Monday, January 6, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Krys Malcolm Belc, Ann Pattison, S.L. Wisenberg, Lisa Levine, Lajla Cline

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


I Wake Up in Clinic

Every morning I wake up in clinic, on the third floor of a giant medical building in University City. My chair is comfortable enough and it swivels. I have a large monitor and a neat stack of business cards. I have a Camelback and a cup of coffee. I stare at my list of patients to decide whose parents I should call to talk about how school is going. I am a teacher but I work in an oncology clinic. Once, I taught third grade. Once, I taught high school. Once, I was a stay at home parent. Once, I went to graduate school a thousand miles from home. I should quit my job and work at a coffee shop. I should quit my job and work at a bakery. I should quit my job to take care of my kids again, instead of the babysitter who brings them to school and the babysitter who brings them home. The morning one looks tired when she gets to my kids. The evening one looks tired when she leaves my kids. I should quit my job to be a babysitter. If I am so tired of work why am I always there in my dreams, always in my swivel chair, always smiling blandly at sick kids and their families, always reading patient charts always at school team meetings always asking somebody or other to explain what all the new words mean—Ommaya reservoir, ototoxic, intrathecal. In my dreams as in real life I ask my patients’ families, How is school going? and the answers tend not to be good. At dinner after work I ask my kids, How is school going? and when they say Fine I do not have the energy to press with the questions I should press with: Who did you sit next to at lunch? Did anything surprising happen? Was it too cold to go to the playground? Instead I say, Stop leaving your seat or Pull your plate closer to you or Why are you eating with your only clean uniform sweater on or I had a long day. I am going on and on about this even though today is Saturday and I have woken up in clinic again although I am really in my bed in Kensington, head smooshing my tired pillows, blanket crumbled under me. There are no sick children here. The Ommaya Reservoir is used to take out a sample of the fluid or give chemotherapy directly into the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These days I go to sleep tipsy and wake up depressed because all night I dream I am at work. Today is not one of the days I spend getting them ready for the morning babysitter and coming home to them with the night babysitter because my partner is here, in bed with me. I have fuzzy memories of turning over definitively when she touched me, of taking off my clothes only because I was hot. Her hands held no charge to me last night. Sometimes hands are just hands. Everything dulled in the now-winter gray. She asks how I am and all I say is, Work dreams, and turn away again. Our house still smells like the $40 of Indian takeout I ordered last night and then could barely taste through my depression. Think of all the times in past months Anna was coming home from overnights when my morning alarm went off and I would have killed to wake up with her next to me. Today is the beginning of my Christmas break and it is supposed to be a good day. I have promised to be my best dad self and my kids have been awake over an hour and I am still in bed. I will take Excedrin and go to the gym. I will sit on the couch after and hours pass as I wait for naptime. My kids are being too loud for me even though they are just kids. Ototoxicity is when a person develops hearing or balance problems due to a medicine. Holding my sleeping four year old makes me tired and so I nap. Sometimes he still smells like a baby to me. Naps are the only time I sleep and do not dream I am at work. I dream I am at a concert. I dream I am playing video games. I dream nothing. It is almost a new year and I am in the grocery store, the first productive thing I have done all day. I am buying ricotta cheese to make baked ziti on Christmas. Four tubs, four pounds. All that cream. I should quit my job, as I said earlier, to bake. I should quit my job and have another baby. When my children talk about it they always say a new sister. It is so dark outside and has been for hours. Intrathecal describes the fluid-filled space between the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord. Ricotta, rigatoni, three heads of garlic, 180oz of San Marzano tomatoes because this is going to be the ziti to end all ziti. Time is passing and it’s nearly bedtime when I arrive home again with my tomatoes and my sadness. My body will not feel electric tonight, or any night soon. In 291 days I will have been at this job for one year of days, and nights.

Krys Malcolm Belc is the author of the flash nonfiction chapbook IN TRANSIT (The Cupboard Pamphlet) and of the forthcoming memoir THE NATURAL MOTHER OF THE CHILD (Counterpoint). He lives in Philadelphia with his partner and their three young children.



Today, Saturday, is my sleep-in day, so there is no alarm. I wake early anyhow, nudge the switch on the radio, and half doze, half listen to the news for another 30 minutes or so before rolling out of bed. Sophie, my dog, growls at me as I reach for clothes thrown on the dresser the night before. She is unhappy that her rest has been disturbed, as she often is when I get up first. She continues to grumble as I dress, but curls into a tighter ball when I turn off the radio and light and head into the kitchen to make coffee. Coffee is important: that first cup, not the radio alarm, is what really starts my day. But before the water has boiled, there is a rattle of Sophie’s tags—she is doing a full body shake, and soon she appears and sits expectantly in the shadows, ears alert. For what? I’m not sure. As soon as I move toward her, she turns and goes back to bed, apparently assured that I’m not angry at her for growling, that I’m not leaving her, that I will drink my coffee as usual, come back to her bedroom—the bedroom that just a year and a half ago belonged to me—and dress for our walk. The morning walk is as important to her as my first cup of coffee is to me. It is her daily constitutional, a chance to check out the neighborhood, to trash talk to the other dogs, all crammed into the very best hour of her day. It is her time to check messages (some call them peemails, but they don’t always involve pee, so…). She alternately trots and dawdles, sniffing all along the walk, spending the time to sniff the entirety of some hidden communications, barely sniffing before disdaining others, and pauses to dribble a comment on most.

A driver drifts carefully past us, stops his car for a moment, then slowly backs up past a number of parked cars. An unusual number of parked cars, and more are coming in; an elderly neighbor recently died and an Estate Sale is about to begin. One more house that will soon be flipper bait. Our neighborhood is seeking historic listing, and is a likely candidate, except that with each house that falls to flippers, we lose another contributing property and inch closer to the 50% minimum required for the listing. The flippers come in and remove walls to make larger rooms. Is it possible to create a Great Room in a one story ranch house? A squished great room, maybe, but they attempt it anyhow.  The beautiful steel sash windows that once graced nearly every house in the neighborhood, and which are vital to its historic character, are universally removed, and often replaced with cheap vinyl window frames with garishly thick profiles. The flippers gut the house, pull down the plaster walls and replace them with drywall. They do not use the strong materials that kept these houses standing for more than sixty and seventy years. They paint the insides gray and cover the red brick with beige stucco because the TV show tells them to do it that way. Some—fortunately not all—eradicate the gardens because mature plants give away the true age of the house and the flippers want barren fronts to paint the impression that everything is new. Seventeen trees were cut down at one house, reported the neighbor. Seventeen mature trees. The flippers do not replace the galvanized steel pipes that can’t be seen disintegrating beneath the slab.

After a very late breakfast, I step out into the backyard for some therapeutic yard work. The plants are shrouded in the old, worn and torn sheets that have covered them for days.  It’s been cold this past week, following an unusually warm fall with summer flowers lasting well beyond their normal dates and winter vegetables planted late. We had another frost last night, but the potential freeze nights are now done for a while, so I pull off the sheets and survey the damage and survival rates. The zinnias are gone: they are well past their time anyhow, so I pull up the last of them, bedraggled as they are. Next worst off: the tomatoes. But surprisingly, some look alive despite losing their leaves. Save. What can it hurt? The basil, too, has done amazingly well. It usually croaks with the first shiver, but I will have fresh basil on my Sunday pizza for a while longer. The nasturtiums are mostly OK. Their frost damage seems random, some plants losing a leaf or two in an unfathomable pattern. I love the nasturtiums for their exuberant blooms and the shocking, peppery flavor the unusual round leaves give to my salads, but they fry in the summer and freeze in the winter, so need some fortuitous weather to really get going between seasons. After late summer heat, these were just starting to bloom, so I’m glad they didn’t succumb to the cold. The bougainvilleas did well too: just a few of the sprawling, thorny branches withered in the cold, but surviving brilliant magenta flowers are revealed when I pull off the sheets.

Clouds move in during the afternoon, promising one of Tucson’s fiery sunsets. As evening descends, I move her photo down to a chair where she could watch the sunset too, if she were with me. I curl up under a blanket on the couch next to her chair and try to remember the way we used to watch sunsets together over the distance, talking on the phone and describing to each other what we saw. I try to imagine a phone line that can connect us across the unknown dimension that separates us now; I try to imagine her talking to me, I try to hear her words, but can detect no sound. My mind is too cluttered with memories of how her last years were marred by malice and avarice, with wondering how something so horrible could have come to someone who was so kind to everyone, who raised six kids with all the careful love and fairness she could muster. A familiar sadness settles over me and tears dampen my cheek. Those tears once spilled in heaving cascades, but they have slowed now, each mournful drop trickling in a melancholic adagio. The pale yellow colors in the clouds outside the window do not fade into pinks and oranges, but thicken into disappointing grays. Sophie nuzzles me in the dark, sensing something is wrong, asking me to turn on the light, to bring back normalcy. Her life was once hard too, and she cherishes routine. She has taken on the job of trying to end to any sad or bad moods that might come over me. I put the photo back on the mantel and cook a full dinner of comfort food that is definitely not on my diet.

Shortly before midnight, my amaryllis begins to open. I purchased it late, just a bulb in a small box, already sending out the bloom stalk which, deprived of light and space, was curling colorless around the life-giving bulb in its tiny paperboard container. A second growth was sprouting oddly from the bottom of the bulb, so I planted it askew, hoping that the angle would encourage the second sprout to grow upward, but I have seen no sign of it since burial. The flower stalk, on the other hand, nourished with light, soil, and water, turned green, straightened itself out and shot upward, the top soon towering nearly two feet above the pot. It stayed that way for days, leaning into the light in the window, mandating frequent turns to keep it from toppling over, while the top slowly thickened, before finally splitting open. Eventually, I counted four buds. This day ends with the first of those opening glacially, but triumphantly into a 7” flower of 6 huge white petals surrounding six long, slender filaments, each capped with tiny yellow anthers, and an even longer, more slender white pistil, all curling gracefully outward and upward, mimicking the port-de-bras of a troupe of ballerinas frozen for this moment in geometrical formation.

Ann has worked as a geologist for four decades. She occasionally take classes at the University of Arizona Poetry Center for a change of pace from the drudgery of writing reports for clients.


I call my mother. She’s been nursing an upper-respiratory infection, taking meds and staying inside. It’s 3:50 p.m. and she says she’s been in all day. She’s bored. She’s so bored she’s been watching food shows. “They’re very entertaining,” she says. “Even the junior one. There was one girl from Dallas who made latkes.”

I say, “You do have to get out.”

She says, “Yes, I’m reaching bottom.”

“Do you want us to talk to your parole officer?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers. “The ankle thing is getting in my way.” Deadpan. Without missing a beat.

(In case you don’t get it, she’s referring to the ankle monitors that convicts and suspects wear during house confinement.)

She is 91. And a half. She is not a convict or a suspect. We (my husband and me) think, we say, to each other: “Sharp as a tack.” Part patronizing, part in awe. She is so quick. Quicker to joke than I remember her being in my childhood.  My father was the funny one. They were married 40 years and she’s been a widow for 28. She moved from our childhood home not long after my father died. My uncle told her she should move when she could so she wouldn’t have to be carried out. She lives in our old neighborhood gone vertical, a high rise that seems to house all the widows from Meyerland, the name of our subdivision in Houston. It seemed mostly Jewish, just like the high rise does, but probably neither is.

When do we start patronizing the old? When do we start calling someone “a little old” lady or man? Does the expression say more about us and our fears than the elders we’re talking about? Two days ago at a restaurant the waiter called my friend P “young lady.” She’s 80. This is the progression, or a vicious circle: They call you “young lady” when you’re a girl; then when you start getting gray, “ma’am”; and then you know you seem really old when they call you “young lady” again. What comes after that? Maybe “ma’am” again.


I first saw "The Long Christmas Dinner," a one-act by Thornton Wilder, in high school. It takes place at a family dinner table and spans 90 years. Characters exit, signifying their deaths, and new family members enter. This part always makes me cry: The mother, Lucia, gets up and as she leaves, tells daughter Genevieve not to grieve. Genevieve stares at her, asking, “But what will I do? What’s left for me to do?”

S.L. Wisenberg has seen "The Long Christmas Dinner" in Houston, Milwaukee, and Chicago (staged reading). She edits Another Chicago Magazine. Her webbish site is


What Happened December 21, 2019*: I hung out with good men in a misogynistic world

What happens: I wake up, head filled with images of closing train or subway doors. Crowds moving around me. A travel anxiety dream. It’s a mystery, because I have no travel plans. Feeling lazy, I drink coffee and read over an email with revisions to my feedback on a story about foraging mushrooms. I’m meeting friends at ten to climb, so I think it over while I pack rope, quicks, and food. Nothing bothers me about the revisions. I accept changes and send. I check my other email, social media, and text my climbing partners: Where do you want to meet? I receive back a location, across town, and then another text: I’m not sleeping at my place.

What I think: Is the guy who shared that, who is my friend, is doing a very subtle and unnecessary brag about his love life, or justifying the fact that he won’t be carpooling?

What I don’t think: The solstice is my aunt’s birthday, a birthday she shared with her mother until Grandma died. I should be calling her, rather than thinking.

When we meet: At 10 a.m., in a parking lot at the base of the mountain. Dan and Laurent hop in my car with two dogs. I wonder if it means anything to be the driver, but for only a second, because I have to drive. The dogs stay calm in the backseat with Laurent while I drive to the Molino parking lot. We unload, settle packs on our backs, and get on the steep, short trail to the ridge below the cliffs that we climbers call The Ruins, and right away catch up to the other group. Introductions: AJ, John, Mariel, Lisa, Laurent, Dan, and the dogs, Pibble and Saige. “Haven’t seen you since—” someone says to someone else. We snake up the hill, panting.

“How are we partnering up?” asks AJ. I claim Mariel and her vengeance on a route where, last year, she injured herself banging her ankle on a lead fall. I want to help her get back on it, lead it, and put that in the past. So: AJ and John, Dan and Laurent, Mariel and I. We look at the wall.

“That’s the one,” I say, looking at a couple peg-like steps to a first bolt. She wants to top-rope and see how it goes, so I tell her I’ll lead it. Dan’s on his way up the crack to our left. My route is harder than I expect, and I flail for a few more bolts. Then the moves pull me onto a ledge. I look up, and the next bolt’s 20 or 30 feet away. The terrain isn’t hard, but I don’t want to run it out, and Dan has a rack next to me.

“I’ll wait,” I tell Mariel. It’s a nice wide landing. I chill out there until he’s finished.

What I think: Rock: the most implacable object. If it doesn’t go, neither do I.

What Laurent does: Yells “You should let her set it.” Instead, while Laurent lowers him, Dan places a couple of nuts in small cracks above me. He clips my rope into the first but leaves the second for me to lead. I finish leading on 5.8 terrain, and when I lower, we learn that it was a mixed 5.10a, the wrong climb. I feel better, even though I wish I’d placed the gear. I mean, I did slot in a final cam, but he set the nuts that were my immediate protection off that uh-oh ledge. Every day of my life I learn again how much fight it takes to be a woman who needs to be on the pointy end of things in this world. Pick your battles, my mother used to tell me when I went on and on about work issues. I can rationalize that being a woman who leads isn’t a matter of doing everything to the fullest or hardest extent. Yet not thinking to stop him from placing gear for me also makes me ashamed of my climbing, and possibly my feminism. It’s like I let a man hold the door open for me without rolling my eyes, hesitating, or insisting that he go instead.

What I have to admit to myself: However it got done, I didn’t want to run that stretch out, so it’s my good luck that spare gear was inches away.

What Mariel does: Baking next to the winter-warm Mt. Lemmon granite, Mariel and I get on her vengeance route—the right one. She’s warmed up on my mistake, and gets going on it without any problems wearing borrowed shoes. They’re crisp: new red and blue leather. And small.

How the small shoes go, two bolts off the ground: “Ow,” she says, stripping the Velcro open.

What the climb does: Waits.

What Mariel and I do: Mariel comes back down and laces into my too-big shoes. Back on the wall, she climbs to her last bolt. She moves a hand, a foot, backs off, rests, the hand, the foot again. I shift my stance, ready to catch her if she falls, no matter how long it takes or how bored I get. I have to encourage her, but I have no idea what she needs to hear or not hear. Behind me, sitting on boulders, Dan and Laurent wait for the route. My dog, Saige, comes back from a jaunt, and I ask Laurent to leash her. He lifts her, and carries her to her leash. I call AJ to cheer Mariel on. He says words I don’t remember. They work: she moves up to clip the next bolt.

What I feel: Helpful and helpless.

What else is happening: Other climbers are struggling downhill from us. Their guy, on lead, yells, “F---the routesetter! When I get down, I’m going to find—” and so on; he’s thirty-plus feet run out on a 5.11. I block out their fear to focus on my climber. Then I can’t help myself and watch again. He makes it to the next bolt, though, and everybody at the crag cheers when he finally comes down, because he’d been so stressed. Mariel finishes her route, no injuries, so I’m satisfied that what needed to happen on this day has happened.

How the cragging ends: Tecate comes out. We clean up, stack rope, and watch the sunset before hiking down. Laurent takes pictures. Our faces, in the photo, look so blissful.

What I don’t think: Are these days I’ll miss at an unknown point in my future?

What we do in the parking lot: Hug and joke about AJ’s trail find, a Forest Service jacket.

What we talk about over beer after climbing: Teaching yoga (Laurent), the Headspace app (me), time off (me), and a statistic about child abuse: one in four girls, one in six boys (Laurent). It sounds inaccurate to me, and why are they separating the topic by gender in advertising meant to raise awareness? I question it. Laurent tells me that in his last relationship, he learned that he lacks empathy. I talk about teacher empathy, about feeling in the dark for other people’s feelings, and about knowing that whatever stab at them I might make in my demeanor is inept at best. “It’s being genuine that helps,” I tell him. “Not being right in your empathy.”

What we don’t talk about: Writing. I have been taking notes all day. We don’t talk about pickled onions or pets or the presidential elections, either.

How I feel: Comfortable. Behind us, people shed coats as they enter and look out across the room for their friends or up at the beer menu, handwritten in chalk. My body loosens; I sit cross-legged in the bar stool; I put my hand on Laurent’s arm to emphasize a point. These are things women do. Things we could, according to Margaret Atwood, lose the freedom to do. But they are men I trust, Dan and Laurent, good men in a misogynistic world. Mariel arrives. She’s wearing bright lipstick and a white puffy jacket, and she tells us about unjust acts committed by men on dates with her—prying into her personal life, being deceitful, that kind of thing. I take out my notebook to write up this part of the day, but it’s not a writing space. I have to remember. If I don’t remember, it didn’t happen. 

How the day ends: Laurent walks to his bike. I drive Mariel to her car. At home, the girl pets find their spots in the bed (dog at the foot, cat on a pillow) and the boy cat stays in one of his mysterious places, somewhere where we are not. I sleep.

What I will, eventually, remember: On December 22, writing my first draft of this What Happened, I’ll remember that December 21st was my aunt’s birthday. I’ll call her. I’ll ask about her job and her family. She once told me, in my twenties, to always have my own source of income. And so I do.

* In the structure of Yannick Murphy’s “The Call.” Something like a logbook or journal. It’s a fantastic read if you enjoy this homage of sorts.

Lisa Levine’s writing has appeared in AE: A Journal of Literature, Community, and the Natural World, Manifest West, The Furious Gazelle, Bird's Thumb, and Cutbank. She volunteers as Assistant Fiction Editor at, and teaches writing at Presidio School and the University of Arizona. Follow her work at @alluvialdisopositions or


December 21, 2019
Wild Geese 
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. 
—Mary Oliver 

When I wake up, I try to recall the poem I memorized the night before, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” I have to fish for the beginning of a few lines, but it’s still there.
     I’m lying in bed when my phone chimes. My dad has sent me a picture of his catheter bag, the liquid pooled inside the color of fruit punch. They cured his cancer 15 years ago, but in the meantime they ravaged his bladder. He is planning to come to Houston, where my sisters and I live, in a few days for Christmas. It’s a trip he ultimately won’t be well enough to make.
     Still lying in bed, I call my dad and we discuss whether his catheter is clogged. Can he hold it upside down to let gravity help? Can he squeeze the bag to make a difference? He will watch, and if the bag doesn’t fill, if his bladder begins to hurt, he will drive himself to the emergency room, like he does many days, the long ones and the short ones. He will wait there in the waiting room by himself as long as he can. If it unclogs, he will go home. When he can’t wait any longer, he will check himself in and they will irrigate the catheter with saline, vacuum out what blood clots they can. Then they will send him home again.
     With “Wild Geese” still on my mind, I text the lines to my friend Timothy. “Her voice and presence are SO healing and comforting for me,” he texts back. “Whenever I read her stuff I’m always reminded of my mother.” Timothy was the caretaker for both his parents as they aged. When I feel hopeless about my own ability to help my dad, or frustrated at the vast amount of junk I’ve had to sort through in the last year as we’ve cleared out my grandparents’ possessions, Timothy reminds me that what I’m doing is important, something of value. “That essential role as a ‘spiritual enzyme’ digesting the physical consumptions of the ancestors is absolutely archetypal ...xoxo”
     Timothy tells me his memory of being a child and having a sixth sense of when the wild geese were flying overhead. He would stand beneath them and watch. I love the image of small Timothy standing outside his home on the Heights Boulevard of 65 years ago, where now there is a Lulu Lemon and a Warby Parker, his head dropped back to watch the geese passing over.
     About a month before this, Timothy suddenly landed in the emergency room at Methodist for a frightening platelet deficiency revealed in his blood work at a dental visit. They jumpstarted his bone marrow with transfusions. Coincidentally, I had donated blood at Methodist just two days before. “You probably have my blood,” I told him. When he was released and complained about suddenly having the worst allergies he’d ever had in his life, I apologized, and warned of intermittent anxiety too.
     The last couple of years I’ve worked a lot on Saturdays, either leading the Saturday morning writing workshops for kids at the park downtown, or sometimes teaching at the Taiwanese Cultural Center. A Saturday with no teaching feels like a gift, but lately I’ve found myself unable to settle into writing. Really, it’s an inability to settle into home. I’ve been restless for months now, uncharacteristically desperate to be out in the world, spending inordinate amounts of time reading at the park or sifting through blouses in thrift stores. Meanwhile I feel more and more detached from my writing, less and less myself. And so today I make up excuses of things that need to be done outside the house. I pack up the laundry and head to the laundromat where I will sit at the coffee shop next door and talk to acquaintances or read a book.
     I float around the city for hours and then I call my dad. No change in the color, but the fluid seems to be collecting for now.
     Another day has passed with no writing, but laundry is done, and long before I’m ready for dinner, the day is done. By the time I meet my friend Greg it’s squarely dark out. It’s 7:00 pm. We eat fall local harvest salads and Korean fried brussels sprouts. We are celebrating my birthday belatedly and to eat out in a semi-fancy restaurant feels exciting.
     When Greg and I had met for dinner at a Belgian restaurant a couple of weeks before, I’d told him about this restlessness. He said maybe it wasn’t so bad, the opposite of his own tendency toward reclusion. I explained that it wasn’t good. I was insisting on being out even when I should be home, when I was tired or needed to work. “I’m avoiding feeling lonely.” The other piece of it, I told him, was that I didn’t feel settled into my place. “I’ve lived here a year and half now, but still, I can’t seem to want to do the things I need to do to make it a place I want to be. My TV is still resting on a cardboard box full of books.”
     So tonight at dinner, Greg asks me how this restlessness is feeling now. Better? I think about it and remember the night before: For the first time in a while, I felt content at home. I practiced guitar all evening and then, before bed, I memorized the Mary Oliver poem. He tells me that he felt similarly content the night before. He’d listened to jazz and had a productive night of painting. We regularly trade stories of nights like these, moments when we feel peacefully alone, happy in our solitude. These stories inevitably center around art.
     Greg asks about my dad and tells me about his, who has his own declining health. We talk about the ways we help, the limits of our willingness, and the accompanying guilt. I
tell him I’m feeling like I should go up to Amarillo, where my dad lives, so he won’t be alone for Christmas, if he’s too unwell to travel. But I went just a month before for Thanksgiving, and I don’t want to miss what I have planned here in Houston. He tells me of his own sense of helplessness around his dad, whose memory is declining.
     Greg is my only friend (as far as I know) who memorizes poetry regularly. I probably got the idea from him. “I used to memorize poems when I’d run,” he tells me at dinner. “I’d add in a line at a time and practice it over and over again.” Greg was a competitive long-distance runner in college and a habitual runner ever sense. He was recently forced to quit because of a compressed disk in his lower back. Years ago, before he moved to a different neighborhood, he would run late at night through the streets of the neighborhood where I still live. I love the image of him jogging down the center of the street at 2 or 3 in the morning through the yellow pools of the old sodium street lights, the Houston sky behind him foggy and pink-hued.
     After dinner, because our restaurant is right there, we walk down the promenade on Heights boulevard, and I think of a young Timothy standing outside on a night like this over sixty years ago watching the geese “heading home.”
     It dawns on me that I too remember seeing flocks of geese in the sky when I was a child, but I can’t remember seeing geese overhead in recent years, maybe in decades. Later I would do some research and find out that for thousands of years 90% of the geese who migrated across North America wintered on this stretch of the Gulf Coast, from the Sabine River down to northeastern Mexico. But in the 1960’s, the numbers began to rapidly decline as reservoirs were built in the Midwest to support mass production of corn. Suddenly the wild geese didn’t have to fly so far to find a hospitable home for winter. Houston’s sprawl and recurring drought led to another sharp decrease in the number of geese migrating to south Texas in the 1990’s. But in this moment, walking down Heights Boulevard, the sky dark and clear and cool, I am content thinking of the wild geese simply as something that belonged to a different time, years past, an almost mythical creature who visited and delighted us once, blessed us with its presence, but now only exists in our stories.
     After dinner, Greg gives me one of his paintings. It’s a big, breathing abstract, colorful and in motion. He doesn’t say, but I suspect it’s his way of helping me make a home.
     Later, after I leave, Greg texts me to remind me of a line in the Mary Oliver poem: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It was a perfect example of assigning physicality to the experience of living, of giving form and flesh to a feeling. The innate and inescapable humanity of longing manifested in animal skin and fur. How can it be that what pains us and limits us is also our way of connecting with the world, of feeling alive?
     I check in with my dad when I get home. No emergency room trip today. I send him a picture of my new painting. He tells me he likes it. I ask him to send me a picture of himself. He sends a decent attempt at a selfie, him reclined watching television, the two stray cats he’s adopted pressed close by, Smokey Joe on his chest, Aristotle nestled into his side.
     It’s late now. We say goodnight. We’ll talk again in the morning.

Lajla Cline is a writer from Houston, Texas. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. She now lives in Houston where she teaches creative writing for Writers in the Schools (WITS), a non-profit that places writers in public schools around the city. 

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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