relaxed
than two months ago, since we
became less worried about “fomite
transmission.” And more people are wearing
masks. Even the old cuss, though
loyal to Trump, follows the Hannaford rules.
Then there’s the super-tan couple—
probably from away, as they call
out-of-staters in Maine. The man
is erratic and defiant, moving illogically
through the sections, crowding the space.
His mask drifts off his face
while his girlfriend negotiates
her discomfort. She gives me a
what can you do, he’s a man
smile with her eyes. Mine is two
aisles away, in the pet section,
negotiating a forty-pound box of Clump
& Seal litter, with “ultra odor
blasters.” I think of that scene in
Can You Ever Forgive Me? when the
heroine’s drinking buddy discovers
the stores of cat poop under her bed
and I experience a shiver of disgust.
A needed “aesthetic category,”
according to a celebrated scholar,
who once poured me a large glass
of wine in a plastic Star Trek cup.
Ah! the good old days of grad school,
when we had to chat up strangers
in video stores and used bookstores
in our quest to find an audience
for our cultural savoir faire.
        There are still no Oscar Mayer
Selects beef franks. And no
braunschweiger, “not even for ready
money,” as my mom liked to say,
quoting Oscar Wilde. “It’s not even
available to order,” I learn from the lifer
in the meat department. That’s
the standard response these days.
There’s a full shelf of Goya products,
due to the boycott, but the Campbell’s
canned soup has been decimated.
“At least we know there’s plenty
of soup, just no cans,” says Steve,
as he heard someone say recently
on the radio news. It’s unappetizing,
I think, to eat canned soup in
the heat of summer, the slightly gummy
gelatinous warmth of too soft vegetables
in salty broth. A few tiny cubes
of chewy chicken.
        What did mass-produced canned
food taste like to the women of 1900?
That’s the year my mother’s mother,
Leola Isabel Warnock Freeman,
was born. I am ashamed to admit
that until I googled and found
a photo of her tombstone on
FindAGrave.com, I had no
idea of the day or month of her birth.
March 21. It says it right there on
the flat slate grave marker,
beneath her name and death date,
August 21, 1989, seven months
before her youngest child,
my mother, would die at home
of breast cancer. To the right
of my grandmother’s name
hangs a decorative rosary in relief.
As I zoom in to get a closer look,
an ad pops up. Three photo-booth-style
images of the same Kim Kardashian
look-alike wearing a mask
with a clear window to allow
her glossy nude lip to be admired
in full pout mode. $5.99.
        “The internet knows more
about my grandmother than I do,”
I tell Steve at lunch. “That’s your
first line,” he quips, as if aware I’ve started
this poem. Too late; that slot is taken.
I find a painting by her on eBay
of naked nymphs in a green arcadia.
By a “Texas Impressionist,” the seller
states, though I know she made her living
primarily doing portraits. It was smack
in the middle of the influenza epidemic,
when she left El Paso, Texas,
in order to study painting
in Philadelphia.
        As a Texan, I suppose my grandmother
might have opened a can of Campbell’s
tomato soup to take the chill off
the Philadelphia winter. In 1900, Campbell’s
won a medal for “product excellence”
at the Paris Olympic Games and International Exposition.
It was the science of condensing that gave them
the edge. Perhaps this is the secret origin
of Pound’s mandate: condensare. The soup
that changed American poetry. I never
noticed the medal on the label before.
Perhaps because I buy their
Healthy Request line, which lacks
the familiar gold disk depicting
a sensuous art nouveau Victory,
flying horizontally, laurel in hand.
A male athlete, holding a torch, sits
heavily on her back, seemingly unaware
that his weight is being supported by
a goddess in diaphanous dress.
        Opening plastic produce bags
without wetting one finger with your tongue
is challenging. Steve follows behind me,
preparing several bags in advance.
I hold up a bunch of green leaf lettuce,
draining the water accumulated
from the produce sprinklers
before stuffing it, curls first, into
the bag. My effort will prove ineffectual.
By the time we get home the bag
will have accumulated enough liquid
to house a goldfish. I know I’m
not supposed to overtouch produce,
but I cheat a little. When has the first peach
you reach for ever been “the one”?
        In a 1961 article in the El Paso
Herald-Post profiling the Artist of the Month,
the town’s “premier portrait painter”
is described as a “slight gray-haired
grandmother.” In ’61 my grandmother
was only, well, sixty-one, just five years older
than I am now. The article makes her seem
like a sweet old lady who thinks she’s
a painter. And the title, “Worked Eight
Hours a Day Teaching Self to Paint,”
erases her formal training. That’s her
doing, according to the writer: “She
considers herself self-taught.” “People
in the West have to be self-taught
in order to be taken seriously,” says Steve.
What was my grandmother pulling? I think.
But then again, I’d never say, “I was trained
how to write poetry in school,” though
there is some truth to it.
        Was my grandmother called to paint,
just as Helen Gahagan knew she was
destined for the stage? The actress,
singer, and politician was born the same
year as my grandmother, 1900, right around
the Thanksgiving holiday. By the time
of the flu pandemic she had fled
Barnard for Broadway, never to look back.
My grandmother was studying at the
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
when Gahagan opened at Philly’s
National Theatre in the role
of the “simple bookkeeper Paula,”
who is kind to a beleaguered haberdasher,
in the tepidly reviewed Fashions for Men.
Perhaps Lloyd Freeman, my grandmother’s
painting teacher and soon-to-be husband,
invited the pretty young Texan out to see
the new sensation, the beautiful, earnest
Helen Gahagan, and they went in spite
of the pandemic. Twenty-six years
her senior, he held her slight waist lightly,
guiding her out of the stuffy theater into
the chilly night air.
        While in Philadelphia, Helen
Gahagan was also pursued by an older
man. The famous conductor Leopold
Stokowski sent her tickets to hear
his orchestra and invited her out to lunch.
She had been warned to avoid
him if she valued her reputation.
Did she value “her reputation”?
Did my grandmother value hers? A good
Catholic away from her parents
among the bohemians in a big
eastern city …
        The only liquid hand soap
left is one sad bottle of Method
in “Sea Minerals” scent.
The plastic bleachers designed
to hold the hand soaps are as empty
as the nation’s performing arts venues.
Apparently I’m not the only one
who dislikes Sea Minerals.
What is a sea mineral anyway?
Salt? Except in the kitchen
I prefer bar soap, though not
the melty frozen-orange-juice-colored
Dial I grew up with, but triple-milled
hard soaps that smell like goats.
        My mother had a pet
goat named Gwendolyn whom
she spoke of with far more fondness
than she ever did of her mother.
        What kind of child doesn’t love
her mother? “Such a child wouldn’t
be a child at all, but a monster.” This
is the conclusion the young
Nathalie Sarraute arrives at
in her memoir of childhood,
Enfance. First there’s the betrayal:
She finds a doll in a shop window
more beautiful than her mother.
Then there’s the naivete: She
tells her mother of the aesthetic
judgment. Instead of understanding,
the mother abstracts the young Nathalie
with a quip: “A child who loves
her mother finds no one more
beautiful than she.” I’m just a child,
among others, Nathalie thinks, a real
child loves her mother …
        Sarraute, who lived to be ninety-nine,
was born in Russia in 1900, though
she sometimes fibbed and gave the date
as 1902. While influenza was raging,
she attended three universities,
the Sorbonne, Oxford, and the
University of Berlin. She studied
English, history, and philosophy
before becoming a lawyer and
then one of the most celebrated
writers of the nouveau roman.
Though they shared a birth year
and a century, I doubt my grandmother
ever read Sarraute. But she did like to read,
or so I surmise from a lost-world
tidbit my own mother shared in a 1989 letter.
She had just bought a copy of
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
at Price Club and offered to send
it to Providence after she was finished
reading it, if it was good (it was):
“My mother and I used to mail books
back and forth,” she wrote, “book rate,
which at that time was about 68¢
a pound and consequently
cheaper than buying the books on
both coasts.” Sarraute’s legendary
first book, Tropismes, was published
in France in 1939 but wouldn’t
be available in English until 1963,
translated by Maria Jolas and
published by John Calder. My
grandmother could speak Spanish,
but I don’t think she ever knew
French.
        What magical time
was my mother referring to when
she was on such good terms with
my grandmother that they shared
bestsellers through the U.S. mail?
What “coasts” did she mean to
evoke, given that my grandmother
lived in El Paso, deserts away
from any ocean?
        Three years after publishing
her first novel, Sarraute, who was
Jewish, refused to wear the yellow
felt star she was issued. She went
to the countryside and pretended
to be the governess of her own
children. According to the
Jewish Women’s Archive, although
Sarraute’s writing “deals neither
with the matter of being Jewish,
nor with antisemitism,” in its impulse
it counters “every sort of racism,
terrorism and tyranny.”
        “She makes no apologies for
practicing a branch of art some artists
depreciate,” wrote the journalist about
my grandmother. According to her,
portrait painters “must be able to project
… into the personality of the sitter,
thinking and feeling as the sitter thinks
and feels.” A devout Catholic, my
grandmother spent many of her
later years living itinerantly. She
volunteered in orphanages
in Mexico. How do I know this?
After I was about eleven years old
I was never allowed to see
my grandmother, because
during one of her rare visits
she made the mistake of trying
to take me and my brothers to
Mass and was banned from
our house for good.
        I feel so much trepidation
as I approach the popcorn section
in the snack aisle and see
a gaping hole. On bended knee
I peer into the void. To my relief,
there in the shadows I spy
a last remaining jar of Orville
Redenbacher’s Original yellow.
I feel a sense of triumph mixed
with a slight twinge of petulant
selfishness. During the first
few months of the pandemic,
this sort of last-one-on-the-shelf
experience made me panicky.
But I had to admit, when I
looked around, that though
some things were sold out,
the supermarket was still
full of food.
        Saved from Leopold Stokowski’s
seduction, Helen Gahagan met
her husband, the future Hollywood
leading man Melvyn Douglas,
when they costarred in the play
Tonight or Never in 1930, the year
Lloyd Freeman, my grandfather,
succumbed to double pneumonia,
leaving Leola a widow with
four little kids. He died
twenty-nine days after his wife’s
thirtieth birthday, six months after
the stock market crash and the birth
of my mother, his last child.
Following his funeral my grandmother
was forced to return to El Paso to live
with her aging parents.
        Marrying Melvyn Douglas
sounded the death knell of Helen
Gahagan’s Broadway career. But
she continued to train as an opera
singer. After a smashing tour
of Europe, she was signed
to sing Tosca in the 1938 season
of the Vienna Opera Company.
A dream of a lifetime, which
abruptly ended when an English
music critic took her into
his confidence: “Aryans such as we
have a duty to defend the superior
race against Jews,” he said. Helen
ripped up her contract and returned
to Los Angeles. Soon after, the
thirty-eight-year-old became
pregnant with her and Melvyn’s
second child.
        There are no wipes of any kind
to be found on the shelves at Hannaford.
“Our entire childhood,” I say to Steve,
“we managed to live without any form
of disinfecting wipe.” The year
the women born in 1900 turned
thirty-one, the Scott Paper Company
introduced the paper towel roll,
expressly for the kitchen. It is doubtful
my newly widowed grandmother
paid any attention. Housewives,
I read on another website,
“had a hard time grasping
the concept of towels you
don’t have to wash.”
The subject line in the email
from eBay reads: “Leola Freeman Texas …
still of interest?” Yes, I think,
filled with regret. Why did I accept
without question my mother’s moratorium
on this woman? My childhood, like that
of many white Californians,
was blissfully free of extended
family. On my left hand I wear
a ring engraved with the initials
w. j .w. to j. c. s.: William Joseph
Warnock to Josephine Cecilia Sheley.
These, I can reconstruct from the
record, were the parents of my
grandmother.
        I assume that Josephine Cecilia,
called “Mama Jo” by my mother,
helped her widowed daughter
to raise her four kids. I picture
my grandmother’s relationship
with my mother as being almost that
of an older and a younger sister.
In the mid-forties Helen Gahagan Douglas
enrolled her children in boarding school
and threw herself into politics,
mentored by Eleanor Roosevelt.
        There’s not one single box
of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain &
Wild Rice Original Recipe
on the shelf. No rice of any kind.
I’ve eaten Uncle Ben’s since I
was a child without much thinking
about the way “Uncle Ben” echoes
Uncle Tom from Beecher Stowe’s
novel, which is why the company
has since changed the name to
just plain “Ben’s.” Sarraute knew
Stowe’s book in a children’s edition
when she was growing up in Russia
and Paris as La Case de l’oncle Tom.
Her copy, she tells us in
Enfance, was soaked through
with tears. I’m baffled by the
hoarding of rice. I thought potatoes
were the American carbohydrate
of choice. But rice is cheap
and lasts forever.
        As a congresswoman,
Helen Gahagan Douglas represented
the fourteenth district in Los Angeles,
with a large African American
population. “I just love the
Negro people!” she once said
ham-fistedly at a Black church
while on the campaign trail.
This was the “love” that Richard Nixon
would use to destroy her career.
When he ran against her for the
California Senate seat in 1950,
his campaign mail-bombed the
white suburbs with a flyer
claiming to be from the
“Communist League
of Negro Women” in support
of her candidacy. That there
was no such organization
made no difference once
he’d stoked white fears.
        There’s no Land O’Lakes
white American cheese in the
cooler, only Kraft, which is
thinner and more plasticky.
And “Mia,” the Native woman
on Land O’Lakes products, is
also MIA, removed out of
cultural sensitivity, though
she had been redrawn in 1954
by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait.
I grab some Philadelphia Cream
Cheese and a block of jalepeño jack.
Strangely, there’s no shortage of
cheese, but the buttermilk
is gutted. It must have something
to do with the mania for baking
that has overtaken the nation,
the comfort of pancakes
and warm dough.
        Was my grandmother
domestic? There are no recipes
of hers among those in my mother’s
cookbook. In photos she’s thin
and elegant, posing behind a camera
or in front of an easel. In the fifties
she built a beautiful adobe studio
on South Concepcion Avenue in El Paso.
The inside was spare and neatly
kept. A pigskin chair, the torso
of a woman, a Mexican blanket
and water pitcher. By this time
she’d remarried, to a watercolorist
named McElroy whom my mother
rarely mentioned. Was my
grandmother sexually satisfied?
The last forty years of Helen
Gahagan Douglas’s marriage
were sexless. Melvyn wanted
to stay together but continue
to have affairs. It’s rumored
that Helen had some sort of
dalliance with LBJ. Nathalie
Sarraute outlived her slightly
younger husband, whom she’d
met in law school, by fourteen years.
I no longer need to frequent
either the Family Planning
or Feminine Hygiene sections
of the supermarket. Who came
up with these euphemisms?
        After moving obediently from
one Twister-like red floor sticker
to the next, Steve and I finally
make it to the checkout. The
small woman with buck teeth
and a mustache who has worked
at Hannaford for as long as I can
remember looks like a welder
behind her face shield. She can’t
hear a word we say. Out of habit
she reaches around the plexiglass barrier
and hands me the paper receipt.
        It is the year 2020
in the time of Covid. Nobody born
in 1900 is still alive. Helen Gahagan
Douglas died of breast cancer
in 1980, my grandmother of
Alzheimer’s in 1989. An African American
woman named Denilla cared
for her in her final years.
My mother, on a rare trip to visit,
had come to know this caregiver.
“Mother loved hearing Denilla’s voice,”
she wrote to me. “At times I
felt that it was the one thing
anchoring her mind to reality.”
        Nathalie Sarraute
would live until two months
before the start of this century,
writing her memoir of childhood
in her eighties and publishing
up to the end.
        I want to live to be
as old as my grandmother,
I think to myself, and stay as lucid
as Nathalie Sarraute. I remove
my mask once we’re safely
back inside the car. I wonder
how many hours the women
of 1900 spent on trains?
I wipe the soil, made by the fog
of my trapped breath, off
my fragile glasses. Steve helps
himself to a healthy pump
of Purell, takes a deep breath,
and starts up the car.

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Uncategorized, Works

The Drama Club

Elisa Guidotti

The Drama Club

If you’re looking for the kids, and it’s a Friday afternoon during the school term, look no further than the theater down Risorgimento Martyrs Street, close to the on-ramp to the highway leading to Rome. Rain or shine, ninety-four pages left to study for a biology test on Monday or not, they will be sitting in the orchestra anywhere between the first and the fifth row, and always at the center, of course, because that’s where they can get the best view of the stage, even though some of them will actually have their backs turned to it and their gaze directed toward their friends. After all, no play has ever been performed here, no actor has ever stepped onto this stage to enthrall an audience with his interpretation of Hamlet, so the five kids might as well watch the dramas unfolding among themselves. One day the girl with indigo streaks in her hair laments the tragic loss of her most beloved book to a leak in the ceiling, her voice sonorous, her gesticulation wild, while a ray of the setting sun spotlights the fierceness of her expression. Another day the boy with an American-sounding nickname remonstrates about the frequent (and never announced) cancellation of the buses heading to the capital, and his monologue is echoed by a chorus of “Yeah,” “I know, right?” and “Fuck this town” that fades out as the sunlight dims. Some days, instead, it’s a screen that captures their attention, and they all cluster around the kid holding the phone and laugh at a comedy sketch, saying “That’s you” every time a character acts just like one of them. The “you” chuckles the loudest and agrees. “That’s me.”

To be fair, the kids do not always remain sprawled on the tiers. There are afternoons when they climb over the brick parapet into the boxes like restless monkeys, others when they roam about the building in stunned silence, taking in the geometric pattern of the truss upholding the paneled roof, staring at the scaffolding towering at the back of the stage. Like foreign tourists visiting the Colosseum and trying to imagine what it looked like in the past, the kids try to imagine what the theater would look like in the future. Rows of velvet chairs, a purple curtain dropping from the ceiling to brush against the wooden floor of the stage, the walls painted gold and the pillars a veined white to look like marble columns—the kids’ vision is detailed, and faithful to the digital rendering of the theater, a masterwork of 3-D virtual design at which they marveled when the project was first announced. That was six years ago. The kids were only ten back then, yet they won’t forget what they were promised. Children never do.

Picture this: with a seating capacity of 426, the Lavinium Theater was set to be the largest venue in the whole province of Rome, Rome itself excluded. Companies would come from all over the country to perform Shakespeare, Pirandello, and their own original pieces on its brand-new stage, and the townspeople would have the privilege of being the first audience to see productions that would go on to win national acclaim. Moreover, the theater would open its doors to schoolchildren in the morning, and to teenagers in the afternoon, so that the youth of the town could have “a place to gather, to play, to make art.” Now, you must understand that the kids have watched dozens of American movies in their lives, and that these movies have led them to entertain the belief that anything can happen at a drama club. The high school jock discovers a burning passion for singing. The shy science nerd overcomes her fears and delivers a performance to remember. Two star-crossed lovers share their first kiss behind the backcloth on opening night, while even the most austere parents tear up with pride and jump from their seats clapping after the final act. So you can imagine the kids’ excitement at the prospect of a plot of uncultivated land being transformed into a framework of pillars and crossbeams, how that excitement simmered as the months passed and the building rose in front of their eyes, all while the kids’ bodies, too, transformed, getting taller by the day, and growing hairs and breasts where there once were only glabrous, flat surfaces. Glancing at the sign posted at the entrance to the construction site, the kids did the math: the works would be complete by the time they turned fourteen, just in time for them to live their high school years to the fullest. It was perfect. Almost too good to be true.

In fact, according to the kids’ parents, it was never true. Didn’t the kids know how things worked in Italy? The owner of the construction company must have been a friend of a friend of whoever allocated the money for the theater. Anyone who took the trouble to do a little digging would soon have found out that some guy high up in government had gotten himself a penthouse overlooking the Tiber before the ink of his signature had dried on the project approval document. The building was never meant to be finished. Only to be paid for. “Don’t hold your breath, kids, or you’ll choke.” For a while the parents groused at such squandering of public money, but one can harbor such an emotion for only so long before it becomes wearying and trite. Wasn’t there a hint of satisfaction in their voices when they said “I told you so” after the workers stopped coming to the construction yard? Yet the kids, being pigheaded, as kids are, didn’t believe them. They couldn’t fathom how the workers could simply walk out on a building they’d labored so hard to raise, how they could be so indifferent after they’d sweated off fat and health to lay the foundation, brick upon brick. Years have gone by, but the kids still await the workers’ return. In the meantime, they take what they can get and claim their seats in the closed-off construction site. After all, they technically own the place.

This is what the indigo girl said to the girl with freckles on the day they first contemplated breaking into the theater: “It’s technically ours, you know.” The freckled girl frowned. Though the sign clearly stated KEEP OUT, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, she knew that didn’t mean them. But the indigo girl has always had a flair for rhetoric, more so since they studied Aristotle at school. “Hear me out,” she said. The theater was paid for with public money. Public money comes from taxes. The kids’ parents pay taxes. What the kids’ parents pay for belongs to the parents. What belongs to the parents belongs to the kids. Therefore, the theater belongs to the kids. It was a simple syllogism, its conclusion as elementary to the indigo girl as the fact that being human makes us mortal. Without further dispute, the freckled girl followed the others inside. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else they could go anyway.

When they were younger, they had other places. They could spend time in one of the playgrounds scattered around town, but now the swings creak as soon as the kids rest their butts on the seats, and elementary school children pout and glower at them. Next to each playground, even the dogs have their own parks. The kids used to have a bar where they hung out, but it has gone out of business, while the other bars are thronged with retirees playing scala quaranta from morning till dusk. Nor do the kids wish to cross paths with the other dreamers in town, the middle-aged men and women who look up at the TV screen calling lottery numbers and have faith that the next time will be the one, just wait and see, can you imagine how many things you can buy with six million euros? “Play these numbers, Anto’, quick, only fifteen seconds left before the draw.”

What about the main square? you might ask. Sure, it would be the perfect place to hang out, if only people didn’t die every other day, and mourners didn’t pour out of the church into the square, drowning out the kids’ laughter with their weeping, shaming the girls’ shrill voices into silence with their muttered condolences. And the streets? A parade of shops that have succumbed to the economic crisis, closed shutters and empty windows everywhere, sidewalks like paths through a graveyard—you’ll agree that it makes a gloomy backdrop for a stroll. Can’t they just meet in one of the kids’ apartments, then? Where? In the bedrooms they share with their elder siblings, grumpy old men at the age of twenty-eight, their degrees gathering dust on the wall while they scrape together money with temporary nighttime jobs? Or do you mean in the living rooms, where their laid-off parents pretend to watch TV from the couch while eavesdropping on the kids’ every conversation, unfailingly offering unsolicited advice as a substitute for the allowance they don’t always pay? No, it won’t do, so let the kids embark on the little adventure of sneaking through the holes in the fence and working their way through the weeds. What’s the harm in it, really? Let them have this, at least.

Look at them, how skillfully and dauntlessly they climb the scaffolding to reach the highest point—you’d think they were five Quasimodos, grown up amid pillars as naked as fleshless bones, well versed in hiding their luminous pimply faces from people in the streets. Look how cozily they sit there on the tiers, feasting on barbecue potato chips and Coke, listening to Drake, Imagine Dragons, and De André from a Bluetooth speaker, confident that the music will be drowned out by the noise of passing cars. When the indigo girl is in charge of the soundtrack, you might hear Broadway cast recordings playing on repeat. Lately she’s gotten into Dear Evan Hansen, and she takes the stage to prove to the others that she’d be a perfect Zoe, given half a chance. “We only need three more people to have the full cast. We can rehearse here. Come on, it’ll be fun.” She’s bought a book about the show, with photos and interviews with the cast. She’s listened to the album countless times. She’s seen pictures and videos posted on the official Twitter and YouTube sites for the musical, and every morning at breakfast she watches the stories of the actors and understudies on Instagram. “Trust me, it’ll be as good as the real thing.” The “American” boy is intrigued. He wants to be a millionaire, and you’ve got to start somewhere. His rags-to-riches story might take off from playing the lead in an amateur production. Who knows? He can see the headlines already: FROM THE PROJECTS IN THE PONTINE MARSHES TO A SEVEN-BEDROOM VILLA IN HOLLYWOOD. Like Jim Carrey and Jessica Chastain. Like Emma Stone in La La Land. He wants to buy his parents a house, where his father will finally have a big kitchen with the one-thousand-euro food processor he’s always said he wants before he dies. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do this, guys.”

Unlucky for them, not all the kids are moved by such lofty aspirations. The freckled girl has grown to like the theater well enough, but only in the most concrete sense of the word. She might concede that the building, seemingly stable and already roofed, does its job as a shelter from the rain. However, becoming a star is not in her plans, which involve studying environmental engineering and being a brain drainee in Australia. When it comes to the hulking boy and the girl with a henna tattoo, on the other hand, I guess you could call their ambitions “artistic” if you consider love to be a form of art. A painting or a poem is seldom interesting when it’s uncomplicated and its meaning transparent. Similarly, it would be too straightforward and easy for these two smitten kids to simply ask each other out, so instead they give each other fleeting glances and faint smiles, their lips quivering, their fingers itching to reach out and touch the other’s skin.

“Who the fuck did this shit?”

Clearly the indigo girl doesn’t like what she’s seeing today. And how could you blame her? On the parapet of the boxes, on the right side, some graffiti has cropped up, and nothing about it would lead them to think that the tagger might turn out to be the next Banksy. BITCHES CAN SUCK MY DICK, accompanied by an unambiguously phallic drawing. The hulking boy blushes and averts his eyes. The indigo girl is outraged at the desecration of the venue and googles “how to remove graffiti,” only to learn that she can’t simply scrub it off with bleach and water. The daub is there to stay. Gone is the confidence that when the workers come back, they will find everything exactly as they left it. The end has begun, thanks to what the indigo girl calls “a jerk with no regard for public property.” In her eyes, the graffiti counts as an act of self-sabotage. The freckled girl tells her not to fret too much about it. After all, isn’t this kind of like the beginning of In the Heights? (The musical was the indigo girl’s favorite a couple of months ago, and the kids all know the plot and the songs by heart at this point.) The indigo girl hesitates but eventually agrees, and as they walk home later tonight, the kids will feel a bit like the protagonists of In the Heights, torn between their yearning to leave this godforsaken town and their dogged determination to save it.

The henna girl already has a project in store, its blueprint mapped out down to the tiniest detail in her mind. She’s going to redeem what used to be their favorite bar by turning it into a board-game pub where a fusion of Italian food and Chinese, Romanian, Pakistani, and Ecuadoran dishes will be served. When someone expresses doubt that she’ll succeed, she says “Watch me” and smiles a knowing
smile. Little does she know, however, that she’ll be the first one to leave, and that her departure won’t be a glorious flight to Berlin or Shanghai or New York but merely a relocation to another lousy hole after her mother’s employer presents her with a simple choice: either she moves her whole family to the North or she loses her job. What good would it do the henna girl’s mother to say that it makes no difference where her ass is sitting—whether in the office here or in another branch in the North—since all she does at work is exchange emails with co-workers in India and Poland and oversee contracts negotiated on the Internet? She keeps quiet and holds on tight to the family’s only source of income. She agrees to go. The henna girl must go with her.

Farewell, native home. Farewell, ye mountains of trash at the side of the roads, ye school nicknamed Alcatraz, which now sounds like a term of endearment instilling tenderness in the girl’s heart. Farewell, hulking boy, who on the last day almost shies away from hugging the henna girl, though eventually they’re in each other’s arms, and the warmth of their bodies feeds their imagination about what they could have had: timid kisses in the privacy of the backstage, hands held in a mild PDA, and, who knows, perhaps even undressing to expose the flesh and find out what happens after a lovemaking scene fades to black. All they say before the henna girl leaves is “Let’s keep in touch.” But “touch” is a treacherous word, because touching is what they won’t be doing when they text and group-Skype, and the promises made online—”Of course I’ll come to visit you all!”—are never fulfilled, either because of the high price of the train tickets or because it is onerous to lead a double life, split between reality and what-ifs. And this is what the hulking boy’s reality will look like: though anatomy books will offer him some knowledge of women during his time in med school, he won’t be able to fathom how his own body could ever perform the biological functions that the books so accurately describe; he will never quite think of himself as a suitable protagonist for a rom-com, and even when he falls in love again at the age of twenty-seven, he will dawdle in the first act for far too long, held back by his fear of attachment, his fear of loss, the chance that his desires might never be satisfied.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kids are still sixteen years old and still sitting in the orchestra, though there’s only three of them now. It’s been a few weeks since the last time the hulking boy joined them, and they already think of two months ago as “back in the old days,” which is what their grandparents say when they talk about the postwar years and the economic boom. None of them speaks of the theater being finished anymore. Perhaps they worry that they’d jinx their wishes if they voiced them, so instead they discuss what happened this morning at school, and to say “Fingers crossed that Mrs. Narducci won’t test me next week” is as much as they dare to hope out loud.

The theater is now littered with smashed beer bottles and cigarette butts. Graffiti has mushroomed all around the building, even in places where the kids haven’t been brave enough to venture. “Pigs,” the indigo girl mutters, booting a can of Red Bull and sending it bouncing down the tiers toward the stage. The freckled girl glances at it but doesn’t move. She used to pick up the trash, but lately it’s started to feel like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Whatever, the workers will clean up. If they ever come back. In the meantime, the “pigs” serve the role of common enemy, which history has proved time and again to constitute the most resistant of social glues. The kids fantasize about catching the hooligans red-handed, as the saying goes, their hands in this case literally red with spray paint. The indigo girl imagines a scenario à la West Side Story, with the two gangs of kids glaring at one another, not foreseeing that it’ll be the American boy she’ll have to face one day to save this place from destruction.

When the day comes, she screams at him to stop while he punches the walls and kicks the pillars, as though he is trying to tear the building down with his blows. His knuckles are bleeding. His eyes are red from crying, and all they see now, when they look at the theater, is six million euros’ worth of waste. How many things can you buy with six million euros? Loads of food and clothes and infinite months of rent and bills. A man’s life—the American boy’s father’s, who three days ago hung himself outside of the factory where he used to work, because he couldn’t bear not being able to provide for his children, as any good father is supposed to do. How expensive hopes can be, and what’s the use of a half-finished theater, anyway? The American boy climbs the scaffolding in a fury, aiming for the top. The two girls go after him, terrified that he might decide to follow his father and jump off, but he only wants to feel the strength of his muscles, to make sure that a heart is still pounding in his ribcage. “Leave me alone!” he shouts when the indigo girl grabs him by the arm, and after he shoves her away, she falters backwards and bumps against the freckled girl, who slips off the platform and falls onto the stage.

Something cracks when she touches the ground. Perhaps a femur. Perhaps her spine. The freckled girl’s thoughts are too fuzzy to make an accurate assessment, though she can see with clarity that her friends are climbing down toward her, and when the indigo girl yells “I’m calling an ambulance!” she’s keenly aware of what this means. The town will find out that the kids have been trespassing on the construction site. Parents will worry that their foolhardy children will be the next to come back home with a fractured bone, or to not come back home at all. Concerned citizens will rally to demand the razing of the building, and in a few months, when municipal elections are held, the demolition of the Lavinium Theater will be among the campaign promises on every candidate’s leaflet, and perhaps the easiest one for the future mayor to keep. What an unhappy ending for the kids, right? And yet, if you look closely, you will see that the freckled girl is actually smiling. The demolition company her father works for has not been doing too well lately. He’ll be glad to hear that there’s business coming their way.

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Chorus Line

Daisy Fried

Chorus Line

After she handwashed
in a mint green pail
eleven pairs
of black tights
then hung them
on the PVC clothesline
out back, she found
the early evening
air grew too
chilly so went
in to read more
Middlemarch
on her Kindle
though her currently
difficult husband
was also within,
“divided between
the impulse to
laugh aloud
and the equally
unseasonable
impulse to burst
into scornful
invective,” and so
from the corner
of her eye she
didn’t notice beyond
the window
four deflated legs
twining into helixes
while others kicked
out at the too close
cement block wall,
risking catching
and tearing holes in
their nylon silk blend.

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A Monkey Thing

Daisy Fried

A Monkey Thing

Inside the plate glass window, I’m putting my whites in, and bleach, and my denims, and lights, darks, and hots and handwashes, when the tourbus grinds to the curb outside to drop the teenage Southwest Drum and Bugle Corps at Clean Laundry, South Philly. There it idles, its slab sides silver, decaled script and musical notes America-colored. The kids debark pell-mell and fill, apologetically, the aisle between the washers and dryers, politely vying to put loads in, bonking their duffels to the ground, pausing confused at the change machine chucking chains of quarters into their hands and the little basin. They excavate Tide pods their moms left like chocolates in their bag bottoms. One drops to the floor, I pick it up, in my hand it has the weight and flex of a small testicle. I hand it back.

I’m invisible as air in the interstices of their conversation. Caden, Corie, Braden, Jordan, Jaden or Jerry from Albuquerque or Pasadena made some mistake at last night’s armory showcase, so they didn’t win, but gave it their all, made strides and their best effort, they’ll shake it off and, next year, nail it. Are we going to see Suicide Squad this afternoon, a teen girl says to a boy group the aisle’s full of. They lean at her with meaty lurches, swig from water bottles they unclip from belt loops and knapsacks.

But one kid’s saying how this creepy teacher, he hits on girl students like all the time, it’s gross … Does it matter? Does it? In this light, matter? “Sorry, I’m a teacher,” I say, “and a mom, and that shouldn’t be happening. You should tell somebody in authority.” They nod, shrug, turn to their affairs.

It’s interesting, being invisible, watching myself utterly unwatched.

Sixteen, I said to the volleyball player, 28, from my co-ed all-ages JCC team, who flirted and drove me home after practice, “do you want to fool around?”

“Sounds nice,” he said, never touching me, waiting for me to get out of the car, never offered to drive me home again. I heard he died young, though he lives in my mind today, with his bald spot, hard spike, already fattening belly.

If you get up early, in Paris, and walk to the zoo so you get in just as it opens, pay your way in, pass the other dispiriting exhibits, with the cud chewers, their tongues hanging out, and the sadness of thick-tailed leopards in cramped tiny jungle spaces, barely able to prowl down a hill; and ignoring the shitty peacocks, displaying their iridescent astonishments to no one who cares, with stressful screams like babies in pain; then you might round a corner—if you’re early enough—to see the baboons come out, like clowns from an improbable car, released fighting from their unknowable indoor pens to the outdoor space along the artificial rockface where they spend their daytimes. And your baby girl, a perpetual warm lump in your arms, extends her arms toward them.

They were quiet all night, you believe, and if not free now, freer, and they flash, swing, jump, chatter, and shriek at each other. They’re so killingly angry. Why don’t they kill each other? There are so many of them, how could they fit inside wherever they are, nights, and do they hate? Is hate a monkey thing? Is anger a constant baboon state, or is it the tiniest opportunity in the suggestion of breeze on the outdoor air that changes things? It’s like an energy, electric, transferring beast to beast to beast, any dissipation barely noticeable at first but there’s an eventual stilling until, bored, they settle down to watch themselves watched.

How inexperienced I am. How inexperienced I still am.

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Kennedy

Kevin Wilson

Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was a boy in our high school, but he went by Kennedy. For a brief time, he made things pretty bad for us. We’d started our junior year without ever having exchanged a single word with him, had only seen him as he stalked the hallways, his long, greasy hair covering his face, his Coke-bottle glasses. He always wore this olive green military jacket with the name KENNEDY stitched across the right breast. Underneath that, he seemed to have every single Cannibal Corpse T-shirt in existence, a never-ending parade of skeletons and knives and blood and people with the skin ripped off their faces. He wasn’t allowed to wear the T-shirts at school, since they were against the dress code, so he wore the jacket over them, even when it was hot out, and if he sensed your weakness, he’d open his jacket and flash the T-shirt at you as he passed you in the hallway.

Ben and I were best friends, each other’s only friend, really. There were other people we liked fine enough, and sometimes we’d hang out, but Ben and I were constant. I liked the steadiness of his friendship, that if I ever reached out into the darkness, he would be there. We had known each other since we were six years old, when his family had moved here to Coalfield from Seattle because his dad taught sociology at the tiny liberal arts college in town. Ben was the only Japanese kid in Coalfield, though there were some Chinese kids who were adopted and a Korean family who ran a Chinese restaurant. He wrote experimental poetry, had won a national contest for high school kids the year before. I was just a regular kid, pretty smart, but I’d been protected by my parents, which had left me without street smarts, with no sense of how to navigate high school. My parents still kissed me on the lips, and when they hugged me, it was always for slightly longer than I wanted it to be. We played bridge after dinner, my parents and I and my younger sister; we listened to Simon and Garfunkel records, my mom singing along. The idea of going to a party, or the football game on Friday nights, never would have occurred to me or Ben. We hunkered down, made our own happiness, and hoped that maybe we’d figure things out by the time we left Coalfield and went off to college.

Kennedy ended up in our art class in our junior year. The room was some kind of converted garage, cement floors splattered with paint, and there were all these huge, heavy tables, where we sat on stools while the teacher, Mrs. Banks, lounged on a recliner in the corner of the room because her back was messed up. She barked out instructions, and we’d follow them to the best of our abilities. On the first day of classes, a minute after the late bell rang, Kennedy skulked over to the table where Ben and I were sitting and threw his backpack down so hard that it flew across the table’s surface and hit Ben’s arm. Ben took the pain without complaint. And maybe that was all Kennedy needed, that certainty that he could hurt us and we’d never tell.

Our first assignment was to do a figure drawing from this little twelve-inch wooden mannequin. Ben was pretty good at it, had always been a decent artist, and had sketched out a pretty perfect representation, but I was having trouble with it, couldn’t make the individual parts of the figure come together. Kennedy just took a graphite pencil and pressed it so hard to the paper that it nearly ripped it apart. He drew the most basic stick figure and then drew X’s where the eyes would be. “Look at this shit,” he said to me, but I tried to ignore him, still trying to get my drawing right. He suddenly punched me in the arm so hard that I gasped. “Look,” he said. Even though he was so greasy, so scuzzy, his skin was perfect and pale, not a mark of acne. His eyes looked wavy beneath the thick lenses of his glasses, but they were an intense blue.

I looked down at the drawing, the dead figure. “Yeah, OK,” I said. I went back to my own drawing. “That’s you,” he said. I just shrugged. Mrs. Banks was far away from us, maybe asleep. I stood up. “I need to get some water,” I said, and walked to the drinking fountain in the hallway, where I took a long, sustained sip. I could feel my face burning with the fear of what Kennedy might do to me, and I took several deep breaths. When I got back, Ben was staring at me with this look of alarm, like he was trying to silently warn me of some impending doom. I sat back down and
looked at my drawing. A huge, cartoonish dick had been appended to my figure. “Oh, man,” I said, looking at Kennedy, who was completely focused on his own drawing, acting like he had no idea what was going on. “C’mon, Kennedy. Please.”

“What?” he said. “Oh, wow, look at that. You like huge cocks, I guess? You look like you love big dicks.”

I tried to erase the dick, but even after I’d rubbed and rubbed, the outline was still visible on the paper. So I flipped to the next sheet of the pad and started over. While I drew, Kennedy leaned toward Ben and slapped his arm. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, you, Nip. What’s your name?”

“Ben,” Ben whispered.

“Hey, Ben,” Kennedy said. “You see that guy over there?”

I couldn’t help but look, too, and we turned to see Eric Murdock at one of the far tables. He had a full mustache and was wearing a tank top.

“That guy has a huge dick,” Kennedy said. “I saw it in the locker room. Twelve inches, probably.”

“OK,” Ben said.

“And he’s a virgin. Can’t get a girl to fuck him. Hey!” He punched Ben’s arm. “What do you think about that?”

“Nothing,” Ben said.

“What’s his name?” Kennedy asked Ben, pointing at me.

“Jamie,” Ben said.

“What about you, shithead?” Kennedy asked me.

“Well,” I said, “maybe girls don’t want to have sex with a twelve-inch penis.”

“I know a lot of girls who would like to bounce around on that thing,” Kennedy said. “Older girls. Women.”

When it became clear to Kennedy that we weren’t going to give him anything of substance, he started drawing devil horns and a tail on his stick figure and pentagrams dancing around its head. He didn’t talk to us again, like we didn’t exist, like he hadn’t punched both of us so goddamned hard, talked about huge dicks. Ben and I were grateful for the reprieve. We thought maybe that would be the end of things, that Kennedy would move on and we’d be safe.

After school, I drove Ben to his house in my hand-me-down Chevy Cavalier and we stumbled inside. We hadn’t said a word about Kennedy for the entire drive, partly because we didn’t know what to say, how we could talk about him without saying the word “dick” a bunch of times. We’d already done all of our homework during study hall, the work easy because it was only the first day, and so we ran past his mom, who translated poetry and complicated technical manuals from Japanese into English, and closed the door to his room. We decided to go old-school, put Contra in the Nintendo, eschewing the secret code that would have let us gain unlimited lives, and worked ourselves into a state of complete numbness, our eyes glazed over, like we’d plugged our brains into a machine and, in return for our full attention, it had made us happy, our bodies ice cold.

We were both obsessed with video games. We spent every dollar of our allowances on new games, and because we shared everything, we could buy twice as many. Ben had a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo, an old Atari 2600, plus a
Game Boy and even a Game Gear. I had the two Nintendo systems, plus a Sega Genesis and a Sega Master System. We would play for hours; sometimes I’d play until my hands were paralyzed, until I could no longer bend my fingers, and I would simply hand the controller, mid-game, to Ben, who would pick it up without missing a beat. It wasn’t enough to finish a game; we had to beat it in record time, playing the same board over and over and over until we figured out how to clear it as fast as possible. As each of us played, the other would whisper, “Go, go, go, go,” and it
sounded as steady as a heartbeat.

We had to have the highest scores. And when we got them, we took photos of the screen, turning off all the lights in the room until it was pitch black, wiping the screen clean with Windex so there were no smudges. Ben even had a tripod to steady the camera. And even with a perfect picture, when we got the photos developed, the images were still slightly blurred, and you could see the rounded
edges of the CRT screen. We’d get doubles, one for each of us. We kept them in a photo album, labeled and carefully curated. We thought, maybe, this might help us get into a top-notch college. Even if it didn’t, who cared? For those hours, our bodies were the bodies on the screen, and we kept them alive for as long as we possibly could.

Finally, after three hours of gaming, Ben’s mom called us to dinner. I always loved the food at Ben’s house, dishes like seaweed crumbled up in a bowl of pristine rice, a raw egg cracked over it. And Ben loved eating at my house, so many casseroles, so many variations of starch, cheese, and meat. That night, Ben’s mom had made somen noodles that we dipped into little bowls of hon-dashi and soy sauce,
little dried shrimp floating in the bowl, that fishy taste that made me so happy.

“How was school?” asked Mr. Nakamura, and Ben and I looked at each other for a second too long. “That bad?” Mr. Nakamura said.

“It was OK,” Ben finally said. How would we even begin to describe Kennedy? What could be done? I stuffed a bunch of noodles into my mouth, slurping them up. “It was fine,” I agreed. And that was that. It was like, in missing that moment when things were still normal, we had given up any chance of controlling Kennedy’s effect on our lives. He had us. If he wanted us, whatever he wanted, he could have us.

But things were OK for a week or two. Kennedy would tease us, trying to gross us out, prodding at our bodies, testing for weak spots. He’d grab my ear and twist it, making me yell out, which would rouse Mrs. Banks to an upright position, but she’d just call for order and that would be that. He once said that he doubted that Ben had
any pubic hair, and tried to pull down his pants, but Ben held on to his belt, until Kennedy grew bored. “You guys are the fucking worst,” he would say, staring at us like we were Sea-Monkeys he’d ordered that had immediately disappointed him.

We didn’t do anything. We didn’t tell Mrs. Banks, since we couldn’t imagine what she would do. We didn’t sit at another table, surround ourselves with other people for protection. We didn’t fight back. Now I understand it: we had stayed invisible for so long that we weren’t used to people noticing us, and so when Kennedy noticed us, shined a light on us, we simply froze, simply sat there and
took it, all these little indignities, and hoped that he would fuck up in some other class and get suspended, a temporary reprieve.

One day Mrs. Banks told us that we were going to work in groups. Each group was to create a replica of the Parthenon out of cardboard. The project was going to take a week to complete and would require a lot of precision work.

“How many people per group?” Ben asked, his voice quavery and weird.

“Three,” she said. “Yes, three per group.”

Ben visibly deflated, and Kennedy smiled. “You fuckers thought you could get away from me?” he asked.

“It’s not that,” I said. “We just like working with each other.”

“Yeah,” Kennedy said, leering. “I bet you like working with each other. Working each other’s dicks in your mouths.”

“C’mon, Kennedy,” I said.

“You are the fairiest fairy that I’ve ever seen. What kind of music do you like?”

There was no way that I was going to tell him that my favorite album was Tevin Campbell’s I’m Ready. I wasn’t going to tell him that I liked Britpop.

“Heavy metal,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” he said, slowly nodding. “Like what?”

“Ratt?” I said, like I was in a spelling bee and had never heard the word before in my life.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he said, laughing.

“That’s metal,” I said, confused. “I know it is.”

“You need to listen to death metal,” he said. “You need to listen to Mayhem.

The lead singer killed himself and then another guy in the band made a stew with his brains.”

“That’s awful,” Ben said, and he sounded like a grandmother who’d just heard that a lady at her church had cancer.

“You two …,” he said, but didn’t say anything else. He just stared at us. “I’m gonna work on you two.”

At my house, Ben and I played Donkey Kong Country. I used a stopwatch while Ben tried to run as quickly as possibly through the board, chaining rolls together to keep the speed boost, plowing through enemies instead of taking time to jump on them. It was hypnotic, so calming. “You’re doing it,” I said, smiling. Ben worked his hands on the controller, could almost do this blindfolded.

“I’m scared,” he suddenly said.

“Of the game?” I asked, confused, looking at the screen.

“Of Kennedy. I’m scared of him,” Ben said.

“Me, too, I guess,” I said.

“What do we do?” he asked.

“Nothing. What can we do?” I really had no clue.

“Go to the principal. Go to the police. He’s going to hurt us.”

“It would be so embarrassing,” I said.

“I know,” he said. Right at this moment, he got dinged by an enemy, and he cursed, tossing the controller to the ground. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the controller. “You take over.”

We switched positions and I started the game over, the side-scrolling making me wonder if the game would ever end, the way it kept opening up. I wanted it to never end.

“We should kill him,” I said.

“No way,” Ben said. “Not even as a joke.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said after a few seconds.

“We’ll be OK,” I said.

“OK,” he said, but he sounded sad. I turned away from the game, watched it reflected in Ben’s eyes, the colors so beautiful.

Our Parthenon was a disaster. Ben and I simply didn’t have the kind of brain for three-dimensional building. Nothing quite made sense, no matter how long we stared at the photo of the Parthenon—the one in Nashville, not in Greece. And Kennedy, dear Lord, he did everything possible to mess it up. I wondered how he’d made it this far in school when it was so clear how little he cared, how he would dare anyone in authority to do something about it. But it was like he was invisible to people in charge. I couldn’t figure it out.

We had to use a hot glue gun to set the pieces of cardboard, and Kennedy immediately took control of it. While we were holding the pieces together, waiting for the glue, Kennedy would touch the tip of the gun, burning hot, to our fingers, sometimes even squirting the hot glue onto our skin. We’d yelp, and Kennedy would howl with laughter.

“Kennedy, seriously,” Ben said. “Don’t do that again.”

“OK,” he said, still giggling. “OK, you’re right. Sorry. OK, hold it steady. I’ll really do it this time.”

And then he’d burn us again. At the end of the day, Ben and I held up our hands for inspection and noted all the little burns, purple and angry, that covered our hands. Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.

That Friday, the last day of the project, we still had a lot to do, because Kennedy kept breaking our Parthenon out of spite. The night before, I’d had anxiety dreams where for the first time I got a grade lower than an A because Kennedy fucked it up for me. I couldn’t get into any colleges. In the dream, my parents kept asking, “What’s wrong? How did this happen?” which was crazy because my parents only asked that I do my best, barely even checked my grades. And now we had to stay after school, the three of us in the art room, in order to finish the Parthenon. We’d begged Kennedy to go home, to let us finish it on our own, but he’d insisted he wanted to be there, to make sure it was up to his standards.

So it was just the three of us, not even Mrs. Banks in her recliner, which was where Kennedy was now lounging, violently yanking on the lever to make the leg support unfold. He put a Morbid Angel album on the cassette player, which during class only ever played John Tesh jazz. After about an hour, we had something that resembled the Parthenon. We carried it over to the work table and put it next to the other Parthenons.

“OK, Kennedy,” Ben said. “We’re finished.”

“We’re not finished until I sign off,” Kennedy said, hopping out of the chair. He walked past the supply cabinet and grabbed an X-Acto knife, which made both of us instantly stiffen. He tested the point of the blade on the tip of his finger. A little pinprick of blood appeared. “C’mon, Kennedy,” I said. We backed away from him, putting a table between us.

“Calm down, pussies,” he finally said, slipping the blade into the front pocket of his jacket. Then he picked up our Parthenon and held it up in the air as if he was going to slam it to the ground.

“Kennedy!” we both shouted, and he gently put it back down on the table.

“Excellent work,” he said. “Makes these other Parthenons look like a fucking joke.”

“OK, great,” I said. “We have to go now.”

“Where are you going?” he asked, looking curious, as if he had never once considered the possibility that we had lives away from him.

“We’re going to my house,” I said. “Play some video games.”

“I could come over, too, if you want,” he said, and he wasn’t smiling. We couldn’t tell if he was serious.

“His mom’s pretty strict,” Ben said, thinking quickly. “She’s a hard-ass. I can’t bring people over without her OK first.”

“Well, tell you what. Next week, I’m coming over. Play some of these video games. Have fun. But right now, I need you guys to give me a ride. I missed my bus, because you fuckers couldn’t glue cardboard together. So give me a ride, OK?”

“OK,” I said. “I guess so.”

Kennedy got in the back seat of my car, and I was terrified of what he might do there, where I couldn’t quite see him. I thought he might cover my eyes while I was driving, kick at the back of my seat the entire ride. But he just kind of fell across the entire back seat, lying on his back.

“Drive out to the soccer fields,” he told us. “Over on Wrigley. Then turn onto Bald Knob Road. Bald fucking knob. Har-har. You two have bald knobs, I bet.”

For the rest of the ride, Kennedy just lay there, not making a sound. “OK,” I said as I made the turn, “I’m on Bald Knob Road.”

“Two twenty-two,” he replied. “Buncha shit in the front yard.”

We pulled up to a one-story ranch, and he was right, there was a bunch of shit in the front yard. There were two busted riding mowers, a burned-black steel drum with blackened pieces of wood sticking out of it.

He didn’t get out of the car.

“We’re here,” I said after a while.

“Just give me a minute,” he said. He didn’t move. I could hear him breathing, it was so quiet in the car.

“OK,” he said, jumping out of the car. “On Monday, I’m coming home with you.”

“Kennedy, I don’t—”

“Motherfucker, I’m coming over,” he said, leaning back through the open door, his face close to mine. “And if you try to leave me at school, drive off without me, I’ll look you up in the phone book and then I’ll come over there. And it will be bad fucking news for you two.”

“OK,” I said. “OK, you can come over.”

“Have a good weekend,” he said, running to the house.

We sat there for a while, my hands shaking.

“I think I’m sick, Jamie,” Ben said. I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror and was surprised at how pale I looked.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“It’ll be OK,” I said. “He won’t do anything with my mom there, and my sister too.”

“Are you serious?” Ben asked. “He’s going to kill us.”

“He won’t,” I said. “He’s just testing us. He’s just messing with us.”

“Maybe,” Ben said, but his look was far off, like something had glitched in his brain.

“Do you want to play video games?” I asked.

“Maybe just drop me off at home,” he replied. “I don’t feel so great. I think I need to rest.”

When I dropped him off, I grabbed his arm, and I hated the way he flinched when I did it. But I still held on to him. “We’ll protect each other,” I said. “OK?”

Ben nodded. “OK,” he said.

“If he did something to you, Ben,” I said, almost crying, “I really would kill him.”

Ben smiled and got out of the car. I didn’t see him the rest of the weekend, didn’t even pick up the phone.

On Monday, when school was over, Ben and I stood outside my car, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for Kennedy. “We should just go right now,” Ben said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“He’ll just follow us home,” I told him. I had completely given up. If Kennedy wanted to kill me, if he wanted to wrap his hands around my throat and squeeze, I would let him. Ben, I think, was still hoping there was some way out of this, some code we could punch in that would open up a secret room, a place we could hide, a place where we couldn’t be hurt. I was beyond that. Whatever happened, I just wanted to get it over with.

Kennedy finally showed up, nodding his approval that we’d waited for him. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have to be home by five or my dad will kick my fucking ass.”

My mom treated Kennedy like he was a street urchin in a Broadway musical, shaking his hand, saying how nice it was that Ben and I had added a friend to our little crew. Kennedy seemed stunned by her easy kindness, her offer of a Mountain Dew, because he barely even spoke, wouldn’t make eye contact with her. She let us get some snacks and then we were upstairs, in my room. Right away, my sister, Molly, peeked in, wanting to see this new boy, but we shouted her away, terrified, honestly. We had this unstable thing inside the house, and we wanted to keep it contained in my room so that we’d be the only people damaged when it blew up.

The night before, I’d hidden everything good, all my money, my comic books of any worth. I’d shoved it all in my closet, tossed some blankets over it. I even took the SNES, because I didn’t want it to get damaged, and put it away. I had looked around the room, wondering what I owned that Kennedy might linger on, that he might use against me. And, truly, it seemed like everything in the room would give him reason to beat me senseless.

“What game do you want to play?” I asked Kennedy, trying to be a good host.

“I never played a video game in my entire life,” he said without blinking.

I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with us.

“Are you serious?” Ben asked.

“Dead serious,” he said.

“What about the arcade?” Ben asked, as if it was unbelievable to him that someone our age had never played a video game.

“Nope,” Kennedy replied.

“Well, what do you want to play?” I asked. “What kind of game? Like, Mario Brothers or maybe a driving game?”

“Something where you kill people,” he said. “Duh.”

I looked at the games I had lined up on my bookshelf. Kennedy pushed me aside and brought his face close to the spines of the games. “Whoa,” he said finally. “Holy shit, this is Rambo. Like the movie Rambo?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”

“Can we play this?”

“Sure. It’s two-player, so we can work together.”

“Cool, cool, cool.”
I handed Kennedy a controller and turned on the system. The blue and white letters showed up on the screen, and then there was Sylvester Stallone, all buff, that red headband.

I started the game. “OK,” I said, “this button shoots bullets and then this one here shoots exploding arrows. Use those to blow up the tents and you’ll rescue the hostages.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“You’re the yellow headband and I’m the red headband.”

Within seconds of starting the game, Kennedy walked right into a bullet and his character fell over dead. But he started up again, another life. The same thing, dead.

“Jesus fuck!” he said. “This game is fucking hard.”

“Just try to dodge the bullets,” I said. “Don’t run ahead too far.”

“Oh, shit, thanks, fucker,” he said, his voice sarcastic.

“Avoid the bullets.”

We played a little and then Kennedy died again, which meant he’d have to restart, which he did. “This gun doesn’t do shit,” he said. “Let’s try these exploding arrows.”

“Wait, be careful,” I said, just as he fired an arrow right at my character, immediately killing me.

“Oh, shit, you can kill each other?” he said.

“Well—” I said, but before I could finish he shot another arrow at me, killing me again.

“OK,” Ben said, trying to help out, “but that’s not the point—”

“Eat shit, motherfucker,” Kennedy said, killing me again. After this third death, the game over screen came up for my side of the screen. I didn’t push the button to restart, just let Kennedy wander around until he finally got killed again.

“This is what you guys do all day?” he asked, throwing the controller on the ground. “This sucks.”

“Do you want to play something else?” I asked.

“You guys just play for now,” he said. “I’m going to look around, see where you hide your fucking dildos.”

Ben looked at me like How long can we do this? but we just picked up our controllers and started playing, clearing the board, moving up the screen. I tried not to look back at Kennedy, though I wondered what he was doing.

And then, just as we were settling into a groove, Kennedy slammed Ben to the ground, jumping on top of him and straddling him. He had a pillow in his hands, and he put it over Ben’s face. “Sneak attack!” Kennedy shouted, and Ben’s arms started flailing wildly, just pawing at the air, not doing anything to stop him. And I was frozen there, watching this, for at least five seconds, before I finally pushed Kennedy off of Ben, tackling him to the ground. Kennedy then grabbed me in a headlock, squeezing so hard that my ears popped.

“This is more like it,” he said. “This is fun.” His voice was monotone, like none of this was real, like he was acting in a play.

I couldn’t get free. After a while he got bored and let me go. I scooted away from him to the wall, where I panted, holding my neck.

“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.

“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”

“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.

He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”

“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”

“I better get home myself,” Ben said, not looking at me. “I’ve got homework to do.”

“What?” I said. “You’re not coming with me?”

“You’re not coming with me?” Kennedy said, his voice mocking and high-pitched.

“It’s just …” Ben looked toward the door. “I have all this homework.”

“Please?” I said. “Please come with me.”

Kennedy turned and walked out of the room. “Come on,” he said as he stomped down the stairs. I could hear him telling my mother goodbye, and her saying that he could come by anytime he liked.

“Please,” I asked Ben again, whimpering.

“OK,” Ben finally said. “OK.”

As we walked down the stairs, he stopped me for a second. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that wasn’t cool of me.”

“It’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t know what was going on, couldn’t tell if I was making too big a deal of this. In such a short time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as
it feels to me.

When we got to Kennedy’s house, he refused to get out of the car. “Come inside with me,” he kept saying—an insistent, monotonous refrain. “Come inside. Just come inside. Come inside. Come inside and see something.”

“Please, Kennedy,” I said. “It’s late.”

“We have homework,” Ben said.

“We have homework,” I corroborated.

“Just come inside,” he said again. “Come inside and let me just show you this one thing. This one thing and then you can go. Come inside. Come inside my house.”

Inside the house, his father, his head shaved bald, gray stubble for a beard, was sitting in a recliner, watching some old boxing match on TV.

“Hello, JFK,” his father said, muting the TV, but Kennedy didn’t respond, tried to push past. His father stood, was a giant in that room, his head nearly touching the ceiling. “Who did you bring into our house?”

“Just some guys,” Kennedy said.

“Friends?” his father asked, like it was the silliest thing in the world to suggest such a thing.

“What does it matter?” Kennedy asked.

“Who are you?” his father asked, turning to us.
“I’m Ben, Mr. Kennedy,” Ben replied, but I was still too nervous to respond.

“Ben’s Japanese, OK?” Kennedy said. “Not Vietnamese.”

“I know that,” his father said. “Jesus, son, do you think I don’t know what a Vietnamese looks like?” Then he turned back to Ben. “I respect your people. Let bygones be bygones and all that. You built a hell of a society out of the rubble of that mess. Hats off to you.”

“Thank you,” Ben said.

“Who are you?” he asked me.

“Jamie,” I said.

“You friends with Kennedy?”

“Kind of?” I said, like a question.

“We have, like, a class project to work on,” Kennedy said.

“Well, I guess I’ll let you get to it,” his father said. Awkwardly he resettled himself in the recliner and turned the volume back up. We walked down a long hallway, and as we passed each open room, I noted that it was much more ordered than I had expected, considering the disarray of the lawn. Perhaps it was thanks to his father’s military background that he kept the house so clean. He even used the same air freshener that my parents did. Inhaling its flowery scent, I had this temporary moment, this little period of grace, during which my body relaxed. And then we got to Kennedy’s room. There were two different locks on the door. He took some keys out of his pocket, undid them, and opened the door. Inside, his room was pretty well organized, the walls covered in posters of death metal bands, images that, if we hadn’t already been so bombarded by the ones on Kennedy’s T-shirts, would have terrified us. “Here, let me get some stuff out,” he said, and turned on his stereo. From the speakers a deep droning
immediately emanated.

“We need to go,” I said to Kennedy, but he wasn’t listening to me; it was kind of like we weren’t even there. He opened his closet and pulled out this long box, like you’d keep comic books in, and laid it at his feet. When he removed the top of the box, he gestured for us to come closer. I was certain that there would be human heads in the box, skeletal remains. I knew it would be bad. I knew it would be hard to forget.

Ben and I looked down into the box and saw all manner of chain and leather, everything shiny, pristine. Kennedy tapped the box with his foot and it rattled. “I ordered all this from a catalog,” he said. “I’ve got quite a collection.” He reached into the box and pulled up a bee’s nest of handcuffs, so many pairs that it was hard to count. He tossed them on his bed and then pulled out a black mask that had a zipper where the mouth should be. “Sometimes I sleep in this,” he said, smiling. He seemed so proud of these things, like we were all in a club together.

“I want you to do something for me,” he then said. “Can you do something for me?”

“We really want to go home, Kennedy,” Ben said, and now he really was crying.

“I want to go home.”

“You can go home in just a second,” Kennedy said. “All I need is for Jamie to lie down on the bed and put on those handcuffs.”

“I’m not going to do that,” I said.

“If you do it, then you and Ben can go home,” he said.

I don’t know why we didn’t run, but it didn’t even occur to me. It felt like the entire world had shrunk down to this single room, that the three of us were the only people still alive in it. And even though there were two of us and one of him, I knew that it didn’t matter. So I lay down on the bed.

“On your stomach,” he said, his voice forceful, deep.

I turned onto my stomach.

“And take off your shirt,” he said, which I did. Then he handcuffed my arms to some straps attached securely to the bed frame, one set of handcuffs for each hand. He clamped them so tight that the metal pinched my wrists and I gasped.

“Kennedy,” Ben said, but I choked out, “It’s OK, Ben. I’m OK.”

Kennedy was now cuffing my ankles, so that I was pinned to the bed. I heard him rustling around in the box, and then he returned to my line of sight, close to my face and holding a kind of whip, like an octopus, all these tendrils, solid black. “This is a flogger,” he said. “I’ve never used it on a real person before.”

“Kennedy,” I said. “I’m afraid.”

He knelt on the bed, and I felt the mattress sink. And then he whipped me, lightly at first, which just made me hiss, the air rushing out of me, and then harder—again, and again, and again. And I was outside my body, just floating
above it, and I was watching myself, and I was so sad that this was happening to me. I looked pretty bad; I could see it from up there. There were all these welts on my back, but I was just taking it, just lying there.

And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.

“Get him out of those handcuffs,” his father shouted, but Kennedy was muttering.

“What?” his father said. Ben was now whimpering, lying on the ground. I could just barely see him if I turned my head at an angle.

“I dropped the keys,” Kennedy finally said.

“Well, find them,” his father said.

For about two minutes, I listened as Kennedy crawled around the room on his hands and knees while his father stood there, towering over us. He turned off the music, and it was so quiet, the most total silence I’ve ever heard.

“OK,” Kennedy finally said, “here they are.” And he unclasped all four sets of handcuffs. And I was free.

“Let’s keep all this between ourselves, OK, boys?” his father said to Ben and me, but we weren’t really listening, couldn’t respond. I put my shirt on inside out. My hands were shaking. “I’ll see that Kennedy is properly disciplined for this.”

Ben helped me up off the bed, and the two of us stumbled through the house. I stepped on a plate and cracked it in two, but we just kept moving. When we got in the car, Ben locked the doors. We sat there. I put my head on the steering wheel and tried to breathe, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually breathing or not. I couldn’t tell if I was still alive.

“Can you drive?” Ben finally asked me, but I didn’t respond. “Here,” he said. “Get in the back seat. I’ll drive us home.”

I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Ben, who must have walked the half mile to his own house. I don’t remember talking to my parents, though I must have. I don’t remember doing my homework, but in the morning it was all done. I don’t remember taking a shower, how badly it must have hurt when the water touched those welts, some of which were trickling blood. I only remember that I woke up around two in the morning, the entire house quiet, and I turned on my Nintendo, and I played Super Mario Bros., running so fast, finding every single shortcut, just running and jumping, not letting a single thing touch me, running and running, until I’d finished the game. And then I just started over, kept running, until the sun came up.

Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day. In art class, we were making African ceremonial masks out of clay, and Ben and I sat alone at our table, not talking, not saying anything. At the end of the day, I dropped Ben off at his house and then went home. I played video games. I let the pixels burn colors into my irises. I let my brain go away. I sat inside my room and made everything quiet.

And Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day, either, or the next, and with each day that he wasn’t there, I felt worse, this kind of dread building up in my stomach. I don’t remember much of those days except that Ben was not really a part of them, and how lonely that felt. It was worse than what Kennedy had done to us, the knowledge that Ben and I might not be friends anymore.

On the third day, my parents came into my bedroom and closed the door so my sister wouldn’t hear. “We’re worried about you, Jamie,” my mom said. “Something’s not right. We just got off the phone with Mrs. Nakamura and she said that Ben has been depressed, listless. We said we’d noticed the same with you. Now, here’s what we want to know. And we trust you, so we’re going to ask you this. And I hope you know how much we love you, and how nothing that you do will ever change that.”

“OK,” I said, slow to keep up.

“Are you and Ben experimenting with drugs?” she asked, both she and my father leaning in, like I was going to whisper some secret in their ears. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. I was good. I was a good kid. I kept telling myself this while they waited for me to respond, that I was a good kid, that I was good.

“We’re not taking drugs, Mom,” I told her, and they both let out this long exhalation, like they were so relieved and things could be normal again. “I’m just nervous, you know, about my grades, about school, about getting into a good college. Ben is, too. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Then they went on and on about how proud of me they were, how much they loved me, and how, no matter what, I was going to make something of myself, I was going to find a way to contribute to the world and make my mark. And it made me love them so much, I wanted to cry. But I also wanted them to leave, wanted them far, far away from me. Then they hugged me, and then they were gone.

Only once I was sure that they were gone for good did I pick up a controller and start playing.

The next day, Kennedy was back at school, sitting at our table in the art room before Ben or I had even arrived. We stood frozen in the doorway until a kid behind us bumped into us and pushed us farther into the room. Kennedy had a spectacular black eye, and two of his fingers were taped together with a splint. And this made me happy. It gave me the strength to walk over to that table and sit down.

“Long time no see, pussies,” Kennedy said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He looked sunken, sallow. He looked like a zombie.
Neither Ben nor I said a word. We went over to the work table and retrieved our African masks, which had hardened and which we were now painting. Mrs. Banks lectured Kennedy on how far behind he was and then plopped a lump of clay in front of him. After she went back to her recliner, he took a wire brush and simply stabbed the clay, over and over again, slowly.

We worked in silence, only the sounds of John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks playing on the boombox.

Toward the end of class, Kennedy leaned toward us. “I want you guys to come over again. Tonight. I want to show you something.”

“No way,” Ben said. “Never again.”

“You have to come,” Kennedy said. “If you don’t come, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”

I couldn’t even speak, couldn’t look at Kennedy. Ben said, “Never. We’re never coming over.” And I think if Ben wasn’t there that day, I would have gone over to Kennedy’s that night.

“If you are not at my house tonight …” Kennedy said, but that was it. He just stared at us. He jabbed the brush into the clay and then walked out of the classroom, ten minutes before class was over. Mrs. Banks didn’t even notice.

“We’re not going, OK?” Ben said to me, and he touched my arm. He held it there until I looked at him. “OK?” he said. “We are not going.”

“OK,” I finally said, nodding. “OK.”

At the end of school, we were certain that Kennedy would be standing next to our car, waiting for us, but he wasn’t there. We got into the car as quickly as possible and actually burned rubber getting out of the parking lot, the back of the car swerving for a few seconds until I straightened it out. As we drove, I looked over at Ben, who was frowning.

“Can I come over today?” he asked me, and I thought about it for a few seconds.

“OK,” I said. “Yeah.”

We locked ourselves in our room and played Double Dragon, punching and kicking and whipping every cartoony thug that got in our way. We stood with our backs to each other and beat the living shit out of everyone that tried to hurt us. It was too easy to be therapeutic, but it didn’t make us feel worse. And a few hours passed, and my mom called us for dinner. “Are you OK?” Ben asked when I turned off the system.

“Not really,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Me either,” he said. “But it’ll get better, OK?”

“You’re my best friend,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it. I guess I needed him to know it.

“You’re my best friend, too,” he said, smiling.

At the dinner table, over meatloaf and green bean casserole, my parents asked us about our day, and we talked about the masks we’d made in art class, how Ben’s kind of looked like a fish-man and how mine was supposed to be a wolf but looked more like an anteater. And my sister talked about gymnastics, some tumbling technique she’d learned, but it was hard to picture it from her description. And then the phone rang, and I jumped up to get it, walking back into the kitchen for the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hey, Jamie,” Kennedy said, and I felt my whole body go numb. I dropped the phone, and it swung there on its cord for a few seconds.

“Who is it?” my dad asked. “Tell them it’s dinnertime.”

I picked up the phone again, and there was silence on the other end. Finally Kennedy said, “Hello?”

“It’s me,” I said.

“You didn’t come,” he said, and he sounded sad, betrayed.

“No,” I said.

“I shot my dad,” he said. “I just did it. With a shotgun. While he was watching TV. It was … it was pretty horrible.”

I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to start laughing. “I really did it. That’s what I wanted you and Ben to see. I wanted you to see it. I wanted all three of us to be here. But you didn’t come.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“I’m not lying, motherfucker,” he said, his voice finally taking on some kind of life. “I just called the cops. They’re sending someone over here. That’s why I was calling too. I wondered if your parents could get me a good lawyer. I need someone really good. I’m eighteen, Jamie. I’m an adult. I’m fucked.”

“You’re lying,” I said, “to fuck with me and Ben.”

“Fair enough,” he said. I heard sirens on his end of the line.

“I wish you had come over,” he said. “I liked you guys. You and Ben. I thought you were OK.”

“I have to go, Kennedy,” I said.

“OK,” he said. “They’re here anyways.”

I hung up the phone and walked back into the dining room.

“Who the heck was that?” my dad asked.

I looked at Ben, and his eyes were so wide open.

“Some guy in our math class,” I said. “He wanted to know what the homework was.”

“Well, your food’s getting cold,” my mom said.

I sat next to Ben, and we both pushed our food around, listening to my parents talk to each other, their voices happy.

“Can Ben spend the night?” I asked them suddenly.

“On a school night?” my mom replied.

“Please?” I asked.

“If it’s OK with his parents, then yeah, OK,” my mother aid. Under the table, Ben reached for my hand and squeezed it. He held on to it for the rest of dinner, and it steadied me. It kept me inside my own body, because I wanted to float away again.

In my room, the door locked, I told Ben about Kennedy, what he said he’d done.

“I don’t think he’s lying,” Ben said.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” I said. “I guess.”

We were silent. And then I started crying and shaking. And Ben held on to me. “I hope he did,” I said. “I really hope he did it, and he’s not coming back.”

“Me, too,” Ben said, and now he was crying, too, but not like me, not like I was.

“I’m so sorry,” Ben said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I said.

What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.

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Houses of the Holy

Cameron Thomas Snyder

Houses of the Holy

One century ended while another century began and my older brother and I found ourselves getting dragged like luggage, yet again, from one place we didn’t want to be in Kansas to some other place we didn’t want to be in Kansas. All around me things were beginning or things were ending.

We were in the family Bonneville, on our way to the Plum Tree for Mother’s Day dinner, when my stepfather fell into a fit of rage. He pulled over and told us, his stepfamily, to get out of the car. We got out and huddled together like tangled trash on the shoulder of the busy two-lane highway, wincing at the wind from every passing vehicle, while in the idling car my stepfather screamed. I knew then that we would not be wolfing down platefuls of much desired chicken-on-a-stick, nor cracking open manila-folder-colored cookies containing scraps of paper telling our future; our future had been predetermined by a human Harley with a poor sense of humor and a foul-smelling handlebar mustache.

After his anger subsided, he told us to get back in the car. We said no. He flipped us off, tossed my mother’s brown leather purse out the window, ran it over, and drove home to drink five or six bottles of Boston Lager. He sat on the back porch in his too short summer shorts, lobbing the empties into the yard like fragmentation grenades.

Home, in those years, was a traditional stick-built house that my stepfather paid to have constructed, custom to his own liking, right there alongside the same highway he would later abandon us on. “Stick-built” is a term I recently came across while researching the differences in modern residential homes; it simply means a house that is built on-site, unlike prefab housing, trailers, and mobile homes. I’d
seen plenty of mobile homes in the area, but it had never occurred to me that I might actually end up in one. We were simply not that kind of family, not those kinds of people.

My ex-stepfather stayed in his house, chugging domestics, while the three of us—my mother, my brother, and I—stumbled off down the highway that leads to Ottawa, Kansas, searching for a place to call home.

Mobile homes stopped being mobile homes in 1976, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development passed a bill requiring that all prefab homes be built in a factory setting under strict federal building codes. The designation “mobile” was then legally changed to “manufactured,” not to be confused with “modular.” The specifications that determine whether a house is manufactured or modular are so semantically similar, it’s hard to know what’s what and why it even matters. Both are prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories; both are constructed in sections; both look like they were prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories and constructed in sections. The main difference between the
two is this: the manufactured home, equipped with a chassis, can be moved once it’s attached to a foundation, while the modular home remains a permanent fixture
once attached, like the stick-built home.

Brochures will tell you that you can hardly tell the difference, aesthetically, between a stick-built home and a prefab one, and I’m telling you that’s bullshit. But as my mother and I shopped for manufactured homes in a gravel lot off Main Street, where the only real difference between one house and the next was exterior color, I tried to recall all the stupid prefab proverbs about houses I’d ever heard. “Family makes this house a home,” I told myself. “Home is where you hang your heart.”

I put my hand to my chest and couldn’t feel a beat. A house is a hollow thing.

Purchasing a manufactured home is the easy part; it’s the finding where to set it down that can be tricky.

My mother and I drove around in the Bonneville, combing seedy neighborhoods for a plot on which to plant our factory-built house, and found ourselves, naturally, in a trailer park. I sized up the cars and trucks and vans sitting in front of the houses, as if these vehicles somehow reflected the character and social worth of the people who lived in this makeshift community. A couple of jalopy Pintos and a few trucks without doors later and I was explaining to my mother that I had an image to uphold, that if she forced me to live here, I’d be—we’d be—commonly called, by others outside of this favela, “trailer trash.” She said she was sorry but you had to play the hand you were dealt.

We did find a lot, and it wasn’t in a trailer park. However, our manufactured home wouldn’t fit on the lot in the traditional position known as hamburger style, i.e., with the front door facing the street, so the house movers had to set it down hot dog style, meaning the side of our house faced the street while the front door faced the side of our neighbor’s house.

“Hi. We are the hot dogs on Hamburger Street. Very nice to meet you.”

We added on a covered porch and an uncovered deck and planted squares of hyper-green sod in the front yard, or side yard, whatever it was, and the manufactured home continued to be a manufactured home, only now it had new accessories, like a poor kid in mall clothes. When friends came over I’d say, in all sincerity, “This is a manufactured home, and by that I mean I do not live in a trailer,” expecting them to be convinced or impressed or I don’t know what.

When the name Kyle Flack appeared alongside the words “murdered four” in the headlines of the Ottawa Herald website in the spring of 2013, I convinced myself I’d gone to school with him, or at least with one of the people he murdered, if only briefly, but I couldn’t be sure. My life had become so gutted of meaning that I needed to say I knew a killer in order to feel alive.

I talked to my brother on the phone about it. He had come to a similar conclusion. “I may or may not have smoked with one of them a couple times,” he said. “But, as you know, my memory blocks out a good deal from our Ottawa years.”

Regardless of who knew who, Kyle Flack murdered three adults via shotgun at a three-bedroom “modular” home on the outskirts of Ottawa. He also shot and killed an eighteen-month-old girl and shoved or tucked or placed—depending on your news source—her body in a suitcase and tossed it into Tequa Creek near the Osage–Franklin county line.

Each newspaper article refers to the house differently, as if the reporters were all dancing around the same issue of what exactly to call the structure, although “trailer” is never used. “Trailer” connotes reckless backwoods Kansas folk and threatens to detract from the severity of a toddler’s death while bolstering the stigma of trailers and those who inhabit them. “Modular home,” “house,” “farmhouse,” and “single-story residence” can all be found in the various reports. Whatever it was, it belonged to the mother of one of the victims, who claimed to have spent more than $15,000 in repairs and had plans to add blue countertops to the kitchen that she would have carried out had the whole house not burned to the ground in a “possible” arson a year after the murders took place. The only photo of the house online was taken after the fire, and, judging by the charred cinder-block underpinning and the rusted chassis, I’d say “modular home” is semantically incorrect.

According to The Kansas City Star, Flack wrote in his journal that he wanted to “dye [sic] in a suitcase”; his therapist speculated that he might have suffered an early-childhood trauma that eventually led to this bizarre attraction to luggage. The precise brand or style of suitcase is not documented anywhere online—it is simply referred to as “a suitcase.” For a man who had an ostensible fetish about dying in one, you’d think Flack would have been more particular about the suitcase he used in the crime: Samsonite or American Tourister, modern trolley style or vintage, oxblood or black. Or maybe he couldn’t afford the model he desired and had to settle for something he had on hand, had to settle for less.

A suitcase is not a coffin until a child’s body is tucked inside it. A prefabricated box is not a home until a family fills it.

A couple of years after the murders, my mother was sent to the very same detention center where Flack had been held while he awaited his trial. After she served her time, my brother and I drove down from Kansas City and took her out to an early lunch at the Ottawa Applebee’s. Our food arrived and we sat awkwardly amid an ambient countryside sizzle. I asked what had happened.

“I was leaving Country Mart and I hit a kid in the parking lot. I didn’t see him.”

“What do you mean you didn’t see him?” my brother said.

“I mean I drove away before I could get a good look at him.”

“I believe there’s a term for that,” I said.

“And you were drunk,” my brother said.

“No. I ran out of wine and went to get some more.”

“Because you drank it all that afternoon.”

“Like I said, I ran out.”

She did three weeks in the female ward of the Franklin County Detention Center for a hit-and-run. She told us that all the other inmates were young and helpless and looked up to her as a mother. She made sure they had enough to eat and gave them her food if they didn’t. My mother, I thought, the maternal jailbird, fluttering around in her cage, distributing masticated worm-mash into the mouths of criminal baby birds I probably went to high school with. She’s always had a way of making me jealous.

I watched the family cat choke on a hairball, or what I thought was a hairball, by the washer and dryer, in a space that functioned as both the laundry room and the back entryway. His chest heaved as I attempted, out of pure misguided instinct, to perform CPR on him, and his rib cage cracked and crunched like a pine cone under a bath mat until a warm liquid began to soak the denim of my kneecaps, and I noticed then that the last of Pickles’s piss had vacated his body. When my mother got home, she scooped Pickles up, slid him into a black plastic garbage sack, and said, “Now go burry your cat.” The sack drooped in my doubled-up fists like a giant rotten teardrop and I did as I was told. A few months after this, I watched from our newly built porch as my ex-stepfather—who’d been nosing around our place lately, reeking of false forgiveness and stale beer—ran over my pug as he chased after the tires of the truck. His ragged body tumbled and flailed and fell limp in the gravel alleyway, and I ran inside to cry on the carpet, in private. I buried Pugsly next to Pickles in what was quickly becoming a pet cemetery. This small accumulation of tragedies made the manufactured home feel spiteful, not only to my reputation but to my emotional health as well. My ex-stepfather bought me a consolation pug, this one even dumber than the first, and the next thing I knew my mom was a lunch lady shopping at Walmart with EBT food stamps. To combat this death spiral of white-trash poverty, I got a job at Dairy Queen South as a fry cook the moment I turned fifteen, to make some money of my own. Then I adopted hardcore Christianity to prove myself better and holier than everyone around me, or maybe I had simply deluded myself, as a means of self-preservation, into believing I’d become better and holier than everyone else around me; it didn’t really matter which, because at the end of the day, it’s pretty much all the same in the head of the beholder.

Darren, the manager of the Dairy Queen, explained my duties to me. They were simple, he said, requiring the most minimal use of elementary human cognition: “Here’s where we keep the burgers, here’s where we keep the fries, there’s the grill, there’s the fryer, figure it out.” The charm at the end of his gold chain kept getting tangled in the triangle of his chest hair, and he plucked it out as he talked.

“What’s on your necklace?” I asked.

He fingered the charm and looked down, creating a stairway of chins. “Beauty and the Beast,” he said. “It’s my favorite movie of all fucking time.”

Darren was a squat, rotund man of forty-five. He lived in his parents’ basement on the other side of town and had been working at Dairy Queen for fifteen years. His favorite movie was indeed the animated Disney rendition of Beauty and the Beast, with Full Metal Jacket a close second. Anytime I found myself bombarded with orders—if more than six or seven food orders popped up on the screen—he’d scream “FUBAR!” and run back to the kitchen to help me fend off the assault. “I am in a world of shit, yes,” he’d whisper, drawing a pentagram with ketchup on the top portion of a burger bun. “But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”

A demented teenage demon named Hormones lived inside me and I smothered him with a throw pillow called youth group. I declared myself straightedge and marked my hands with thick, bold Xs: marks of a martyr, of a modern-day messiah ready to die not for the sins of the world but for my own. I painted quotes from Corinthians on the bottom of my skateboard and carved I SK8 4 JC into the grip tape. Meanwhile, the demon grew like a bonsai cat, his limbs contorting inside my religiously decorated shelter of being. He wanted out. I held him in.

The girls weren’t allowed to cook food. If they wanted something to eat for lunch, they asked me or one of the other guys in the kitchen to cook it for them. The girls stayed up front with the soft-serve machines and the Dilly Bars, where they acted as the “Cool Treats” the slogan advertised. This made me a “Hot Eat,” I guess, one that
could not be seen by customers unless they squinted through the heated order window and caught a glimpse of my visored head as I practiced my pentagrams.

Girls often snuck into the kitchen to poach fries from the heated dump station, of which I acted as a gatekeeper, and they did the same when we grimy kitchen cretins craved a stray turd of soft serve. When I wanted to flaunt my power as an edgy fry cook with little regard for authority, I’d allow the girls to dig around in the heated drawer where the fried chicken strips were kept, and if they caught me in a
good mood, I’d let them slather their strips with a squirt or two from the peppered gravy dispenser. This was all part of the Dairy Queen power dynamic, a primitive system of trading and bartering.

A beautiful blond girl began to visit the dump station far more than the others, and I got the feeling it wasn’t just for the french fries.

Brittany and I had gone to school together long enough for me to know that she only dated bad dudes, those who were academically stunted and, more often than not, built like military cyborgs. What attracted these sorts of men to Brittany, at least on a carnal level, was the unbelievable exquisiteness of what the boys of Dairy Queen called her “badunkadunk.” My eyes were not unaware of this phenomenon, but a good Christian boy does not objectify a woman’s body, because it is a sin to objectify a woman’s body. So when she started hanging around the dump station, which is to say, when she started hanging around me, I decided that it was my duty to protect her from unmitigated sexual harassment while remaining true to God by corking the wellspring of sexual urges that rose up in me when she was nearby. I was being good. I awaited my reward.

It is dangerous to confuse ethics with sins.

When word got around that I didn’t put out, or put in, or go all the way, the guys found it necessary to give me shit about it.

A big kid who had clearly never been laid showed me how to make an engorged vagina out of a warm washcloth.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I said.

“Fuck it,” he said, laughing.

I dipped the oval end of a red plastic spoon into the burbling fryer, removed it, and used tongs to stretch out the melted plastic, creating a three-foot-long eating utensil, and handed it to the big kid.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he said.

I shrugged, but the demon inside me said, “Eat another Blizzard, you fat fuck.”

I was becoming comfortable with my responsibilities at the deep fryer.

At home, things stopped dying. My mother started seeing our neighbor, who looked like a Ninja Turtle, and he tried to introduce discipline into our household. It was not welcome. He reprimanded me after I screamed at my mother for making us poor. “Don’t talk to your mama that way,” he said. I tried to laugh in his face but cried instead. He bought me new skate shoes for Christmas and smoked weed with my brother. My mother took some steps in the wrong direction, then the right direction, some steps up, some steps down. People are steps, are to be stepped on. My mother taught me this.

I flipped over one of the hot metal food dividers and skated it with my finger skateboard.

Darren’s red water-balloon face appeared on the cool side of the heated order window. “What in God’s name are you doing back there, boy?”

“I’m nose-blunting this hot metal food divider,” I said. “What does it look like?”

Skateboarding in front of girls was something that made me feel worthy of manhood; using my fingers to stunt a toy skateboard on fast-food kitchenware in front of girls—not so much. So when I heard Brittany approaching, I stowed the food divider and stuffed the finger board into my greasy black slacks.

“What was that sound?” she said.

“Fries frying?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, plucking a piss-yellow fry from the dump station. “You sure it wasn’t the sound of you playing with your little toy?”

To change the subject, I cracked open the chicken-strip drawer provocatively. “Hungry for something else?”

She dug around and found what she wanted. She held the warm strip under the gravy nozzle and I gave it a half squirt. She looked me in the eye and bit off the continental tail of the chicken strip. “Don’t tell,” she said.

The demon thundered in his cage.

Every Christian boy secretly desires a bite of the forbidden fruit, the razor-blade apple, the apple bottom. No, no, do not objectify emails, I mean females. Suppress the thoughts, suffocate the demon.

I rode my skateboard to the prefab skate park next to the sewage pond and stared at the fresh graffiti scrawled in Sharpie on the back of the six-foot quarterpipe: 666 SATIN. I skated home and locked myself in my room and masturbated to the last five minutes of the E! program Wild On! Here exotic bikini girls shook their bodies on circular platforms in cerulean blue fountains. Brittany was not among them.

The day came for some serious occupational advancement. Darren sat me down in the blotchy break chair and he got serious. “The time has come for you to work up front,” he said.

“You mean like making Blizzards and taking orders at the register and working the drive-thru window and having kids from school see me wearing a visor?”

“Yes.”

“Will I see an increase in pay?”

“Well, no. But you will gain experience.”
“So you want me to do more work for the same pay. Am I allowed to decline this advancement?”

He plucked the charm from his tuft and shook his head. “You’re killing me, boy.”

I requested an extra shift so as to reduce the number of hours I had to spend at home. A Dairy Queen is as suitable a place as any for a teenage boy to live. Darren could be my father, a whole slew of Cool Treats could be my mothers, and I’d subsist on buttered Texas toast and CheeseQuake Blizzards.

Darren offered me a Wednesday evening shift.

“Youth group,” I said.

“Oh, fuck, that’s right,” he said. “How about Sunday morning?”

To avoid workplace conflict and distract myself from my desire for Brittany, I began dating girls who worked at Dairy Queen North. One of these girls picked me up
after my closing shift at Dairy Queen South, shoved me in her Geo, and drove me along a desolate midnight highway to her house so we could make out and I could meet her dog. Her house was neither a house-house nor a manufactured house, but a full-blown pre-HUD-amendment trailer house. “Sorry if you’re disappointed,” she said. “I know trailers get a bad rap.”

I consoled her to the best of my ability. “We can only play the hand we are dealt, right?”

While we dry-humped on the edge of her bed, surrounded by soiled puppytraining pads, her dirty mophead of a dog whimpering in the corner, I began to think the unthinkable thoughts of a self-stigmatized man: I am trash, she is trash, we are trash. She drove me home with my feet on the dash, the window down, and I convinced myself I lived inside a Death Cab for Cutie song, when in fact I’d never speak to this girl again. One manufactured home between a pair of high school lovers was doable; two meant trash. I began to date out of my league, class-wise and intelligence-wise. My reputation as stuck-up religious skater kid preceded me, and this somehow worked to my advantage. I played my hand and started dating girls who lived in opulent houses with rich pantries. No longer, when I brought girls to my house, did I apologize or try to explain my circumstances. A museum needs no explanation; it only needs to be seen. This is my mother, drooling on herself at noon. That is my brother, hotboxing my pug in a cooler. Welcome to my home. Now go ahead and feel sorry for me. Please.

My car was in the shop, and everything outside was caked in sleet. People ordered ice cream, despite the cold. “What kind of idiot eats ice cream when it’s ten goddamn degrees outside?” Darren said.

A busful of high school basketball players walked in ten minutes before closing time and things got fucked up beyond all recognition. I drew so many sloppy pentagrams with ketchup on the undersides of the buns that they started to look more like Stars of David, but the orders kept coming. Not even God can produce a shower of manna bountiful enough to meet the needs of a busload of high school jocks. They wore matching windbreakers and watched Brittany’s ass like an after-school special. She played like she liked it, but I wouldn’t believe that. She
gave one of them her number, and I gave him the most rancid piece of prepared meat I could find in the holding cabinet.

The basketball team left and Brittany’s radiant face appeared like an angel’s on the other side of the order window. “Need a ride home?” she said.

We pulled up to the side of my house and sat in her warm, idling Cavalier. My house stood there like a sheepish animal, embarrassed to be caught off guard in the glow of her headlights. For the first time in months I felt self-conscious about where I lived.

“This is a manufactured home,” I said. “Not to be confused with a trailer or a mobile home.”

She laughed at me the way you laugh at a child who has dressed himself for the first time. To her, I was a straitlaced Christian boy who didn’t party or have sex—the antithesis of tough, a total square. But I felt things inside. Felt things? Yes, I could be bad too. I just had to tell her: “I have fantasized about peeling off your pants and fucking you from behind in the walk-in freezer and subsequently getting locked in and freezing, cryogenically, only to be discovered and thawed centuries later and, upon awakening, continuing to fuck you from behind in a strange and unrecognizable future world where the only thing that could possibly palliate our horrific disorientation would be to continue fucking each other in a walk-in freezer. Also, my alcoholic mother and retarded pug are home. Would you like to come in?”

She cleared her throat and wiped at the condensation forming on the windshield. My time to confess was running out. I prepared a different speech, one of truth: “The body sitting beside you is manufactured. It is a temporary structure liable to blow into bits in the event of a strong wind. The foundation is rat-ridden and dangerously unstable. The outside says nothing about what lives inside. I am no different from those I speak and think ill of. I am a gymnasium of jocks, an infatuated fry cook.”

Before I could say anything out loud, she popped the automatic locks and said, “Well, goodnight then. See you tomorrow at work.”

I got out of her car and she left. I’d seen this before.

Inside, my mother was sitting on the couch watching television. She showed me a free sample packet of CoverGirl foundation she’d gotten in the mail, and I squirted the beige paste onto the palm of my hand and smeared it in long, thick streaks up and down my face. I danced around the living room while she ate cottage cheese. She laughed like a happy witch. She laughed so hard a curd ejected from her throat and landed on her chin. We both laughed so hard I thought we’d never stop. I handed her the foil packet and sat down next to her and we watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? trying to guess the answers and getting them all wrong.

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