Morris Collins

“The Home Visit” by Morris Collins (Issue 33) will be published in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.

Brad Felver

“Orphans” by Brad Felver (Issue 33) will be published in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology

Issue 35 Spring/Summer 2024

Issue 34 Summer/Fall 2023

Sylvie Baumgartel

Sylvie Baumgartel’s essay “Fat Man and Little Boy,” originally published in Subtropics Issue 32, has been selected by Vivian Gornick for Best American Essays 2023.
Morris Collins
Brad Felver
Coming Soon
Issue 35 Spring/Summer 2024
Current Issue
Issue 34 Summer/Fall 2023
Sylvie Baumgartel
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.
“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.”
“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.

Continue reading


Jennifer Moxley


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, 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
        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
        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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Jennifer Moxley

Jennifer Moxley

Interviewed by Jason Gordy Walker

Your poem “1900” opens with “[a]n old cuss in a MAGA mask.” As the poem progresses, you touch upon the speaker’s personal history, which seems at odds with the political climate(s) it references. I also found the grandmother’s history to be especially moving. During your drafting process, did you consciously know that you wanted to cover so much ground? Did you set out to write a sweeping political poem, or did the poem lead you to, well, itself?

My poem “1900” just showed up. While shopping at our local supermarket chain, Hannaford, on July 29, a Tuesday, the opening line “an old cuss in a Trump mask” started to repeat in my mind. (The word “Trump” would be revised to “MAGA” during the Suptropics editorial process.) By August 6 the poem was done. Here’s how I described the experience in my journal: “I finished ‘1900’ yesterday afternoon…it arrived in one big swoop—a poem engine that after few lines took on its own logic. It was actually fun to write, and I felt so grateful to be given such a poem after so long of a dry spell.”

Though my poems are threaded through with my experience, thoughts, and feelings (and why wouldn’t they be, I am the one writing them down!) I do consider myself in the tradition which places the source of the poem outsideof the poet’s ego. Thus writing a poem feels very much akin to—as both Rilke and Jack Spicer called it—dictation. When the poem arrived I was spending a lot of time with the three women, all born in 1900, that are referred to throughout. I was reading Natalie Sarraute’s memoir Enfance (Childhood) in the mornings. I was working on a libretto about Helen Gahagan Douglas. And my grandmother, well, I had been having these haunting waking visions of the house my mother grew up in (which I’d only seen in photographs). I would move throughout the house and see my grandmother, but only obliquely. She’d be slipping up a stairwell, or through a door, almost as if she were Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit daring me to follow her. I felt that she wanted something, but what? So, that was, as Spicer would say, the “furniture in the room” when my Muse showed up with that first line and started to rearrange it.

As an artist I’ve never been comfortable with the mandate that one must address contemporary issues in order to be relevant. But I live in the present, and cannot be of any other time. Except through books. When we first went into lockdown, I couldn’t write. So I joined an online book group—curated by the novelist Yiyun Li via A Public Space—to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was the perfect book to read at that moment. I’m certain Tolstoy’s narrative, which validates the inner life of individuals while chronicling the seemingly irrational forces of history, helped my Muse see a way forward.

I appreciate how openly you speak about your Muse and how you work “in the tradition which places the source of the poem outside of the poet’s ego.” Considering the current landscape of American poetry—where ego takes the place of craft in so many cases—what advice would you give to poets looking to get in touch with a Muse? I’m intrigued by your idiosyncratic sense of humor, too, which often feels well-timed and well-placed, despite its riskiness. The speaker-poet tells her partner that “‘The internet knows more / about my grandmother than I do,” a sad statement that charms with its absurdity. Steve replies that it should be the poem’s first line, but the speaker says it’s “[t]oo late”—of course, the reader already knows the poem’s real first line. This is just one example among many of sharp humor at work in your poem. How do you manage to balance laughter with such serious subject matter?

How to get in touch with your muse…hmm, this is a difficult question, insofar as this may be a very personal thing that is different for every writer. So, I will answer for myself, and anecdotally about others. My muse does not like assignments or mandates, and needs space. My muse is Orphic insofar as they (my muse sometimes feels female, other times male) are often in conversation with the dead; this may be through memories or reading. Reading is key. As is enough boredom and silence so that the interior life may listen for cues. I believe that inspiration most often yields great art when a carefully cultivated ground is prepared for its arrival. In other words, if the muse shows up and you haven’t been doing the work of deep reading, contemplating, considering, and psychological self-examination, what will there be to work with? I’ve gone through a series of intense passions for the work of certain writers which inevitably provoke a feeling that they are speaking to me from beyond the grave. This is also a form of muse-inspired creation.

Some years ago I started to notice that many of my poetry students would report having begun writing their poems while driving or in the shower. It occurred to me that these are two places that one can’t easily be on a computer or phone (which is really just a little computer). Perhaps when the mind can wander, when questions can linger (without immediately googling them), when friends can be thought of without immediately contacting them, the poem has a chance to begin forming…this is what I mean by silence and boredom. I remember how, as a kid, I spent so many hours just staring out of car windows imaging other lives, so many hours staring up at the sky. I believe that my youthful wallowing or loafing (as Whitman called it) was a passive invitation to creative inspiration.

As for my “idiosyncratic sense of humor,” well, first of all, thank you, I take that as a compliment! Humor is connected to form for me. This is not original. Poetry in the west has had a long tradition of associating comic tones with certain forms or meters. For example, in Latin poetry, the iambic strophe is often reserved for “low” or comic themes. Epigrams are a form that’s often funny and cutting. Mostly I write free-verse lyrics which either gesture toward traditional English prosody or are heavily indebted to the poetic rhythms of the New American poetry. When I write in those forms, my poems are more likely to be serious or melancholy in tone. I believe that the first time I started to realize that I had the ability to be funny was in writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Something about working in prose and especially narrative allowed this to happen. Since “1900” is a narrative poem, the humor came out. The form of “1900” and its rambling digressive narrative owes much to the poet James Schuyler. I love his long chatty poems such as “The Morning of the Poem” and “A Few Days.” He is a genius at mixing humor with pathos against the backdrop of banal quotidian existence. It also occurs to me that the address in my long narrative poems is often more akin to the address one might adopt in a personal letter: funny, gossipy, exasperated. This is so unlike the personal lyric’s intimate triangulated address, where we often feel the quietness surrounding the poem as we listen in.

“1900” is quite a long poem, stretching across several pages, but it has a strong sense of momentum. The lines, short as they are, have integrity and musicality. Can you talk more about how writing sentences in prose helps you compose lines of poetry?

Reading your fascinating question I found myself curious about that oh-so-very-Latinate word “momentum.” So I did a little sleuthing. This is the OED definition I found most helpful: “The effect of inertia in the continuance of motion after the force has ceased; impetus gained by movement.” The passage cited is from the Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a book that happens to be a favorite of mine: “If the bird wished to descend, the wings were for a moment collapsed; and then when again expanded with an altered inclination, the momentum gained by the rapid descent seemed to urge the bird upwards.” The noun momentum in Latin can mean both “movement” and “a brief space of time.” It’s almost as if when “moments” pile one atop the other but never turn into an “expanse” we get momentum. Which might help understand the dialectic between grammatical sentence and poetic line. The line breaks the expanse of the sentence into “moments,” which take up less space, as you observe (“the lines, short as they are”). We would not tolerate a person breaking up their sentences as they spoke, but in the poem we don’t have to wait for the next bit, our eyes move down the page with ease. We do not process the poetic line as a break (even though we call them line breaks!).

As for how writing prose helped me write poetic lines, I would say not a bit! Rather, writing prose helped me with sentences, upon which I then grafted my very comfortable and happy relationship to the poetic line. My memoir was a painful apprenticeship to the sentence, during which I tried out all kinds of them. Sometimes they become so very long and digressive I had to prune them back. Other times I essayed a brief formula such as “The days and weeks went by.” But without recourse to the line, I did feel very at sea. Precisely, I now suspect, because I didn’t as yet know how to create momentum without a line break. Of course, many poems have sentences in them (yes, I’m afraid it’s true). A narrative poem that dispenses with the traditional sonic and rhythmic devices of the poetic line (end rhyme, meter, etc.), must create momentum through syntax and line break alone. The poet must collapse her wings for a moment, descend, then expand them in another direction to urge the poem upward. Perhaps my poem’s swoops down into memory and shifts from the contemporary setting to the past, as well as its full-stop mid-poem questionings, may be creating that sense of momentum…But of course, that’s just a conjecture.

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Laurence O’Dwyer

Laurence O’Dwyer

Interviewed by Janice Whang

One of the primary pleasures of this essay was how it obsessed over and revered the “back-end” processes and tools of creating, challenging notions of labor and treasure. This essay is a polished “front-end” product that the reader gets to enjoy. Could you speak on one of the mundane, industrial, dirty yet exquisite steps of creating this essay? 

I think of its ending—leaving the lab, which is also a workshop, a garage—cycling from the door of my old home in the Netherlands down to the Mediterranean, stopping by the house of my collaborator along the way. That journey was a useful counterweight to the thousands of hours we spent staring at code on a screen. I arrived at my friend’s house, tired and dirty, but mostly happy. There were apocalyptic floods through the north of France. Engineers were worried about bridges over the Seine. I had been cycling, in theory at least, by the Saône—the road often disappeared under water. I too disappeared into wind and rain and mud. Once I reached the valley of the Rhône, it felt like the beginning of the Roman empire: vineyards, yellow houses, columns of sunlight. The rains had passed. I saw a lizard and thought: I am now in the south. None of this is ordered or polished—it is the opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the essay—but I think it has something to do with the garage-end, the wires and gears of any story or adventure.

The structure of this essay reminded me of holding a precious stone in my hand and slowly turning it to see how different facets caught the light, the way it methodically explored the manifestations of single patterns in different settings—the jewelry atelier, patch-clamp lab, computer programming lab, etc.. The poem which this essay is named after, “Piedra de Sol,” also has an interesting structure. Could you speak on how the architecture of the poem “Piedra de Sol” and this essay relate to each other? 

“Piedra de Sol” is a poem of 584 lines; this number corresponds with the synodic period of Venus. The first six lines are repeated in the last six lines, so it wheels back to the beginning, creating an infinite loop. I was unaware of its structure when I first listened to Octavio Paz reading it. The poem simply seduced me; the words are sensual, almost corrupt in their beauty—listening to it you can feel yourself drowning in sunlight. The pleasure of the poem is not dependent on any knowledge of its structure. Likewise, you don’t need to know anything about the art of diamond cutting to appreciate a precious stone. Looking at the craftsmanship of the poem after repeated reading and listening, the hendecasyllabic—eleven syllable—lines, which give “Piedra de Sol” its current and flow, seemed comparable to the jewels that I had seen in the workshop that I have tried to describe in the essay. Each line in the poem is a jewel with eleven facets. Remembering the tools in the  workshop—the burin, the chisel, the cast-iron disc—I wonder how Octavio Paz labored over this poem. How did he distil his experiences into such a tightly controlled dream? The dream gives no hint of a blueprint; it is simply light-in-a-word—a thing to behold, floating and shimmering in the heat. The essay tries to tease out the links between this effortless flow and the discipline that is needed to hammer out works of art that appear to be perfect and flawless.

Related to this, the way certain principles and patterns reappeared throughout gave me the sense that these tactile tools and repetitive tasks were connected to something vast and universal. What first prompted your desire to blur the lines between surfaces and depths? 

Biology. Butterflies often use dishonest signals, called Batesian mimicry, whereby a species that is not poisonous mimics a poisonous species, without having to invest in making the toxins that the “honest” butterfly makes. Depth and surface are a serious business. Butterflies are engaged in chemical warfare. Even for one who has studied these things very carefully, for example a bird, it can be very difficult to distinguish between these honest and dishonest signals.

I was also very happy when I found some evolutionary papers that point to the possible origin of our preference for glittering objects. Precious stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water and flowing water is more likely to be free of bacteria and pathogens than stagnant water. So our innate attraction to precious stones may stem, in part, from our origins as sweaty, thirsty animals, keen to find a water source that will not give us diarrhea or dysentery.

The base-pairs of DNA offer yet more keys and open still more trapdoors to windings stairs that descend to who knows what depths. Those base-pairs also bring to mind the even simpler binary code of the internet.

I was admiring how quiet, soothing, and marveling the tone of this essay was when I came across the line “True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive” in a section describing Prince Boris as “an international swindler.” How would you describe the relationship between tone and authenticity in this piece? 

Boris is ostentatious; he is employing a form of Batesian mimicry—his signaling is dishonest. Is this innate? Would he have been a swindler without the chaos of the Russian revolution? As a chancer he knows that anything can happen; chance is capricious and unsystematic, but that not very profound insight also leads him to test the hypothesis (perhaps not unreasonable) that if he clicks his fingers he can become Prince Boris I of Andorra. He likes playing at this roulette wheel. Conversely, most of the artisans and scientists that I deal with have little interest in deception. They are like children playing a game. They rarely cheat because they take the game very seriously. You can see it in their eyes; they are genuinely immersed in their work. They study openings and endings exhaustively. They usually abide by the rules. Ultimately, a game played in this way is more beautiful and also more fun.

I would love to have a drink with Boris. Would he be a funny character or a bore? I like to think that he would be entertaining. At the end of his life, after many incredible adventures (it is impossible to know how many were invented) he found himself in the remarkably quiet and peaceful village of Boppard on the banks of the Rhine. After I finished the essay, I found a note in which he calls himself at this last stage of his life a “100% petit rentier”—i.e., someone who lives on an income derived from property and investments; no doubt, imaginary property, imaginary investments. I like to think that this is one last wink before he disappears.

Reading about your different professional experiences makes me wonder how else your career outside of writing has influenced your art. What is the importance of the non-artistic pressures, challenges, and joys in a writer’s life?  

A writer can invent any world; he or she can simply make it all up. Unfortunately I don’t have the imaginative power to invent the world of neuroscience, which can sometimes be unbelievable. The world of mountaineering and alpinism is equally fantastic. Neither of these worlds is often called artistic, but I consider certain alpinists and neuroscientists to be artists of the first rank. I think of Bruno Brunod who set a speed record on the Matterhorn in 1995. On a summer day, he climbed to the summit of that mountain as though it was an Escher diagram. Going up looked like going down. He seemed to be utilizing an impossible geometry. An analogue of this kind of geometry can be found in music when a scale climbs continuously and is complete at the point when it begins to descend. Any mistake would have been potentially fatal. He was functioning at an absolute limit of physiology, physics and geometry. I’m not an alpinist but I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to have learned something about this tribe.

There is an echo of this gravity and grace in the best neuroscience, though obviously the consequences of failure are less severe. The pressure of the scientific method can create unusually beautiful results, results that often stray into the hinterland of art and poetry. Almost in a comical way, this can happen despite every effort on the part of the scientist to make the work as dry and desolate as possible. Conversely, I’ve listened on occasion to licensed poets discussing their experiments, and have had the urge to say: Herr Professor! Frau Professor! Look here; there seems to be a crack in your theory. Your discussion bears little resemblance to the results you have shown me. Scientists are wary of making a holy show of themselves, and are distressed when they see others doing so. Alpinists with a tendency towards extravagance or hyperbole usually don’t live to tell the tale. As I see it, the weakness of artists is that they can say things that can’t be proven. Clearly, this is also a strength. Experience in the lab and the mountains underlines the fact that this freedom is a privilege that should be treated with respect.

You also have four poems in this issue of Subtropics! How would you describe the conversation between your poems and this essay? 

Two of the poems are straightforward efforts at lyric poetry. One of them might have been an essay. The odd one out is a scrawny fellow that might be a failed short story. In the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, Jorge Luis Borges says that prose and poetry can coexist without discord. He goes further, saying that the differences between prose and poetry are minimal. I agree with him, but only in so far as the prose pieces in that collection never extend much beyond a page. At that length there is still the possibility of concision; the lines can withstand the pressure needed to turn them into poetry. That doesn’t work beyond five or so pages. Perhaps the poems, or at least the lyric poems, are attempts to describe singular experiences that are distilled under pressure, whereas the essay contains all the averaging, error-bars and regression lines that are common and even obligatory for a scientific paper. There may be thousands of points in a scatter plot and I have to carefully choose a statistical model that will draw an idealized—fictional— line through all those points. This brings to mind a funny story. After reading a miniature report that I’d written which attempted to describe my first undergraduate experiments with the (admittedly difficult) patch-clamp technique, a professor asked me why there were no error-bars or standard deviations in any of my graphs. The reason was embarrassingly simple: I had only managed one successful recording. Statistics were impossible because n was equal to one. There was a single datum—I couldn’t even use the word data. I improved a little over the years but it makes me think that a singular experience is not very useful for an essay. After all the word essay is related to a test or a trial. We can generally only trust trials that have a good number of experiments averaged out with the right models. Longitudinal studies are even better and usually more complex. A singular experience is probably only of use for a poem.

I hope that common to both the prose and the poetry there is no intention to convince or persuade. I am not a merchant trying to sell you something. My Argentine friend says that our opinions are the least interesting things about us. I agree but again with a qualification. I’m troubled by the obvious fact that he seems to have formulated an interesting opinion.

A trusted mentor gave me honest advice about where I might draw the line between poetry and prose. He told me that I had stories to tell and that I needed to make decisions about narrative tales and lyric poetry. His advice was useful, and also a little ominous. I don’t think I should outline it here.

After a long journey, I find myself on an island, working by lamplight—so he seems to have been correct. Technique may be everything—“one dies for stress, not from it”—but what I remember now is a moment (neither poetry nor prose) when I was waiting for a lift by the side of a road. The sun was blazing like a hydrogen bomb. I don’t think I had a single professional thought in my head. That moment must have been perfect.

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Natanya Biskar

Natanya Biskar

Interviewed by Payal Nagpal

You write about the independent school your narrator works at with a great deal of fondness and a touch of cynicism. I was wondering how your own experience working at independent schools influences your writing—your experiences have obviously served as fodder for some great content, but beyond that, has working with children influenced your use of language?

That is such an interesting idea, and the short answer is that I don’t know if working with children has influenced my prose. I do know that children tend to show up in my stories, whether those stories are set at a school or not. I enjoy writing about children, not in a kids-say-the-darndest-things way, but rather because I think kids bring out interesting vulnerabilities in adults. For one, kids are often excellent adult observers, and their perception can be unsteadying. They also have an unfiltered, self-serving logic that is so rational it circles all the way back around to being absurd. Their logic is also revelatory: it can locate the seams in all the little rationalizations we grown-ups use every day so we don’t burst into tears. Most of all, I think what draws me to write about kids is how powerless they are, how they have little say about most of the things that happen to them. In the real world, adults tend to forget the powerlessness of kids. We forget what it is like to have other people in charge of our decisions.

When I used to go to teacher conferences, I’d be exhausted by the end of the day because I was so unused to having my minutes and hours regimented by someone else. It made me cranky! Kids exist with very little control, so of course they’re going to grab it where they can. They are going to squirrel away pencils and wear the same rain boots five days in a row and lie about strange things. I think my grown-up characters relate to kids through that shared sense of powerlessness, whether they realize it or not. Before I began my MFA program, I had the privilege of working for two wonderful independent schools. All of the fondness that you perceived in how I write about the fictional school in this story comes directly from my experiences as a teacher at those organizations. The cynicism is just my natural state.

Neve is described as lamb-like in your story, and the narrator’s mother is represented through a snake. What sort of animal do you think your narrator would be?

I love this question! I think she believes herself to be a moray eel. She would like others to think of her as something mysterious and self-possessed, like an albatross or a giant squid. Her true animal self, though, is a possum. She is clever and misunderstood, protective and resourceful. She can be vicious, but only as a mask for her vulnerability. Did you know that possums cannot control when they play dead? I just learned this about possums. Playing dead is their automatic, reflexive response to stress, which seems to me like a pretty great metaphor for the narrator’s defense mechanisms. Are we all secretly possums? I suppose the fact that I am wondering this is pretty revealing, so I’ll stop there.

I’ve always found the phrase “I’m hungry if you are” fascinating—it embodies both passivity and unexpected empathy, something that seems to be characteristic of your narrator’s relationship with her mother. I was wondering if you could talk more about your choice of title?

Passivity and empathy—that’s it, exactly! Years ago, a good friend told me that whenever she offered her mother food, her mother would respond, “I’m hungry if you are.” The anecdote stuck with me, and it showed up in this piece, not by design. The phrase is fascinating to me, too. It has back-seat-driver energy. Again, I think it goes back to power, which is something I am interested in. (Sidebar: I heard somewhere that every conflict in fiction can be reduced to one of two questions: Who’s in charge? How much do you love me? I think my stories veer towards the former question, though obviously there is overlap.) To say “I’m hungry if you are” as a parent to a child is especially fraught. The parent who says “I’m hungry if you are” is pretending to be easy, but really they are saying, “Take care of me, please.” They are saying, “Tell me your needs so I don’t have to share mine.” So there is also a self-protective aspect to it, a deflection of vulnerability, while at the same time the subtext points to the speaker’s buried desire for care.

If you had to choose any artist—living or dead—to illustrate your story, who would you pick and why?

It would have to be someone who is good at illustrating kids, so my initial instinct is Edward Gorey, who draws children wonderfully. I also love the work of Amy Cutler, though I think this story isn’t fabulist enough to warrant her talents (I want Amy Cutler to illustrate the stories of Kelly Link or Helen Oyeyemi or Amelia Gray). The energy and humor of Yuko Shimizu’s work would be fun to see as an interpretation. I feel like she would do great things with the scene with the dryer lipstick. And the intimate strangeness of Nicole Wargon’s women would be fabulous, too. She also has several illustrations of women with snakes already.

What are you working on right now?

I have several short stories in various states of hot-messiness. (Now I feel bad, like I am talking about my stories behind their back.) I am also in the very early stages of a novel about sound art, oysters, and female friendship.

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Sylvie Baumgartel

Sylvie Baumgartel’s essay “Fat Man and Little Boy,” originally published in Subtropics Issue 32, has been selected by Vivian Gornick for Best American Essays 2023.

Sylvie Baumgartel

Interviewed by Olivia Ivings

Something I noticed about your poems that are appearing in Subtropics is that they explore the relationship between religion, colonialism, culture, and violence. These ideas seem to be particularly noticeable in “The Mission Bell” when the speaker guides the reader through an account of a Christian church plopped on a “Native settlement” that eventually becomes a place where deaf children are sexually abused. I found these themes useful in understanding how the poems are somewhat tethered together and how the narrators might view these institutions. What are your thoughts on the connections between these ideas, and does your work ever focus on one of them, or is recognizing the overlap necessary?

I believe all of those themes are intricately connected and often you can’t have one without the other or others. Violence is intrinsic in both religion and colonialism. And every beautiful, historic building has some dark underbelly (like the San Miguel Mission): whether built by slaves, or by very low-paid labor—power and injustice are always at play. Especially with religion and religious architecture. And even more so in colonies or former colonies. New Mexico, as all of the US, is full of histories and cultures overlapping—sometimes peacefully, but more often than not with overt and covert violence.

There seem to be two kinds of religious exploration in your poems. One is scrutinizing how religion treats those inside the institution, and another is observing how people on the outside are exploited and brutalized. How do you think these different perspectives operate in the poems?

I don’t know how to answer this. So I will instead tell you about my relationship to religion. I grew up with atheist parents and we never went to church and I went to secular schools. But since I was in preschool, I have been fascinated by religion, especially Christianity— but that’s what I did have some access to— as it’s the dominant religion in our culture. Power, the divine, control, eternity, devotion, worship, beauty, philosophy, myth, meaning, purpose— these are all things I am interested in and religion is a great source of all of them. I am not at all religious— just intrigued by it, interested in it, appalled by it, affected by it.

What kind of role do death and terror play in your work? These themes are often present, but I wonder to what extent you build your work around them. I’m especially interested in the effective way these poems end in concrete examples of violence or death.

I think about death and terror a lot. Not in a dark way, or at least not entirely so, but out of interest, fascination. I believe that having one’s death constantly present in mind is incredibly powerful for living a rich life. Death gives life meaning. Though it’s the only certainty, I believe that we are eternal beings (not in a religious sense) so actually fear of death is unnecessary. But I still have it.

When I was little, my mother said to me that life is about two things: sex and death. That stuck with me.

 Something that seems evident in these poems is how carefully the speaker establishes scenes. While the details create the space in which the poem takes place, for me as a reader, they don’t make me feel as though I must feel a specific way. What was the motivation for this?

I don’t want to make you feel one way or another. Or is that true? I sometimes want people to feel uncomfortable. And I like it when art makes me feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of difficult subjects in the world that are pushed away, denied, ignored, and I do want to shine a light on difficult, neglected and forgotten things. On the shadows. To have my poems be witnesses.  

Despite your work’s historical settings and philosophical implications, it resonates for readers in a contemporary age. How do you confront issues and ideas in the past while maintaining a foothold in the modern reader’s mind?

Perhaps only because that is life—part history, part present.

What are you reading this spring? Are there any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

On my bedside table are: Dante’s Inferno, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis, Sappho, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, St. Mawr by D. H Lawrence, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Origin by Dan Brown, Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras, The Complete Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and Calvin and Hobbes. I am homeschooling my son this year, and some of these books are ones we are reading together.

I am working on two things right now: one is a long poem—eleven-thousand words or so—about love and death in Italy. The other is a collection of poetic essays about Santa Fe. I’ve never been able to write about Santa Fe before. “The Mission Bell” was the first poem I wrote about my hometown. I was supposed to be in Italy this year on poetry fellowships, but Covid has kept me here, and I felt like this is a good opportunity to look at right where I am. I have a complex relationship with Santa Fe and it has never inspired me before. But being stuck here like this has forced me to look at it and find ways to write about it. Luckily there’s a lot of violence, colonialism, death and art for me here to use as inspiration. J

Though much of what I write is difficult and dark, I find much joy in my life and in my work.

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Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith

Interviewed by Ashley Kim

“The Octonauts” and “The Quick” both have fairly short lines that reminded me of imagistic William Carlos Williams lines. Each line carries the right amount of weight. When writing, how do you go about striking that balance on a line level?

Both of those poems were originally written in fairly straightforward, metrically regular lines. In the ear, “The Octonauts” is a sonnet, and “The Quick” is two quatrains. But something I’ve done a little bit—Josh Mehigan started doing it several years ago, Maryann Corbett and Stephen Kampa talked about it—is taking a finished poem and then rebreaking the lines. Just after finishing up at Hopkins— I wrote almost exclusively free verse before going there, and I was so stubborn it took me another year or two before I started really writing in form. It’s been fun returning to what sort of function as free-verse lines, although the words themselves hold to a pretty rigorous metrical contract. The lines are very strictly prescribed, and then in terms of the typography on the page, I play with them from draft to draft and just see how it feels. Often, the ends of the lines will still be the ends of these shorter lines, but sometimes I bury them a little bit. I try not to fight against the original form but let it get a little bit submerged in the new rhythm. My inclination is to think of the typographical appearance of a poem as being sort of whimsical, like an artifact of our particular moment’s style or type of presentation. The poem itself really is an object of sound, so I don’t feel bad about adulterating the form by playing with how it appears on the page, because that is less important, finally, than how it sounds. That’s my prejudice I guess.

That’s an interesting point that you mentioned sound. I was just reading something on sense over sound, and the argument was that poetry did start as an oral tradition, but over the years, with the invention of the printing press and typed books and text, sense is beginning to have, or maybe hold, more importance. What are your thoughts on that?

Especially when I think about teaching, I often divide my understanding of poems into two major categories, basically, the translatable and the untranslatable. I find that it’s a lot easier to teach the parts of poetry that are translatable. I taught a class for a while, where the only textbook was the Odes of Horace, the wonderful David Ferry translation. He has a great ear, but the sound has very little relationship to the original. Yet the order of the images and the argument make for a pretty powerful formula. It comes across, even if we don’t get to hear all of the peculiarities of Latin sound or syntax. There’s a whole lot of poetry that is translatable, and that is really powerful, but I think that if you take sense over sound entirely you lose not just music or rhyme but you miss all of the weird, blurry alchemy that comes out of language.

I read a couple of your poems that I could find online and the line that stuck with me in “Swan Song“ is the line, “honest love is not lost ardor.” It’s one of those sentences that I love, partly because I said, “Oh yeah that’s true,” even though it’s still hard for me to unpack quite what it means, but it sounds exactly right because of the assonance. It’s the alternation between these very similar but slightly different vowel sounds, and you get a little bit of consonance with “honest” and “lost.” It sounds perfectly true, and it is a simple and direct and emotionally poignant statement that we need at that moment of the poem because, otherwise, the feet begin to lift off the ground. I think about Donne’s “Batter my heart,” and he has this dense, thorny, thematically but also grammatically challenging poem. Then in the middle of it, he says, “yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain.” It’s an extremely simple, straightforward statement that you couldn’t put at the beginning of the poem because it would be boring and wouldn’t have any impact, but at that moment it’s not as simple. The music of it is nice. It’s also the simplicity of the sound, the directness, the familiarity of it. To take sense over sound is fine, but if you need a tidy definition of prose, that’s it. That’s one of the wonderful things about prose; you can translate it.

I wanted to comment on the formal aspects in some of these poems. “Survey of Love” is in the more expected sonnet form, and very fittingly so. “Chez Bovary” alternates between trimeter and hexameter and also employs a fairly intricate rhyme scheme. It reminds me of Erica Dawson and the New Formalism movement and less directly, Greg Williamson’s double exposure form—the line lengths were so different that I felt like I could almost read every other line and get a different kind of reading from that as well. Was that poem an invented form and, if so, how did you decide what that structure should be?

You bring up Erica Dawson and Greg, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading both of them and admire them a lot. I’m definitely very familiar with Greg’s double exposures, and even when he’s not doing strict double exposure, he plays with the superimposition of meaning. It’s a particular kind of irony that’s hard for me to quite identify because it’s not strictly verbal irony. Like in his poem “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter,” which is obviously a sort of pseudo- translation of Ezra Pound—there’s a country girl from Tennessee who’s giving the same argument as the speaker in Pound’s poem. By being a sort of copy it ends up presenting itself, and then the opposite of itself. His New Year’s poem—it’s the very last poem in the fifth edition of the Norton—doesn’t contrast opposites, but by sort of taking a screen print and flipping it over, you end up getting something else: “We were all there. At the start…” “We were all there at the start.” That’s certainly in my head when I write. I’m definitely not doing anything as clever there [in “Chez Bovary”].

I have an ongoing slow-motion project I do sometimes. In the best poems, sound and sense or form and content begin to be inextricable from each other. In trying to confront the problem of making the form of a poem perfectly suited to its content, I came to the conclusion that I’m not usually very good at planning it all ahead of time. A device I’ve used is choosing a form or shape and just writing as quickly as I can, 30 poems in that form. I throw away almost all of them, but in a few, the form and the content seem to match up. The more I write the same form, the easier it begins to feel working with it. I’ve done it a number of times with sonnets, blank verse monologues, most recently, and then with these little Sapphic-shaped songs: ABAB, with a very short fourth line, a 5-5-5-2. I figured that next I should do 3-6-3-6-3-6, so that was where that particular shape came from. And then I just try to come up with a rhyme scheme that feels novel or fun.

A follow up question to that is, more generally, what is your relationship to form and meter, and who are some of your formal influences?

My relationship to form is I like it, I enjoy it. I’m not very good at having what people tend to mean when they talk about a poetics or a philosophy of poetry, but mostly my philosophy is I like things that sound beautiful to me and ring true and move me or make me laugh, make me feel something. That’s really all I try to write: things that sound good and that might make me feel something if I were a stranger. That’s about as sophisticated as it gets, and form suits my purposes because it both sounds good and, as plenty of other people have observed, it maybe requires less invention. It’s funny because I think there’s an expectation that formal poems are more staid or conservative or uncreative, which is true in one respect in that the lines are less spontaneous. But being forced to fill out a line in a certain way or to find a certain rhyme is a way of aerating my word hoard. It cross indexes my vocabulary; words are linked to each other that wouldn’t be otherwise, and I end up pulling in associations that I would never come up with on my own in free verse. If you truly have a more generative mind, then it may be that you don’t need that, but I find it very helpful. As far as influences, I have very boring taste. There’s obviously all the old guys and gals that everybody reads. I have a special fondness for Horace—though I don’t really know Latin so that’s not a formal influence. I think he has a wonderful sense of rhetorical form. I don’t know—I love Yeats, Wyatt, Larkin, Housman, Justice.

“The Quick” deftly conflates multiple meanings of the word in both its noun form, as in the living, and as the adjective, as it’s describing the lives of these people as quick, and the poem itself is very short. The noun form is most commonly known in the phrase, “quick and the dead,” from the Christian Apostles’ Creed. “Survey of Love” also mentioned a couple of other faith traditions and weaves them all together. How does religion play into these poems or into your poetry as a whole?

I was raised in a pretty devout Irish Catholic family and community. Most of my family, which was very big, all lived in the same place, so I was surrounded by that. I went to Catholic school and everybody I knew was Catholic for a long time. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God now, but it’s pretty obvious it’s cooked in as a way of thinking and looking at the world, spending so many years listening to sermons and thinking about everything in terms of the many-layered nature of reality, where everything has a correspondence to something abstract or something spiritual. Most of my Jewish friends are atheists, but they also deeply identify with their tradition. Being Irish Catholic is in my blood, and I can’t change that nor would I. That’s certainly a big part of it.

As far as the “Survey of Love,” a lot of it was reading stories and trying to retell stories to my daughters. We got a wonderful set of the D’Aulaires’ myths. One of them is a collection of Greek myths, a lot of which are borrowed from Ovid, and the other one is a collection of Norse myths which are just a retelling of the Edda and they’re wild. We’re not raising our daughters religious, but I also I went to high school with a lot of kids who were raised with no religion and didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. They were completely uprooted from a tradition that I want my daughters to have some understanding of. I try to just flood them with gods so that they are very aware of a multitude of meanings and deities and stories and traditions. We’re talking about all these different traditions, and when we hear thunder, maybe that’s just Thor or, actually, maybe it’s Hephaestus and the Cyclopes. [“Survey of Love”] was probably a byproduct of reading a lot of this stuff to my daughters.

All four poems are very invested in philosophical questions of life and death and love. Young children and girls also appear in a couple of these, and you mentioned your daughters—how has this impacted, or perhaps changed, your outlook on these types of matters?

Before having kids, I would have found it easier to speculate about whether one should bring children into this world and how things are going to look once they’re here. Now, it’s more like, well do we have enough diapers to get through the night, did we run out of toaster waffles, or did we remember to brush our teeth, and it’s just humbling on a daily basis. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job. Days last a really long time but years fly by. It’s strange to introduce my seven-year-old daughter [to you tonight, because] I’m like, “Oh shit, I had a daughter seven years ago.” If anything, I think a lot less about philosophy than I used to. [Having kids] has made it harder to invest deeply in purely abstract questions, but my daughter asks a lot of questions about life and death and meaning. I think it’s pretty common. It was easier for me to think about those questions before, probably more rigorously in some ways, but also less responsibly, because I could just think about them as sort of mathematical objects I was manipulating in my mind; whereas with my daughters, the questions have an emotional value that’s really immediate. I think of the Larkin poem “Talking in Bed”— I think that’s my general rule with them is that I try to find things to say that are not untrue and not unkind. Beyond that it’s hard for me to think very deep thoughts about big questions I guess. It’s a mess and it’s exhausting, but it’s also just a total wonder and a joy.

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Blue Moon

Scott Bailey

Blue Moon

          I walk out to check on the squawking hens & brood
     of chicks, the morning night an atmospheric dew
immune to suspicion & fear unlike the nature
     of heifers in the barn, a rest from snagging necks
on barbed wire to eat honeysuckles along the fence
     line, a commotion often thwarted by territorial hens
perhaps unsettled by the blue moon, I think, heading
     up the hill for a view, pausing to watch a feather
sailing near a dogwood Grandpa planted before he died,
     ate up with cancer, heart gave out—then an awful cry
from an owl in a trap atop the shed’s utility pole deceptively
     moving, shadows shimmering the ground, up its greased
spine, a barn owl pecking at cotton rats scaling the pole,
     a claw trap Grandpa set, a trap I failed to move.
          Delightful way to go,     
I say to the fox salivating from a distance,
vanishing within the vowels of night, the consonants
     of curiosity. May mine be like the jazzy sap of maple
trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates,
     my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise,
no second death! Yes, an eternal weekend of light slides.
     May I welcome my first not by my hand.
I resist the voice that speed-dials a coward’s end:
     Curse the pills crushed in milk, the train that tempts
me to its tracks, the nail gun hissing near my temple.
     The tongue can heal, the tongue can kill, I rebuke what lessens me.
          Better to seek than to stray: Nearer, my God, to thee.
     Is that you whispering, “Ain’t I good,” while I ease my maple’s tap,
that ladybug hitchhiking the grasshopper’s back,
     that dragonfly patrolling the stalled tractor in the pasture,
those hypnotic eyes of a luna moth thought dead in monkey grass,
     awakened by my breath, wings winking toward an ash
tree where I carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter”?
          My heart knows its sadness, only I can share its joy on hiatus
     lately: To lose a love, his highway death—suicide, some say,
is like an anchor, a wasp that won’t let go. Going blind,
     like a curtain slowly closing, is a grief of a different kind.
To see or not to see, that is the question. Nonetheless,
          may this morning bring digression. May the wild lilacs
     rise in the air as I burn the pasture, burnt grass
crackling like fat in a skillet, like popcorn between my toes
     when I rescue a fledgling fleeing weeds near approaching
flames. May the hen, missing a chick last seen among the scallions
     skirting the coop, raise the bobwhite quail with her brood.
We all deserve second chances, companions too.

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Scott Bailey

Scott Bailey

Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski

The first thing that struck me about “Blue Moon” was its merging of our “human world” with the natural world. For instance, the anthropomorphism of the animals provides the emotional arc of the poem. I found this a useful lens through which we could chart the speaker’s free-associating thought process. What are your thoughts on the overlapping of these subjectivities?

Your observations and questions address a long-standing conversation between literary predecessors about the human in relation to the natural world. Narrowly stated, the crux of the debate concerns the assignment of meaning and value to nature either as an imbued reflection of our sensibilities and intellect, or an entity synonymous with a benevolent or wrathful God, thus a positive or negative influence, a dichotomy classically depicted in religious and literary texts through acts of nature upon us or in correspondence with us. In my poem, a pastoral elegy that is neither an example of light verse nor a standard representation of the peace and simplicity associated with rural life, nature does not so much wail in sympathetic response to the speaker’s grief as reflect the speaker’s mood through a chain of correspondences, a formulaic approach known as the objective correlative. However, the role of nature, in my poem, is more than a mirror of the speaker’s feelings. Rather a symbiotic relationship is established wherein nature becomes a source of consolation and transcendence for the speaker who perceives it as innately good, indicative of a benevolent God, a source of comfort and hope despite his real sorrows. Such a stance runs contrary to Eliot’s The Waste Land which emphasizes a loss, rather than a gain, between the individual and the natural world.Conclusively, I, the poet, am resisting the negative conclusion that we merely read meaning into a deterministic and meaningless world. I’d rather believe in a primitive homeopathy while wandering among the philosophical vegetables of Emerson and Rousseau than swim with Melville’s vengeful whale, inspired by Burke no less, all of which is a matter of perspective. Given that the mind is its own place, endowed with the ability to make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, as Milton aptly says, why not transform the psychological dump into a fertile field? Why not perceive and internalize nature as a remedy to our detriment? After all, nature is an image of transformation. And since we are ranked under the name, NATURE, as Emerson says, it seems logical to conclude that we are in, and of, nature. We all possess the wonder and power of nature: we create; we comfort; we destroy; we wound. Therefore, we are all, unfortunately, divided by our deeds and will to increase or decrease each other in the smallest or gravest sense.

There seems to be two kinds of grief here. The narrator’s grief for his grandfather seems more rooted in mundane dialogue and images, whereas the language around the other loss of a love is more existential and abstract. How do you think these different kinds of grief operate in the poem, and how did you go about connecting them? 

The first stanza does indeed establish a solemn and reverent tone, the gruesome and violent image of an owl triggering an emotional memory of the speaker’s grandfather who battled cancer. Given that one perception leads to further perceptions, this moment in the poem serves as a springboard to juxtapose the seemingly negative image of death with pleasant, peaceful images: “may mine [my death] be like the jazzy sap of maple | trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates, | my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise, | no second death!” Here, the speaker appropriates nature to offer his definitive stance on the afterlife when he alludes to biblical scripture, “no second death,” a phrase synonymous with everlasting life in contrast to eternal damnation. In addition, the layers of grief unfold as the speaker continues to walk and think, eventually contemplating but rebuking suicidal ideation in the wake of his lover’s death (suspected to be suicide), and eventually analogizing his lover’s death to the loss of vision.

Essentially, losing vision is as permanent as death, vision therein coinciding with life. I could have ended the poem there as a stark reminder of our frailty, but I chose instead to end it with images of optimistic contingencies within an open denouement. In a sense, I inverted Bishop’s conceptual line: I did not write it as a disaster! Within this conceptual context as represented in my poem, I would not argue with anyone who labeled me a transcendentalist. I was a transcendentalist before I ever read Emerson and Thoreau, which is not to say that I have consistently acted accordingly. In writing this poem, I took this task quite seriously. I wrote numerous versions, eventually merging portions of other poems into this final version; sometimes a poem must be wrestled with, especially when trying to figure how to best evoke the sentiment of loss without being sentimental.

This feels like a very Southern poem to me, though Im not sure if thats due more to the farm setting or due to the measured, molasses-like pace of the poem. I know you grew up in Mississippi, and you also have a book of poetry, Thus Spake Gigolo, which is set in the South. Could you tell me more about the ways in which you think your deep South background finds its way into your work?

I should visit a Northern farm. Are cows milked differently there? If I were to write about the city instead of the countryside, would I still be considered a regional poet? The hypothetical outcome would depend on my use of language, imagery, tone, and diction, but also my perspective, the lens through which I view and interpret the perceived landscape. Undeniably, stylistic conventions and motifs can delineate the shape and presentation of a text, as demonstrated in Thus Spake Gigolo, wherein I chart the evolution of a self within the conceptional landscape of the southern gothic, my persona poems engaging themes of isolation and marginalization, oppression and discrimination, destitution and decay, decadence and transcendence. Some have said my persona ultimately profanes the sacred, the religious fervor of his upbringing a source of angst rather than refuge, which may be the case, narrowly speaking. However, in “Blue Moon,” a poem that is characteristic of my second collection, now near completion, I have created a persona who, despite his loss—that is, the loss of his lover and his partial loss of vision—focuses on benevolent optimism to counter desolation and views nature as a sacred source of wisdom, hope, and spiritual reflection. Overall, within this literary context, the cultural, physical, psychological, religious, and social landscape of my upbringing provide a rich context in which to reflect upon and historicize the world around me, the South knocking on my door regardless of where I am, the idyllic pastoral and the southern grotesque forming the narrative in which I walk.

You also came from a very religious background. How intentional are these references to God and religion?

Verses of scripture, poems of poets, essays of philosophers, and texts of other influential authors are interwoven in me, synthesized ideas elemental to my deductive reasoning and subjective truths. “Bildungsroman,” an early poem included in Thus Spake Gigolo, captures my struggle with my sexual orientation, an adolescent wrestling with condemning scripture and his “prescribed desire,” a phrase that suggests that desire is predetermined, as natural as walking. “Adolescent Tornado,” another poem from my second collection that appeared in The Ocean State Review, echoes a similar adversity albeit diminished more so by the speaker’s unapologetic acceptance of himself despite the voiced disdain of others. Instead of responding negatively, the speaker quotes scripture from the Book of Proverbs, as in “Blue Moon” he paraphrases scripture: “words can heal, words can kill.” In these instances, my references to God and religion were intentional, as much of a foundation upon which to build as all the other texts I have read. “Blue Moon” can be read, then, as part of a long conversation on the relation of man to nature and on poetry as imitation of nature, in which I portray nature as a representation, even an extension of God, nature as a church per se. When the speaker says, “Nearer, my God, to thee,” he confirms his belief in the existence of the divine; he’s voicing his desire to walk alongside God as he walks in nature, God and nature thus intertwined, with God’s existence evident in the “the dragonfly patrolling the pasture” or the sound of sap oozing from a maple tree. The perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter,” strengthens this correlation, specifically the perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream: “Divine Laughter.” Subsequently, the speaker’s sorrows are overshadowed by acts and images of nature endowed with benevolent optimism. To reiterate Milton’s aphorism, value comes from the human mind reflecting on Nature; the same principle pertains to the assigning of value to all aspects of Our Nature. In other words, perception can be a decisive and transformative action; our lives are affected and altered by how we choose to perceive and internalize the external forces upon us.

To finish on a lighter note, I wanted to ask if you have a favorite memory connected to the natural world. 

I learned to swim in a pond, with milk jugs tied to my back.

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Sacred Window Exhale

Wynne Hungerford

Sacred Window Exhale

At the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, our goal was to provide a safe place for people to get treatment and heal, so it was bad when one of our guests got hurt during their stay. I don’t mean on a horseback-riding trip or from slipping on the tiled deck of the mineral pool. I’m talking about a dart to the third eye.

All our guests came to stay with us because they were suffering from one or more weaknesses in the trifecta of mind, body, and spirit. Norbert Fischer had traveled all the way from Germany. He wanted to give his mind room to breathe, he said, to allow a higher percentage of his brain to function, and we were like, “You’ve come to the right place.” Norbert participated in the Spring I session, which lasted for three weeks, and he had this mix of Zen and good cheer that could have tricked you into thinking it wasn’t his first trepanation. His procedure was scheduled for early in the morning, when sunlight started to break up the mist and wash the world in gold. The staff later told me that he’d said “Thank you” before they made the first incision. After the whole thing was over and he’d gotten stitched up and bandaged, he went straight to the dining hall and shook hands with the kitchen staff, beaming as if he’d just had a child, and ate a breakfast of sausage, grits, and black tea. That’s the kind of man he was, endlessly hungry.

Norbert’s recovery was textbook, no issues, no complications, until right before he was due to go home. He was playing darts in the game room with a fellow guest, Wilmer Alvarez of Buenos Aires. I had been arranging flowers in the great room when I heard Wilmer calling for help and saying that he had accidentally thrown a dart and hit Norbert in his third eye. The third eye is the hole drilled in the head during a trepanation. The skin is cut and peeled back, then a drill goes through the skull, drumming up a ring of wet-looking bone dust. The drill stops before it hits the brain and then is retracted. In the old days, the procedure was performed with an auger, cranked by hand, or sometimes giant screws, chisels, or scrapers. The modern way is electric.

When I rushed into the game room, Norbert was sitting in a chair, arms on the armrests, ankles crossed, the dart sticking out of his forehead. A cup of tea rested on one of the shelves across the room, which made me wonder if he had decided, at the last minute, to cross in front of the dart’s path to retrieve it. I remember everything about how he looked, sitting there. He was wearing loafers without socks. A once white Henley French-tucked into a pair of blue wool trousers. His face was pale and smooth, with fine wrinkles around the eyes, but the skin on his neck was pink and resembled gooseflesh. There wasn’t even gauze wrapped around his head by that point—no, he had insisted on having it removed, saying that the incision wanted to breathe. Poor man. He had wanted the whole of himself to breathe through that aperture in his head and the whole of the world to breathe into him.

The dart was deep in there, there being his brain, and just a tiny bit of the feathered tip stuck out. It didn’t help that Wilmer Alvarez was incredibly fit, having been a matador in Mexico in his youth. Imagine him sticking banderillas in the back of a bull’s neck. Imagine the tendons and muscles in his arms when he threw that dart, the speed at which it traveled. Wilmer was saying that he didn’t know what had happened, he’d never even played darts before, his athleticism was a curse. I called an ambulance and sat with Norbert. He started saying things in German that I couldn’t understand. Something about his tone made it seem like he might be telling Wilmer that it was all right, that it had been an accident, that the world had a will of its own and we as guests on earth must learn to accept the plot twists. At the time, I took this wisdom to mean the trepanation had been successful and that his mind had been expanded. It didn’t even cross my mind that it could have been gobbledygook. Norbert gave me a thumbs-up as he was carried away on a stretcher. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma.

Our guests had to sign a bunch of paperwork when they arrived, basically saying we couldn’t be held liable for anything that went wrong. This was considered alternative medicine, so there was a play-at-your-own-risk attitude. The head of operations at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat, a man by the name of Dan Collier, who definitely wouldn’t have had that job if his father hadn’t been the retreat’s cofounder, said thank God it was a freak accident and not malpractice. Otherwise our reputation might have gone down the tubes.

The big reason I felt terrible was that I had been the one to hang up the dartboard in the first place. I was head of guest services and did any number of things around the property, depending on what was needed, such as changing sheets, fulfilling special requests, and maintaining the aesthetic integrity that guests came to expect of the retreat. I also did things like deciding we were missing a dartboard. This is probably because when I was growing up, my father kept a dartboard in his office at the University of Florida. He was a professor of anthropology, and whenever I went to school with him, he’d be off getting coffee with graduate students or attending department meetings and I would be left to play darts among his stacks of books and ungraded papers in Turlington Hall. My mother was also a professor of anthropology, but, being department chair, she was, as a rule, busier, more stressed out, and less tolerant of my gum-smacking. Her office was farther down the hall, near a display of an ancient mortar and pestle.

After the Spring I session ended, all of the guests departed, including Wilmer Alvarez. Dan said everything was fine, legally speaking, to which I said yippee. I still felt this personal guilt, both because I’d hung up the dartboard and because I hated the idea of one of my guests leaving in a condition worse than the one in which they’d arrived. Before I started working at the retreat, I had been a guest myself. So maybe I imagined myself in Norbert’s shoes and thought, What if I put my well-being in someone else’s hands and they let me get a dart to the third eye? The third eye never blinks. I became a little depressed.

Between sessions, I cleaned half-heartedly and often tuned the portable radio that we kept on the room service cart to a station that played bizarre ambient stuff. One time I was restocking the cart, making sure it was loaded with towels, soap, and extra toothbrushes, when one of the cleaners on my team asked me what I was listening to. I said it must be some avant-garde broadcast from a liberal arts college somewhere, and Liz, a teen mom who wore braids and ribbons in her hair, said, “I think that’s a dead channel.” I didn’t know that was a thing, but she said I hadn’t been listening to music at all and it was just a white-noise whale song bouncing off the topography.

So that is what I was dealing with when the Spring II session began and I met Flip Goldberg. He was my perfect guest, a dream born of a nightmare, and I knew from the first moment I saw him that he was mine to protect.

The first morning of the Spring II session, I got up when it was still dark outside. I did a final walk-through of my domain, which included the great room, the game room, the listening room, the Brown lounge, and the observation deck. It was a manageable domain, so it seemed reasonable that every inch should be exactly right, not an artifact out of place, not a patch of velvet brushed in the wrong direction. Other teams dealt with the kitchen, the spa, the barn, the trepanation theater, etc., and even though all that stuff was flashier, I took pride in the fact that my rooms became known as “home.” Home was comfortable. Home was safe. You could call the front desk, say, “I’m cold,” and I would be there with a blanket.

I put a few more citronella candles out on the observation deck and found an apple core in one of the trash cans in the great room, which I put in my back pocket. I could have taken the extra two minutes to walk in the kitchen and drop it into one of the big bins, but carrying around trash seemed like a small punishment I deserved. Ever since the dart accident, I was always looking for little ways to hurt myself. It felt good to feel bad, and it felt especially good to feel bad in the early morning, when the mist had not yet shifted from ominous to luminous. We were already into the spring sessions on the retreat’s calendar, but in terms of weather and mood, we had just come to the edge of winter and were about to cross over.

I went in the game room and stood there for a minute, among the busy shelves, the leather armchairs, and the goatskin rugs. I touched the pool table, softest burgundy, with my hand. The wallpaper was desert shrubs, cowboys on painted ponies, coyotes drinking rainwater from hoofprints. There was no physical evidence that anything bad had happened in this room, and though I knew the memory of seeing Norbert Fischer with dart feathers sprouting from his third eye was a thing trapped in my head and not a thing that existed, presently, in the real world, still I wondered why that memory had to linger when it could easily slip through my own unblinking third eye and be released. I suspected it was because you couldn’t always choose what you let go of, that just as often the good slips away as the bad. For instance, I’d recently realized that I couldn’t remember my father’s middle name, which seemed like an unbelievable thing to forget, to lose, to have slipped through my third eye without my even knowing. I could have called my mother and asked, but I didn’t like to bother her.

I took down the dartboard and removed the set of darts from the wooden box they were kept in, a box cared with pine cones and squirrels. Was it ironic or was it fitting that the dart to pierce Norbert Fischer had slept on velvet in a Black Forest box? It was perfect and it was painful. The set wasn’t even complete anymore, since one of the darts had traveled to the hospital and probably ended up in a hazardous waste bag or something. If it was incinerated, good, but if it went to the landfill it would likely pierce another innocent animal in the head.

I took the dart stuff to Dan’s office. Golf clubs stood erect as Boy Scouts in the corner of the room, while on the desk sat an unopened Sea-Monkey kit that one of his kids must have given him. All of the guest paperwork was printed out and arranged in a neat stack of folders, which was important in case another tragedy struck and we needed legal language to free us from financial and emotional obligations. Reparations? Nah. Guilt? Who could be bothered? In front of his computer, Dan hunched and scowled in the blue light. He must have trimmed his nose hairs that morning, because he kept rubbing a knuckle on the end of his nose. I leaned the dartboard against a file cabinet and set the bundle of darts on the floor. I had put a rubber band around them, so I wouldn’t have to throw away the beautiful box. Without even looking at me, Dan said, “Everything all set?”

I said, “Destroy this.”

What he said caught up with me. Of course everything was all set. If it wasn’t all set, I would have still been dealing with it, instead of sitting in the wine-colored chair in his office. The thing about Dan was that he shaved on the first day to make a good first impression and then let his beard grow out over the course of the three weeks, which had an inexplicably endearing effect on the guests.

I said, “I have a bad feeling,” and Dan looked up from the computer, eyebrows pinched as if I’d summoned evil. He said, “Enough with the bad attitude. Do me a favor, would you? Smile today, for God’s sake.”

“He’s in a coma, Dan.”

Dan twisted his wedding ring around his finger. “As you will recall,” he said, “we have a special someone coming. So I would greatly appreciate it if you made yourself the picture of hospitality. One person has a good time, they tell their friends, their friends come and have a good time. It’s called word of mouth. It keeps the lights on. So if you can’t get yourself straightened out, we’ll have a talk.”

“We’re talking now.”

“I’m sorry, let me rephrase. We’ll have to reexamine your position here.”

Dan was bad at being human. He seemed to forget that I had once been a guest at the retreat, and back then, two years earlier, I had been sitting in that very chair as a paying guest and not as his subordinate.

“You know how I figured out who the special someone is?” he asked. “The guy registered with one name, but it didn’t match the name on the credit card. Can you guess who it is?”
“I’ll give you a hint. His face is on the cover of the National Enquirer. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame got bashed in with a hammer. I thought about turning him away, but we need the business.”

Trash-talking guests was not a game I played.

I said, “I don’t gossip,” and left.

It made me sick to think of Dan running a lint roller over his quarter-zip and practicing his smile in front of the mirror. I’m sure he did that before welcoming new guests. He had to get in character as someone likable.

It began as it always began. Our shuttle pulled into the front driveway and hummed in mist turned red by brake lights. Walkie-talkies buzzed as the bellboys, Jimmy and Rodrigo, furiously finished their chicken biscuits, balled up the greasy wrappers, shot them into a trash can from an imaginary free throw line, and jogged through the service hallway into the great room. Their tennis shoes gripped softly. Their calves bounced like oranges. The front doors opened for them automatically—what New World extravagance, what accessibility!—and when they returned they were loaded down with luggage. They breathed through their noses, never their mouths.

Dan led the guests inside. They floated on a wave of mist that skated over the floor and then dissipated in the warmth of the room. The vapor was still there, even if we couldn’t see it with the naked eye. It drifted over the handwoven rugs and leather sofas, then rose to the height of the antler chandelier and curled around buck points. Dan lifted his hands like he was playing preacher. Guests tentatively approached display cases holding shards of ancient pottery, medicine pouches, delicate pipes. On the wall hung a framed photograph of our three founders with shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Dan’s father, Frederick Collier, stood in the middle. The little plaque read new beginnings, 1978. The guests looked up,
around, and beyond, to the observation deck that faced the sunrise each morning, with a row of rocking chairs.

I watched the guests from behind a service door. I always enjoyed seeing their reactions, which was selfish of me, I know, but surely not the bad kind of selfish, because it meant I took pride in my work. When Norbert Fischer had arrived for Spring I, he had said, loud enough for the entire group to hear, “What do I see? I see wonderful things!” A memory tolled in me when he said that. As a child, I’d read a book about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. When Howard Carter cracked into the tomb for the first time and cast light on what treasure had been sitting in the dark all those years, someone behind him asked, “What do you see?” and he said, “I see wonderful things.”

I counted six. There were always seven. I figured the missing guest was the someone special mentioned by Dan, the one who had registered with a different name from the one on his credit card. It was highly unusual to arrive outside of the designated “welcome window,” but it wasn’t my place to judge, only to serve where I could. Dan’s voice was muffled, but I heard him leading the group into the dining hall for breakfast. I slipped down the service corridor and into the kitchen, where I saw the head cook, Farrah, spying through a little porthole in the kitchen door. She said, “They’re all going for the avocado. No one’s touching the oatmeal.”

I hopped up on the stainless steel counter and began rolling knives and forks into napkins. My adrenaline was pumping, as it always did with new arrivals, and I needed to give my hands something to do. A whiteboard hung in the kitchen that listed every guest’s name and any relevant dietary info. There were a couple of vegetarians and a pescatarian, which was fairly common with every group, since there was a big overlap between people who wanted to get a trepanation and people who didn’t believe in eating meat. At the bottom of the whiteboard, Farrah had written:


After breakfast, the six new guests were taken on a tour. They met the horses, saw the brand-new kiln in the art therapy room, and shook hands with the medical team who would be supervising the physiological aspect of their treatment. Then they were shown to their suites, to unpack and wait for their appointments with Dan to complete the paperwork. I made sure to smile as I introduced the guests to their suites, pointing out little touches like the linen bathrobe, the smudging kit, and the basketful of bottles of spring water and clementines. When I looked them in the eyes—Hulda, Axel, Inga, Tomás, Richard, Nattapong—I tried not to imagine them getting hurt. I tried to imagine them safe and clean and restored. I said, “If there’s anything I can do, please ask.” They smiled, nodded. I said, “Anything at all.”

People didn’t really ask for outrageous things as often as you might expect. For the most part, guests were polite and didn’t want to make a fuss. There was only one time when something weird happened, and the guest who made the request was suffering from a major chemical imbalance. I won’t say her name, because she has political ambitions. One night she called the front desk and asked if I could come to her room. A piece of used toilet paper lay unrolled on the bathroom counter like a soiled scroll. She requested that I read the marks, from left to right, and tell her what I saw. She said she saw birds, tons of birds, and if it really was tons of birds, that was an omen she couldn’t live with. She asked, “Do you see birds?” I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from gagging. I told her that I didn’t see birds, only clouds blowing in the wind, which was the truth. She said she could live with that.

Where did it come from, this desire to serve? I guess you could argue it came from having a father who served his entire life, offering all of himself to his students, his university, his field, his wife and daughter. Or I guess you could argue it came from a mother who mainly served herself, which I can’t necessarily blame her for, because I know she was the first woman to be department chair and that came with its own challenges, namely an endless stream of spittle from the old guard, but it would have been nice if she’d held my hand every now and then. My dream was a tent made of bedsheets, draped over kitchen chairs, and a flashlight casting spooky shadows. What I wanted was for her to crawl in the tent with me and tell me about sleeping in a gorilla’s nest during her field research and waking to the sound of rain. It didn’t matter if that actually happened or not. I guess most women who are the first to do something are sacrificial lambs, as in, OK, you’re doing something exceptional here, but the other parts of your life will dry up.

The mist was heavy all through the morning and into the afternoon. I fetched extra pillows. I relayed the Wi-Fi password. I passed around binoculars on the observation deck and pointed out a skinny black bear that had just emerged from hibernation. It flipped over a rock, sniffed, and sneezed. The guests asked if we had a nickname for the black bear, and when I said no, Nattapong suggested the name Equality, which we all liked. Finally, the sun came out at the warmest hour of the day and the mist thinned, revealing dark patches of trees, trees gasping for breath, and that’s when the helicopter was finally given clearance and Flip Goldberg came down from the sky. He stepped out of the helicopter in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos the color of butter, and flip-flops, with one Louis Vuitton bag slung over his shoulder and another in his hand. He wore gold aviators. Dan had warned me, “Don’t act starstruck. And don’t bring up the accusations.” I told him it wouldn’t be a problem. I was a professional. The bellboys took Flip’s bags and jogged down the quarter-mile trail to the retreat.

Over the helicopter’s slow chop I shouted, “Welcome to the Smoky Mountains, Mr. Goldberg.” Flip ignored the greeting, then headed down the trail by himself. Flip Goldberg was his stage name. Even so, he let everyone call him that. He must have been cold, since he didn’t have on a jacket, only resort wear, but he didn’t comment on the weather at all. It was obvious from the first moment I met him that he was used to leading, not being led. The helicopter revved up, rose above the trees, and surged west.

I followed at a respectful distance and thought, This is what a celebrity looks like. Flip was forty-four years old, and I could tell his true age from the sun-damaged skin on the tops of his ears. His hair was dark, almost black, and the silver at his temples flashed whenever he turned his head. The hair was buzzed to hide the fact that he was developing a bald spot, but a bald spot coming on gently. His neck was not anything special, although I paid attention to it, because most of my first impression of him was from behind, which might sound dirty, except I made a conscious effort not to look at his butt. Instead I looked at the skin on the back of his neck, which was deeply tanned with an orange undertone that made sense once I learned that he had been hiding out on the Big Island before coming to the retreat. That’s where he must have gotten his shirt. It was printed with Hawaiian teenagers feeding one another rings of pineapple.

As we walked down the trail, from helicopter pad to retreat, he moved with confidence, never slipping on a rock or tripping over a root. Despite the turmoil in his life, he seemed to convey strength and resilience that I would not have expected of someone in the throes of a scandal. A bald eagle sat in a tree ahead of us, holding a fish in its mouth, the fish’s wet tail gleaming, dripping water, but Flip Goldberg didn’t even look up. It would have been easy for me to judge him then, to say he was a Hollywood prick, that he couldn’t see past himself, but when you are in guest services and you take your job seriously, you do not judge. If I say that over and over, know it’s something I believe.

Flip’s suite was the largest we offered and also the most private. It was a room that made you feel at the center of the universe, which would have been an incredible rush for regular people, for people like me, but it was the norm for people like him. I had learned the most basic facts of his career earlier that morning, when I overheard an assistant cook ask Farrah why Flip Goldberg was famous in the first place. She explained that he started off with sketch comedy and stand-up, then transitioned into cameos and supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, and then created and starred in his own kids’ TV show. Apparently the kids’ show did the miraculous thing of appealing to both kids and adults, but especially potheads. This was a level of success nobody could have predicted for such an offbeat talent. “Offbeat” was the word Farrah had used, as in, Good thing you’re funny, because you’ll never be Leonardo DiCaprio. The truth is that the center of the universe must have been lonely no matter who you were. There was money and love and good ratings, but the weather could change at the drop of a hat and all of those precious things that made life so wonderful could be hidden behind a wall of impenetrable mist. I said to Flip Goldberg, that star who fell from the sky, “That’s a steam shower
in the bathroom,” and he said, “Fine.”

Then he asked for Lincoln Logs. It wasn’t a joke. My heart quickened. I bowed at his request, which was something I had never done before, not to anyone, and said, “At your service.”

Going down the mountain in the company truck, I felt that apple core in my back pocket, the one I’d put there earlier that morning, a lifetime ago, back when the world was dark. I found Lincoln Logs in the toy aisle of Target and wondered about the potential for a freak accident. Could someone fall and have their third eye pierced by a Lincoln Log if the Lincoln Log had been standing upright? The odds seemed pretty low. A man in Target saw me and said, “You look like you’re in that cult up there.” He blocked my path so I couldn’t get past him. I said, “Excuse me,” and he said, “I see it on your face. You’ve got the mark like all those wackos.” Then he wheeled off toward the automotive section and I headed for the checkout.

I didn’t give it a second thought, because I’d learned a long time ago that I couldn’t get wrapped up in what other people thought about me. Some of my college friends had thought I was crazy when I first went to the retreat as a guest, as in, “Are you seriously getting a hole drilled in your head?” They thought it was totally understandable for ancient times, back when flies laid eggs in cheese and ash fell from the sky, but in today’s world? “Just go to a doctor,” they said. “A specialist. A regular spa!” The truth is, I was going to end up with a hole in my head one way or another, so I figured the retreat was worth a shot.

Flip’s suite was empty by the time I got back. He was going through paperwork with Dan, which meant skimming over legal clauses that basically said, You can’t sue us, bud! I left the shopping bag on the dresser and was about to leave when I noticed a depression in the bed from where Flip had been sitting earlier. I sat in the depression and faced a print of woodpeckers on the wall.

The next day the laundry attendant, Nina, dropped her phone behind one of the washing machines. Why she had her phone out, I don’t know. Suffice it to say some people didn’t take their jobs very seriously. As she started to reach behind the washer, she saw behind it a copperhead with hellfire eyes, saying, “Come at me, bitch.” Nina got her walkie-talkie and shouted that a “serpent” was threatening her safety. I showed up, along with the bellboys. Where was security? Where was the custodian? Probably smoking by the woodshed.

Jimmy and Rodrigo fastened a pillowcase onto the end of a hook. I think it was something they had seen on TV. I didn’t watch TV, or even follow the news, but sometimes it seemed like that was all other people did. They talked constantly about the things they’d seen, read, and heard, as if absorbing media was their second full-time job and their third full-time job was regurgitating all that crap at their first full-time job. I supervised, since I was technically the most senior employee out of everyone, even though I was the same age as the bellboys and twenty years younger than Nina. She was a tiny woman in a big blue smock. She sat crouched on top of the folding counter, her arms crossed in front of her chest in an exaggerated self-hug.

I reminded everyone that we could call pest control, since this pillowcase contraption looked risky, but Jimmy and Rodrigo shut the idea down. Nina said that one of her nephews had gotten bit by a copperhead once and he didn’t go to the hospital, just sipped a bottle of rock and rye through the pain, and his hand swelled up so big that the skin ripped and you could see through to the bone. Jimmy and Rodrigo moved one of the washers so they could pin the snake behind it. Jimmy said, “Maybe we could relocate it to that faggot’s room,” and Rodrigo said, “Yeah, he deserves to get bit in the ass.”

I said, “Excuse me?”

Nina, who was still crouched on the counter like a gargoyle, said, “That man deserves worse than that.”

“Yeah,” Rodrigo said. “Maybe he’d get bit in the dick and then they’d have to
cut it off.” His brow shone with sweat. It was warm down in the laundry room, especially behind those machines spinning hot water all day, which is probably why the snake had gotten cozy. A noise came out of Nina, rising from deep within. It was a mother’s mm-hmm. Rodrigo said, “Your kids ever watch his show?” and she said, “Not anymore they don’t.”

Jimmy said “Got him” and showed us the pillowcase, heavy with snake. He raised it up to the lightbulb that hung from a chain on the ceiling. We could see the snake’s silhouette sliding around, the shadow of its flickering tongue.

I said, “You can’t talk about guests like that.” Jimmy lowered the pillowcase, disappointed, like I had ruined his big hero moment. They tried to argue that it was all over the magazines and if Flip Goldberg hadn’t been a celebrity, he would have already gone to prison, where he would’ve gotten shanked in the showers, and rightfully so, but because he was a celebrity he could afford fancy lawyers and would probably settle out of court. Nina said, “The system’s rigged,” and I said that we had to do our job with our guests to the very best of our ability, and they should all be treated equal. That was our job; our job wasn’t to judge people. We weren’t a court of law. Nina said, “What if he was a Nazi? Would you still love him then?” I didn’t have a chance to answer, because Rodrigo died laughing, saying that Flip Goldberg was Jewish.

I told them to get out, to drive that snake far away and release it.

Nina said, “The linens,” and I said, “I don’t care––get out, get out, get out.”

The snake was the same orange and brown as Flip’s Louis Vuitton bags. I had heard whispers of the scandal, but I didn’t know all the details and I hadn’t sought them out. I didn’t know if the accusations were true or not, which I guess is what made them accusations and not facts, and I had tried to explain to my co-workers that, the way I saw it, Flip was a guest like any other. He was here for a reason. He was seeking treatment. It was our job to facilitate his healing. Period. It’s not like I believed in protecting bad people, but I didn’t think it was right to judge someone for something he may or may not have done, especially when it was mostly being written about in the crap tabloids and magazines on sale in the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes the people who appeared the most powerful were really the most vulnerable.

That is why I won’t repeat the accusations here, now. It does no good to perpetuate rumors or unfounded claims, only gives breath to delusions, lies, and a fantasia of hurt. I say: Let the air go out. Breathe anew. In all likelihood, you have heard the accusations against Flip Goldberg anyway, but in case there is someone out there who hasn’t, I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us. What is weird about him, if you want to call it that, and it seems like everyone wants to call it that, is weird about all of us. I think we should examine the lives of others as if we were looking in the mirror, which requires a certain grace, an instinct for forgiveness. My co-workers were not on the same page.

I went to Dan’s office. He was staring at the computer, greasy-eyed, and he told me that he’d found something interesting. “Turns out,” Dan said, “the name Flip Goldberg was actually the name of a character he came up with in some sketch comedy group in like ’95. The early days of his career, blah, blah, blah …” His eyes scanned the computer screen. “No wonder he didn’t make Saturday Night Live. It says Flip Goldberg was a fictional dentist who wore dentures. I don’t get it. That’s funny?”

I told Dan that employees were gossiping.

He looked up from the computer and asked, “Did they say something to his face?” When I didn’t answer, he said, “All right, then.” He touched the corners of his mouth with his index fingers and curled up the corners into a smile. If I was a person capable of intentional violence, I might have perpetrated some right then and there, maybe swung a golf club at his head. Instead I saw the darts and dartboard still sitting on the floor. I picked them up and left for my cabin, which was on the retreat property, about a mile away from the central hub. I put everything in a trash barrel and burned it. Smoke rose to meet the mist. I had once heard a guest say our famous mist was like a blanket, which I guess meant beautiful, protective, swaddling. There might have been a time when I agreed, but lately the mist seemed more like it aimed to smother. I looked up and said, “You can take me if you want,” but there wasn’t anything up there, or anyone, and nothing happened.

With the barrel still smoking, I went inside and did a thing I am not proud of. I went in the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and cut myself on the inside of the thigh with a razor blade. Back when I’d been a guest at the retreat, I had met this other guest who cut herself, which was a thing I hadn’t understood back then. When I asked why she did it, she said it felt as though her sadness was leaving her when the blood came out. After I made the first cut, I waited for my sadness to leave me, and also my anger. If I hadn’t felt it work, I probably would have stopped right then and there. But I did feel a little something. So I tried it a couple more times, and then I thought, OK, maybe this works. Now I can see this for what it really was—another way of trying to heal old wounds by opening up new ones.

Five guests opted to go horseback riding: Hulda, a woman in her early fifties from Humboldt County, California, who owned a marijuana farm and told most people within ten minutes of talking that she planned to stay single for the rest of her life; Richard, a white-haired retiree from Seattle who volunteered on archaeological digs and had heard about trepanation from one of the interns; Nattapong, a young man from Thailand who had recently graduated from college and decided to abandon a career in hotel management to be an LGBTQ+ activist; and Axel and Inga, a thirty-year-old couple from Iceland, both of whom wore matching Fair Isle sweaters and suffered from mild depression.

Two guests stayed behind, even though they had technically paid for the horseback-riding trip as part of the all-inclusive price of the retreat. Our brochure claimed that it broke down to $1,300 per day, but I think that was before taxes and the online processing fee. One of the guests who stayed behind was Tomás, the pescatarian. I don’t think he would mind my saying that he wanted the treatment to let the evil out of his head. He’d told me that he had been hospitalized for manic episodes twice, because he struggled with medication adherence, and he thought trepanation might help. He’d heard about it on a podcast where armchair anthropologists talked about trepanation being an ancient surgery that was believed to help ailments such as demonic possession, babbling, drooling, glassy eyes, brain diseases, paranoia, parasites, swelling, bleeding, epilepsy, energy imbalances, fractures as a result of blunt force trauma, hard knocks, battle wounds, mania, migraines, visual disturbances, hallucinations, and a general feeling of impending doom. Tomás sent a cheek swab to a DNA company that advertised in the podcast and discovered that 22 percent of his DNA traced back to Oaxaca, Mexico. A simple Google search revealed that just outside Oaxaca City was Monte Albán, the World Heritage site where trepanned skulls had famously been discovered. This is what Tomás described as life coming “full circle.” He himself was an embodiment of the kiss sealed between then and now. I said, “Good for you, Tomás,” and arranged an appointment for him to float in the isolation tank.

The other guest to stay behind was Flip Goldberg.

Everyone who wanted to go horseback riding met for breakfast at seven o’clock, then walked to the barn together. Tomás closed himself in the isolation pod. The retreat became so quiet that I could hear clocks ticking in the great room. Liz, one of the room service attendants, came back from her daily rounds sucking on the end of her braid and saying Mr. Goldberg wasn’t in his suite, which made her nervous. I sensed something more. “What is it?” I asked. “You can tell me.” She said there were toys on the floor of his room. I handed her a toothbrush and a can of Bar Keepers Friend, saying if she was really that freaked out, she could expel some of the bad energy by scrubbing the staff bathroom.

Before I even knew it, I found myself wandering into the great room with my hands behind my back, teetering on my tiptoes, senses piqued. If anyone had caught me and asked what I was doing, I almost certainly would have scuttled off like a roach. I heard the hiss of a bottle being opened and knew where to go.

He sat on a barstool in the Brown lounge, sipping our house-brewed kombucha out of a bottle. His hair was pressed flat against his head, and he wore an old Hollywood Bowl T-shirt that had tiny holes in the collar. He was barefoot, his toes curled over the barstool footrest. He looked like he wanted something more than kombucha but didn’t have the energy to be disappointed. The Brown lounge was a self-serve deal. The name didn’t come from the wood paneling, which made the room glow, but from the Brown family, who had two seats on the board of directors. The effect of being in the lounge was intoxicating, but in the dreamy way, not the way where you’ve been drinking and have a headache and want to die when the party ends. We didn’t offer alcohol on-site anyway, since technically we were in a dry county.

This was the first time I’d seen Flip out of his suite. He’d been taking meals in his room and hadn’t joined any of the scheduled activities, neither the rafting trip on the Nantahala nor the frozen yogurt social. Knowing he was lactose intolerant, the kitchen staff had even brought out a machine called Yonanas, which turned bananas into ice cream, and then they complained when he didn’t show up. I don’t know what he did in his room alone. Every now and then I heard him talking on the phone. I never eavesdropped. I always walked away. I figured he had ventured into the Brown lounge because the place was empty. I asked if he wanted some nuts. He said, “Sure.” I stepped behind the bar and shook organic salted peanuts into a vintage Planters Peanuts dish. There was a jar of maraschino cherries behind the bar from back when a guest had requested a Shirley Temple, but, remembering the “no cherries” on the kitchen whiteboard, I pushed the jar into the shadows.

Flip didn’t touch the nuts.

He said, “I’m thinking of a Christmas special where I pull back a manhole, then go underground and find creatures living in the sewers. They seem scary at first, then we make friends.” His voice was quiet and deeper than I expected. He held up a cocktail napkin scribbled with notes. “Or maybe not,” he said. “Maybe they eat me alive.”

This was the first time he’d said anything to me that didn’t involve a request of some kind. I was excited that we might be having a real conversation, although nervous about how to proceed. Obviously, I wanted to shoot for professional, cool, a little coy, quiet. It was always better to start on the quiet side. I said, “Are the Lincoln Logs well?”

“Playing with toys helps me think of ideas,” he said, as if he thought I was making fun of him. “You should see my house.”

I smiled, but I don’t think he trusted my smile.

He asked, “Do you know who I am?”

“I know you’re an actor and a comedian. You have a kids’ show.”

“That’s what people think.”

I never would have pried into his perception of himself, but this felt like an
invitation to peel back a single layer. I asked, “Who are you, then?”

“I do the aforementioned,” he said, “but none of that happens unless something’s written, so really I’m a writer. Some would say not a very good one.”

“Isn’t that what you do, not who you are?”

“Not a bad question,” he said, speaking into the narrow opening of the bottle, his voice trapped, ricocheting in amber glass. “But no. I am a writer. I am this head, its contents and its creations, however fucked they might be.”

He pushed the napkin into the kombucha bottle, pressing with his finger until the whole thing made it through the tiny opening, then he swirled the bottle. Faint wrinkles on his face showed that he had spent much of his life smiling, but he wasn’t smiling now. The look on his face conveyed the loss of something terribly important, of something it would be too painful to put a name to. There was also a dash of self-hatred. I could tell that by the curled toes. It made me hurt inside to see him like this—not because he was a down-and-out celebrity, but because I could feel his need for healing. Maybe the thing he felt he’d lost was respect in the public eye. Or maybe it was something much less obvious. His eyes were flat brown, like the fizz had gone out of them.

I waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t, I wondered if his tolerance for company had waned and he was ready to be alone again, so I put my hands behind my back and said, “I’ll leave you to it.”

He asked, “Am I crazy for coming here?”

“No, sir.”

“You have to say that. You work here.”

He rubbed his face. His fingers, one by one, brushed over the length of his nose. It was a terrible thing to realize that I was attracted to him, because from then on I would have to consciously remind myself not to be attracted to him, not to let it show, not to do or say anything that would reveal the fermenting affection I felt. I was a professional, after all, and almost everything had to be corked.

I said, “I didn’t always work here. I was a guest before.”

He didn’t go googly-eyed or anything. He said, “I could tell,” and pointed to my third eye. He asked if it felt strange, and when I said no, you could just feel the rim of bone, his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested curiosity. I said he could touch my third eye, since he was going to get a trepanation soon enough. He made a thumbsup with his hand. Then he turned the thumbs-up sideways and touched the pad of his thumb to my forehead, where my third eye pulsed. The thumb was cool from holding the bottle.

He said, “I’d have to get makeup to cover up the dent. If I ever work again.”

The front doors opened. There were voices. The trail ride had been scheduled to last half the day, but they’d had to cut it short. Flip got off the stool without saying a word and went back to his room, silent on bare feet. I started to clean up so that there would be no evidence of Mr. Goldberg’s roaming that could inspire further gossip.

Joe came into the lounge, bowlegged and peeved. He worked down at the barn and was in charge of trail rides. His background was a mystery to me, although he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his hand. It didn’t seem to bring much luck. He looked at the jukebox, which had neon piping that shifted from red to orange to yellow, and he said, “Fucking Twizzler lights.” He ripped the plug out of the wall and said they’d encountered paparazzi in the woods. “Yeah,” he said. “Paparazzi.” He clenched his teeth together like they were a race of people he wanted deported. The story was that he’d been leading the string of horses when the first of the paparazzi jumped out from behind a tree and started taking flash photos. This spooked Joe’s horse. Joe said, “Lucky I know how to hold on, because if it’d been anybody else, they might have fallen off and bashed their brains in.” When his horse reared up, he reached over to the nearest tree and snapped off a branch. Then, when the horse dropped to all fours again, he whipped that branch across the paparazzo’s face. It made a solid white mark, completely bloodless, and the paparazzo ran off screaming before Joe could have the satisfaction of seeing the welt rise. As the injured paparazzo tore through the woods, two others broke free from their hiding places and followed the first guy like ducks in a V.

I said we should let Dan know. Joe said, “Thanks, Mom,” and I gave him a look that said “Do we have a problem now?” Because we had always gotten along OK. He said, “What am I supposed to do? Hammer a ‘no flash’ sign out there? Flip Goldberg coming up in here and trying to fuck up my trail ride. What a fake-ass name. I heard you were defending that pervert, like he’s even got the right to a defense. Why do you care so much, anyway? Why do you care at all?” He sucked his teeth and headed out the door, muttering, “Whole world’s gone to shit.”

I went to Dan’s office and said Joe was creating a hostile work environment, as evidenced by the fact that he’d stood in front of my face, close enough that I could see the wad of dip in his mouth when he talked, or rather when he yelled at me.

Dan said, “Maybe he’s got a point.”

I stood there, in my perfectly ironed uniform, my flared trousers and buttondown shirt and fleece vest. I didn’t know how I was becoming the bad employee, when I only ever tried to do the right thing. I told Dan that the right thing to do was to hire more security, because paparazzi were clearly a threat to the safety of everyone at the retreat. Surely that was an objective we could both rally behind. At the moment the retreat had only two security guards, one a middle-aged man whom everyone called Turkey Tom, because he made gobbling noises during his nonsanctioned work naps. He sat in a dark room and reviewed footage from the handful of security cameras scattered across the property. The other security guard was a kid with cystic acne. He made ten dollars an hour for reading Fight Club on repeat.

Dan complained about the cost.

I said, “Forget the cost.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“How can people expect us to help them if we can’t even keep them safe?”

Dan slammed his fists on the table. He started to laugh. I thought, Wow, he’s
losing it. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. He admitted that he’d tipped off the paparazzi in order to make a little extra money. This went against the entire ethos of the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, which had been co-founded by Dan’s own father, his own flesh and blood. I said, “Your father would be ashamed,” and Dan drew a spiral in the air with his finger and said, “Loophole: the dead don’t feel shit.”

Having lost my own father, I could only look at him with pity. “Are you in
trouble?” I asked. “Is that what this money stuff is about?”

There were dark gray rings around his eyes. He said, “I’ve got triplets! That’s three times everything! Goddamn IVF.”

He sighed, as if all of this was too much for him. He tapped his desk. His beard thickened before my very eyes. The mist pressed against the windows and waited to see what would happen next. I said, “We have to protect the guests,” and Dan simply nodded without saying a word. He said that he had some cousins looking for work and they might be able to help out. By the end of the day, Dan had hired three new guards.

Johanna called from the spa to let me know that Flip Goldberg had requested a manicure. She said, “We’ve got an issue on our hands,” completely unaware that she had just made a pun. The “issue” was that our cosmetologist had called in sick because of a case of the dreaded double pink eye. Johanna said, “I offered to arrange a visit to the nearest salon, but he refused, because I guess he’s trying to be incognito or whatever, and then he asked me to call guest services. Which is you? I don’t know what to do. He’s like, right here.” I said I would be there in five minutes.

It was raining, so I took the golf cart. I passed one of the new security guards, who was lumbering along the muddy trail, probably going to his outpost in the woods, where, if he was lucky, there would be a roll of toilet paper in an old Christmas tin. He looked mad about having to wear a poncho. I wanted to shout, “Cheer up! You’re doing a good service!” because I was glad that my safety concerns were being taken seriously. I waved, but he didn’t wave back.

At the spa, flute music played through hidden speakers and an artificial grove of bamboo grew in the center of the lobby. Just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, there was a giant sprinkler head above the bamboo that released mist on a timer; just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, a noise like thunder preceded the mist. I took off my shoes and put on one of the pairs of slippers that were kept in every size by the door. The air had a smooth, creamy texture that you didn’t find anywhere else on the retreat. This was owing to a filtration system that pumped in extra oxygen. After a few breaths, I already felt more alert. Edges sharpened. I walked up to the bamboo, which grew in a familial clump, and stopped in front of a ring of stones. Each stone had a word etched on its face. When you read them together, they told a story: INHALE. LIFE. SACRED. WINDOW. EXHALE.

Johanna snuck up behind me. “Should I have lied?” she asked. “Should I have told him we didn’t do manicures? Would that have been easier?”

I told Johanna that it was never OK to lie to a guest. Our job was to accommodate their wishes whenever possible, and no, Mr. Goldberg’s request was not impossible. I would perform the manicure myself.

We sat in a room tiled from floor to ceiling. There was a long sink against
one wall, reclaimed from the psychiatric ward of an old Memphis hospital, with enough room for six nurses to stand side by side and scrub up. The hardware was copper, very expensive, and there were two kinds of soap cakes: unscented, for those with sensitive skin, and lavender. The tile was baby pink, which made it easy for the mind to wander and think of bubble gum and newborns and lying naked in a bed. I tucked those images away and got to work. Even though I had never given a manicure before, I familiarized myself with the cosmetologist’s tools and decided I would learn as I went. Success was the only option.

I directed Flip Goldberg’s hands into the soaking tray. He said it had been a few weeks since his last manicure in Hawaii. It gave him a restless feeling to watch his hands revert to their natural state, “natural” meaning rough and dry, even though they felt nice to me. I didn’t say that out loud, though, because I didn’t want him to think I was sucking up. I clipped the nails first and discovered how much there was to consider, like keeping the lines clean and not cutting too far down. Then I filed and buffed. Buffing was my favorite part. By the time I got to work on the cuticles, pushing them back and clipping the excess, he spoke again. I had to be careful. The trimmers were wicked.

“You said you were a guest,” he said. “How did you end up here?”

I told him it was migraines.

He said, “It’s supposed to help?” and I knew by “it” he meant getting a hole in the head.

I explained that trepanations relieved pressure. This pressure could have
different causes, such as headaches or unwanted spirits, for example, and when you created a hole in the head, there was a way for this pressure to escape. Otherwise, your head would be a pressure cooker. And what happened to the brain and, subsequently, to the mind when the pressure built and built and built? Complete deterioration. Mush. The funny thing was that back when I’d had migraines, before my trepanation, I had always wanted a hole in my head. It was a fantasy that materialized in the throes of pain, a primitive desire that worked its way up from the subconscious, rising like a whitehead. It was not just my subconscious, either. Trepanned skulls had been found all over the world, dating back thousands of years.
The desire was collective.

I didn’t know what kind of face Flip was making while I told him all of this,
since I never dared look up and risk an inauspicious snip, but I sensed wariness. I tried to soften the whole spiel around the edges by saying, “I studied anthropology in college.”

He didn’t comment, but I assumed that he could relate to the feeling of
overwhelming pressure. His entire life must have been a performance, whether he was playing a character or just being himself, and what defined the life-asperformance was the constant presence of an audience. They were always watching, whether it was on TV or in real life. I couldn’t imagine the effect that would have on a person, so I put all of my energy into exfoliating his hands, beginning with his left hand, with the goal of scrubbing the old, the damaged, the weary, and leaving only the fresh and new. The paste smelled like crushed walnuts. Grit filled the lines on his palm. Then I exfoliated his right hand, working over the palm, the individual fingers, the back of his hand. Some of his suntanned skin scrubbed off, like tiny bits of dough rolled into snakes. Even though I felt self-conscious about my performance as a manicurist, I was giddy at my core.

Some co-workers had thought it was weird that I liked Norbert Fischer so
much, the guest who had been so ebullient, up until the dart accident, but it was only because Norbert reminded me of my father. Flip Goldberg didn’t remind me of anyone. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. It might sound crazy that I held any affection for him at all, especially considering the scandal he was wrapped up in and all the speculation about his life and what kind of man he really was, but I hardly took any of that into consideration. You can’t tell your heart not to race when it’s already racing. All you can do is deal, even if dealing means praying that the sound of your nervous blood can’t be heard pounding through your ears.

Next came the moisturizer. Flip wanted to know if the trepanation had
helped me. I said, “I haven’t had a migraine in two years.” It was true that I hadn’t experienced a headache or anything, but lately I was feeling like I wasn’t totally healed in the broader sense of the word.

“How do you know the procedure was responsible?”

It was almost as if he didn’t want to say the word trepanation. I asked, “What do you mean?”

“How do you know it wasn’t from lifestyle changes? My manager, or ex-manager, had migraines. He kept a list of triggers in his wallet, which was supposed to remind him to avoid MSG. I should’ve kept a list that told me to avoid people like him, the jackass.”

The objective truth was that I had not isolated the variable. When I decided that something had to be done about my migraines, that I couldn’t keep living with them, I had a trepanation performed and then I quit drinking. Alcohol was my trigger. Now that I’d quit drinking and had the trepanation, I no longer suffered from migraines, so it was hard to give a definitive answer. I told Flip the truth, which was that the trepanation had not harmed me in any way. His lip curled. I said, “I always assumed it was the trepanation that made the headaches stop, but I don’t know for sure.” I felt terrible admitting that—advocating the treatments we offered at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness was, after all, my job—but
only thirty minutes earlier I had been telling Johanna that you should never lie to a guest.

I asked what color polish he preferred. For all I knew, he could have wanted a clear coat. He declined any. He said, “I’m having second thoughts.”

The copper pipes banged, as if we were being called to dinner in a castle. Flip and I looked up at the same time and saw Johanna, standing on tiptoe and watching us through the diamond-shaped window in the door. Flip said, “I don’t want to see her face again,” and I said, “Of course, sir. I’ll take care of it.”

Later, I pulled Johanna aside and asked what she possibly could have been
thinking, spying. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said. “Seriously. I mean, I saw you touching his hands and I was thinking about where his hands had been.” I couldn’t believe her stupidity. I said, “Let me see your hand,” and she held it out, doe-eyed, like What are we looking for? I shook her hand, hard, businesslike, and said, “Now you’ve caught it, too.” She wailed, then ran into the oxygen chamber and strapped on a mask.

For me, evening in the Smokies wasn’t characterized by natural wonders, such as hooting owls or star-spangled skies, but by walking home in the dark, putting on the kettle, and kicking off my clogs. My cabin was decorated in the style of a Pigeon Forge rental, which is another way of saying it was dressed like a sitcom set. The photographs hanging on the walls didn’t even represent local wildlife. It was all summer elk, white rabbits, and moonlit wolves. I guess those images came from Alaska or somewhere, I don’t know, but the cabin had been furnished when I moved
in and it was easier to leave everything alone. I had never even turned on the TV. Sometimes I used it as a mirror. The windows became mirrors at night, too. They didn’t show the outside world like they did in daytime, but reflected the inside of the cabin back at me. Lights, furniture, my face. If I had to describe my expression in the windows during the Spring II session, I might say at sea.

We were far enough into the session that guests were going through pretreatment counseling and being asked to visualize their trepanation. Soon they would be in the surgical theater, with the chair in the middle of the room, positioned directly under a skylight, and a drain in the floor. On the walls around them, a mural depicted trepanation through the ages. Their foreheads would be wiped with disinfectant. Gauze would be wound around their eyes, a layer thick enough to absorb the blood that dripped from the incision, and they would wait in their own personal darkness for the words “Now I am going to make the first cut.” Then the sound of the drill, which started at a low pitch and got higher as bit bore into bone.

The isolated variable thing nagged at me. That’s why I skipped my nightly hot chocolate and had a bottle of bourbon on the coffee table. Dry county, I know, but the bottle had been a Christmas gift from—who else?—Dan and his wife, Ivy. That tells you how well they knew me. I knew them, too. For Christmas I had given Dan a Titleist headcover for one of his drivers and Ivy a stainless steel bento box. She was a mommy blogger, and I’d heard somewhere that they liked to meal-prep.

I had devised a little experiment, which was to drink a single glass of bourbon and see what happened. I figured one glass would do it, since my tolerance was zero. Plus, when I drank back in college, I normally noticed the early signs of a migraine during the first drink anyway. You might be asking, “Idiot, why drink at all? If you knew what was going to happen, that you were going to feel terrible, so terrible that you wanted to die, why would you revert to the behavior that had made you feel that
way?” The truth is that I always hoped it might be different this time, whenever “this time” happened to be. This is the ultimate delusion, that an established pattern might randomly be broken. When you hear it in real life, you hear people say, “Things might change,” or, “Maybe it will be different next time,” even though the pattern suggests otherwise. You might be saying now, about me, “Oh, she was an alcoholic,” but that’s not the truth. I just wanted to hang out like a normal person.

This is the story:

Some friends and I had gone to an on-campus screening of A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo and then for drinks after, where we talked about the disgraced anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the ethics of ethnography. The bartender came over to our table, shouted “No sniveling” into a megaphone, then went to pour us a round of shots with blackberry liqueur and vodka. The shots were called “Zipperheads,” a name that I can’t be blamed for, since I didn’t come up with it. My head started to hurt, so I went home and drank water and took my prescribed migraine medication, Topamax, which didn’t help. I managed to fall asleep. I would not say that I “woke up” later, because it wasn’t as gentle as that, a coy fluttering of eyelids at first light; no, it was more like being cut out of sleep, as a baby is cut out of the womb. I was brought back into the pain, but it was a pain so bad that it almost didn’t register as a feeling; it was more like another dimension of existence. I stumbled through the apartment, looking for a gun so I could shoot myself, as if there was a gun in a drawer somewhere. There wasn’t. I tried to summon a gun by saying, “Gun, gun, gun,” which woke up my roommate. She called 911. This landed me in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. They pumped me with drugs and fluids. After twenty-four hours, I was back to normal. Mostly. My mental status had to be evaluated before they would discharge me from the hospital. They asked, “Do you remember talking about black holes? And singing, ‘Cock it and pull it’?” I lied when they asked if I was currently suicidal, even though I knew I’d have to kill myself if I continued experiencing migraines like that. My father was the one who suggested trepanation. He had a friend in the linguistics department at Auburn who’d gone to the retreat. “Highly recommended,” he said. Off I went. My experience in the surgical theater? Terrifying, but delicious—because I had nothing to lose. I remember the relief that came once the drilling stopped, which meant I had a hole in my head. I had done something terrifying and survived. No more headaches. The retreat changed me, too. I considered the full picture of my health and wellness. I quit drinking. I focused on my breath. My father said he was happy for me, that all he’d ever wanted was for me to be happy, which is a stupid thing to hear in somebody else’s story, but when it’s your own story it’s enough to make you cry. My father ended up dying in a lecture hall, in front of an audience of graduate students. At least I had the chance to feel sad. I don’t think my mother did. The bureaucracy of death was, in some ways, no different from the bureaucracy of being department chair.

I didn’t want to be home after that. I didn’t want to continue with my education, either. So I’d gotten a job at the retreat and had been there ever since.

I sipped the bourbon and felt the trail of warmth go down my throat and into my stomach. I kept sipping, and it started to make me nervous. The whole point was to see if I was going to get a migraine, and yet a migraine was the thing I was afraid of getting, mainly because migraines hurt but also because if I got a migraine, it would mean that I had not been cured by trepanation.

I kept drinking anyway. Ever since that dart had hit Norbert Fischer in the third eye, I had been feeling disenchanted with the retreat. A crack had formed and doubt had slipped in, like a cat.

Once I finished the glass of bourbon, the experiment was over. I sat there and looked at the wall, trying to decide what I felt. The wall was blank, but slowly Flip Goldberg’s face began to fill it. A halo grew around him, fuzzy and gold. I knew it wasn’t a halo, but an aura, which was a precursor to a migraine. That was enough for me. Fully spooked, I called it. I went into prevention mode, taking the loading dose of ibuprofen, drinking a glass of water, and then having a hot shower, since that regimen used to help. I changed into pajamas and determined, with immense relief, that the pain was not getting any worse, only hovering at “annoying.” It was scary to think how close I might have been to a migraine, but in a way, it was scarier to think that I had not been entirely cured, when I had believed I had been for so long. I didn’t think the trepanation had done any damage, but not doing harm is a far cry from helping. People wanted an endorsement. They wanted the brochure to say “It works!” not “It can’t hurt!”

I was about to go to bed when a security guard knocked on the door. It was one of the new guards Dan had hired. My initial reaction was that something terrible must have happened, like Flip Goldberg had been kidnapped by paparazzi and was being held for ransom. I was ready for anything, because earlier that afternoon, once the rain had stopped, two stoned middle schoolers had been found hiding in a hollowed-out log. They were fans of Flip’s TV show and carried pictures of him that they’d printed out from the internet. The pictures were sealed in gallon-size Ziploc bags to keep from getting wet. When asked what they hoped to accomplish, they said they wanted autographs. When asked how they knew Flip’s location, they pretended not to hear the question.

I opened the door to see what it was all about, crossing my arms over my pajama top. We must not have had any spare security uniforms at the retreat, because this guy wore a silk bomber jacket and a black baseball cap with security embroidered on the front. He said, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I asked if everything was all right. He said, “Oh, yeah, everything’s fine. Everything’s good. Not to be weird, but I saw you having a drink through the window and wondered if you wanted to have another one with me? It’s kind of cold out tonight.” He stamped his feet on the ground, as if to emphasize his point. Women know this moment, the moment where you think, Oh, come on. I told him I was going to bed and started to close the door. He blocked the door with his boot.

“Did I mention I’m Dan’s cousin?” he said. “I should have mentioned that. People call me Ozzy because I like to rock. Dan said he was shorthanded with security, so I’m doing him a favor. Crazy about those kids in the log earlier, right?”

I told him it was late, which is as nice, as accommodating, as gentle as you can be in that situation, and he sort of laughed. “Let me come in and I won’t tell Dan you were drinking. I know it’s a dry county and employees aren’t supposed to drink.”

That might have been true, but the fine print in the employee handbook wasn’t worth getting assaulted over. I said, “If you don’t step away, I’m going to call the police.”

He held up his hands, a gesture of surrender.

“Forget it,” he said. “No worries. Dan just mentioned you were the one who liked that creep so much, so I thought you might want to role-play and let me eat a cherry out of your ass.”

I must have known all along that something would happen with the accusations against Flip Goldberg, but I didn’t know when it would happen or if he would still be in my care. The two options, if you were trying to be simple about it, were either that everything would explode, which I guess meant he would end up going to court and being found guilty, like all of my co-workers wanted, or that the accusations would disappear. True, if the scandal died a quiet death, Flip’s reputation would still be tarnished. Whenever the general public saw his face or heard his name, they would always think, There’s that guy who did that thing, but at least he would be free. I never believed Flip Goldberg was a bad man. I’m not sure I even believed he was a sick man, and I certainly didn’t believe on a philosophical level that being sick made you bad. So I was glad that the quiet death happened, not the explosion. I was also surprised that I was there, or at least in the vicinity, to witness it.

It had been a busy morning. Axel and Inga’s toilet was clogged. Hulda asked that all the light bulbs be removed from her suite, because she thought natural light would ease her into a headspace fit for trepanation. “I know what you’re going to say,” she said. “Leave the light bulbs and just don’t use them. That’s missing the point. I want the temptation removed entirely.” Nattapong wanted his clotheswashed and folded. Richard needed pens. I delivered a package of black pens. He said he preferred blue. A mysterious stain appeared on the velvet settee, which my co-workers blamed on Flip Goldberg, even though there was no evidence to back up the claim. The stain acted like marmalade, which screamed “Richard” to me. There were always marmalade jars in his trash when I emptied it, plus X-shaped stains on the hand towels in his room, as if he were always wiping a sticky finger on them. I wanted to tell Dan about the encounter with his cousin and order that the creep bedisposed of, figuratively speaking, but I never found the time.

Then Flip Goldberg came to the front desk. “In private,” he said to me, and I urged him into the service corridor, which was empty at that time, except for a piece of limp broccolini that lay between us on the linoleum. He said his reception was terrible. He was trying to answer an important phone call, but the call kept dropping. I asked if he could use the landline in his room, but he didn’t believe the line was private. I said, “I can assure you, sir, that no one listens in,” and he said, “Not good enough.” His eyes were glassy. He glanced at the broccolini and his toes curled in his flip-flops. I offered to set up a videoconference in the business center, which I could seal off using caution: wet floor signs. “Is it 1999?” he said. “I didn’t ask for a videoconference. I asked for a phone call.”

I told him that I understood completely and I could offer two options: we could drive thirty minutes to a Waffle House parking lot acclaimed for its good reception, or we could go to a fire lookout that sat on retreat property and had a clear shot to the nearest cell tower.

Flip picked the second choice. His nerves must have upset his stomach, because I smelled farts as we hopped in the golf cart, and then luckily the breeze whisked them away. I couldn’t remember exactly where the fire lookout was, so we drove around for about ten minutes until we arrived at an electric fence I had never seen before. On the ground, I spied a circle of downy feathers, with a bird head at the center. The rest of the bird was gone. Flip said, “Tell me you know where we’re going,” and I said, “We’ll be there momentarily, sir. My apologies.” Flip was pale. We backtracked, and I found the turn that I’d missed before. The fire lookout was not entirely abandoned. Someone sat on the bottom of the stairs. I said, “Let me see who it is,” afraid that it might be Dan’s cousin. The figure was short and squat, though, and wearing a black polo that I recognized. Flakes of skin dusted the shoulders. It was Turkey Tom, one of the original security guards. I said, “What are you doing here, Tom?” and he said, “I could ask you the same thing.” He said one of the new guys had boasted about his computer chops, so Dan offered to let him try overseeing the wall of security footage, while Tom was sent into the woods like a horse to pasture. He said, “This is a young man’s job, standing in the elements.” I knew it must have been a big change from his usual position, with the comfy swivel chair, the heat vent blowing on his feet, and the nearby kitchen where he could sneak muffins.

“Sorry about all that,” I said. “I had my own problems with one of the new guys.”

Flip was waiting in the golf cart, his trifecta deteriorating by the minute, and I felt bad for keeping him waiting. I pointed to a big tree about twenty yards away and said, “Would you mind standing there for a while, Tom? I’ve got a guest trying to make a phone call. It’s private.”

He looked around. “This is as private as it gets.”

I blinked.

“Well, OK,” Tom said. “Good reception up here. Nice view, too.” He pointed to the fire lookout and said, “I had to climb up there earlier to make sure paparazzi weren’t hiding out. The door was unlocked and the place was a mess, so my heart was going pretty fast.”

“Secure?” I asked.

He nodded.

He picked up his thermos of coffee and started walking to the tree. He gave a little wave.

I told Flip that I would be waiting at the bottom of the tower. A security guard was on standby. Before making his ascent, I thought he might say thank you or give a meaningful nod. Instead he said, “How can it be this hard to make a motherfucking phone call? Jesus fuck, this place is stuck in the Dark Ages.”

I knew he was under stress, so I tried not to let it get to me. The fire lookout was much taller than I remembered, even though I’d only seen it once before, when I was new to the job and had been exploring the property on a day off. I’m not good at guessing heights, but it might have been a hundred feet off the ground. There were two flights of steps, with a landing in between, where I suspected Turkey Tom had taken a break so he could catch his breath before continuing the rest of the way. The lookout itself looked like one big room, with a wraparound balcony. It would have been a little kid’s dream if it had been erected for the purpose of play and not spotting potentially deadly fires. Flip walked up the first flight of stairs, paused on the landing to check his phone, then walked up the second flight of stairs. Here he stood on the balcony, head bent, and turned in nervous circles. After a moment, he seemed to have collected himself and then went inside the room at the top of the lookout, slamming the door behind him. I guess he wanted that extra layer of privacy. I watched everything from below. I could have cried.

I waited in the golf cart for a long time. I worried that Flip was getting terrible news, like he’d have to go back to Los Angeles for a deposition or a hearing or even the beginning of a trial. Like I said before, I didn’t know about the state of his affairs. I had been out of the loop for the past two years. When I came to the retreat, I’d quit reading the news and watching TV, since it was part of my quest to cut out noise. Only since Flip Goldberg’s arrival had I begun to have tinges of curiosity about him, moments when I was tempted to tune back in and google everything from “Flip Goldberg scandal” to “Flip Goldberg shirtless.” Ultimately, though, I couldn’t do it. I was afraid of what I might find. Worse, I was afraid the evidence against him might be convincing. Maybe at the center of all this is a question that I have difficulty confronting. A question that makes me embarrassed, sick. The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile? I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t want to be the answer. So I never gave myself the opportunity to really know, believe, or acknowledge that he could have been one. In this way, I protected myself from becoming a woman who liked a pedophile. I’ve said before that I believe in examining the lives of others as if looking in the mirror, with the same kindness and gentleness that we hope to afford ourselves. I saw myself in him, as any human can see themselves in any other human, and I said to myself, in the mirror, “Please be good.”

Eventually, Flip came out on the balcony and leaned against the wooden rail. I got out of the golf cart and craned my neck to see him. When I looked up, my lips must have been parted, because one of his tears fell into my mouth. It was cold from falling. He leaned on his elbows, hands clasped together, head forward. This would have been the moment when the scandal passed out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead, a vapor making its way from one room to another. It was a quiet passing, because the rest of the world didn’t know about it yet. All of that would come with time, but just then, at that moment, it was only a nearly imperceptible exchange of energy: as the scandal left, so returned Flip’s life.

I waited for a minute, giving him time.

Then I said, “Is there anything I can do?”

He squinted at me in the silver light. Maybe it only looked like he was squinting because his eyes were swollen. Over by the tree, Turkey Tom had fallen asleep. Flip said, “Come up here a minute.”

A hundred stairs later, I saw mountaintops breaching the mist. It felt like there could not possibly be a higher place on earth. Flip appeared unsteady, with his head bobbing and the silver glimmering at his temples. I could not ask what had happened, even though it was the human impulse. What I heard later was that his lawyers had settled out of court, for an amount of money in the millions, and the case had been dropped. The phone call taken at the fire lookout in Tennessee was the moment he found out that his life was not over. I would have thought such good news would invigorate him, would make his strength return, but the opposite happened. In the midst of the scandal he had been at his strongest. The scrutiny made him tough. It was the only way to survive the judgment of an entire country, a dark sea of nameless, faceless people who had no problem cursing him and his mother and the day he was born. He couldn’t bear to be seen as weak during this time, but the second he realized the battle was over, he grew frail. Tears streaked with tears. He was his most animal, his most fetal, his most ancient self.

We went inside the lookout and Flip sat on an army cot in the corner. Beside the cot was a bookshelf, with guides to the birds and wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains. Old papers lay scattered across the dusty floor, maps among them, as well as a guide to operating a flare gun. I stood in the middle of the room, upright, hands behind my back, and looked at the floor as politely as I could.

He said, “I can’t get a trepanation.”

He leaned forward and put his hands on the back of his neck. His voice was more muffled that way. He was twitching all over, legs bouncing, fingers tapping. I wondered if his brain was trying to remind his body that it was still alive.

“There’s no reason to do it anymore,” he said. “People said it would look good in case there was a trial. Like I was seeking help.”

I knew that in order to protect Flip Goldberg, I couldn’t make the argument that he should have the procedure. Before this, I probably would have tried. I would have thought I was doing the right thing by convincing him of the wonders of this place, but I had recently grown up a little. That was a truth I hadn’t known before, or hadn’t been willing to accept—that I wasn’t finished growing up, even though I was twenty-three years old. I’d felt plenty old. I had all that knowledge in my head from growing up with anthropologists for parents, visions of temples, pyramids, middens, markets, huts, and graves. When I had migraines and my head was bursting with hallucinations of outer space, of black holes, it felt as though I had the entire universe inside me, not just one measly planet. When I had the trepanation, everything could pass through me. The delusion had been that I was complete.

So I didn’t try to convince Flip.

I said, “OK.”

He sat up and looked toward the ceiling, where the shells of insects dangled from spiderwebs. The whites of his eyes were pink. He said, “I’m empty anyway. If I got the hole, I don’t think anything would come out. It’s taken everything from me. There’s nothing in here.” He knocked on his chest with a fist. “I should be relieved.”

I said, “Now you can rest.”

He nodded, looked through the windows, and then took a deep breath. He said, “I can try to sleep on the plane. I don’t think I will.”

On the way back to the retreat, he said that he’d already called his personal assistant, who said she could have a helicopter at the retreat the next morning. Flip said that wasn’t fast enough. His assistant found a flight to Los Angeles out of McGhee Tyson Airport. He asked me to take him to the airport and that we keep it quiet. He said that his personal assistant would be calling the head of operations, Dan, to announce that he, Mr. Goldberg, would not in fact be moving forward with the trepanation. To all of this I said, “Yes, sir.”

I escorted him back to his suite, where he packed his things, and then we took the service exit to the company truck. On the drive to the airport, he kept his eyes covered with his hands, and I wondered if he was replaying the phone call in his head, or thinking of all the things that would come next. I could have interrupted the silence, saying, “Hey, this has been crazy getting to be around you, and I’m sorry to see you go, since we’ll probably never see each other again, but just know that I never felt the way everybody else felt, and I never trash-talked you once.” I couldn’t say that, though. He needed the silence more than I needed to fill it.

I gave Flip a ten-minute warning so he could put on his disguise. He dug through his Louis Vuitton bags, pulling out a Puma track jacket and a Yankees baseball cap, which I assumed had been purchased for the express purpose of traveling in disguise. His aviators had been hooked in the front of his shirt. He put them on, along with everything else. It probably made him look like a regular person from a distance, but up close the disguise was betrayed by the exceptional quality of his leather bags and, beneath the track jacket, the silk of his bowling shirt, which looked like it had been snagged from the wardrobe mistress of a gangster movie. I stopped in front of the arrivals area, where he got out, slinging one bag over his shoulder and carrying the other in his hand. When a guest leaves, it’s typical to say something like “I hope you had a wonderful stay” or “Please come back again,” but neither of those applied here. Without any parting words, Flip Goldberg stepped through the sliding doors and into the airport, where he would in turn navigate through other people, other travelers, on his way to the counter, where he would give, I presumed, his real name. I liked that the last time I saw him was from behind, just like how I first saw him when he walked down the trail that day.

Dan was furious.

I said, “He didn’t want the trepanation.”

Dan said, “Well, it looks bad for us.”

“How is that?”

He said that if guests left before getting a trepanation, it made it look like we had done something wrong. People would talk. They would assume our facilities were unclean or the staff was unprofessional. They might think we had BO or spinach in our teeth. Dan said a bad pattern was emerging. First, Norbert Fischer in the Spring I session, then Flip Goldberg in the Spring II session. What would happen next?

Dan said, “You certainly haven’t helped the situation.”

I said, “Maybe I should leave then, if I suck so bad.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe I will.”“It might be for the best.”

“I resign.”

“You can’t resign.”


“Your job isn’t important enough. You’re not high up enough in the chain. You can quit, but you can’t resign.”

“I still resign.”

“No,” he said. “You quit.”

I stood up from the wine-colored chair that sat in front of his desk. I said, “Here’s a hint, Dan. You should get rid of those Sea-Monkeys.” The Sea-Monkey kit still sat there, unopened. “I’m saying this as a parting gift. You’re going to make somebody mad one day and they’ll dump those shrimp into your coffee. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve always had the willpower to stop myself from actually doing it. Somebody else might not. So it’s better if you remove the temptation.”

When I left his office, I knew that my time at the retreat was officially over. I would have to move out of the cabin, since it was on retreat property, and the unexpected discovery I made when packing up my things was that I owned almost nothing. I had some clothes, some pots and pans, that sort of thing, but everything else had been there when I arrived. My stuff fit easily into my car, and my presence in the world felt very slight, but in a pleasing way. I hadn’t spent much money in the past two years and had been able to save a good chunk of my income, which came to a total of $57,600 that was spread across a checking account and a savings account. It seemed logical that I could go back home before I determined what to do next.

Before I left, I wanted to visit Norbert Fischer in the hospital. I hadn’t heard any updates on his condition lately, which was probably Dan’s intention, and it felt like a loose end. It would always be a loose end.

Because of patient confidentiality laws, I couldn’t receive a status update on Norbert Fischer’s condition or find out his room number. I told the nurse that I understood, even though it was disappointing, because I had visions of feeding him banana pudding if he was awake, or, if he was still in the coma, trimming his fingernails. On my way out, I got turned around in the hospital. I was wandering down a hallway when I saw an old woman in a wheelchair. There was vomit on the floor and several gurneys pushed to one side. I looked for someone who could tidy up, but this old woman was the only soul in town. I asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” and she said, “Anything?” and I said, “Name it.” She’d had some kind of procedure that had given her two black eyes, or maybe she’d been in an accident, I couldn’t tell. Air whistled through a gap in her front teeth when she spoke. She said, “How about more of that apple juice with ice?” I didn’t know where the apple juice was, but I told her I would find it and be right back.

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