Sunday, January 12, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Timston Johnson, Abigail R Dockter, Raina Joines, Elizabeth Miller, Will Parry

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.


[Timston Johnston has the day off]

so he does not have to wake up at a certain time, but he still does, unprompted around 6:00. He has had dream about falling into the water and not becoming wet. He was pulled out by faceless figures who covered his eyes with their palms. He wakes with an odd anxiety and must remind himself where he is. He’s probably dealing with something. He stays in bed, marveling in the fact he has nothing to get ready for. He reads a bit, writes a bit, stares out the window. He is rereading a line from an Amy Leach essay stating, “Because [Earth] is so full of redundancies, so repetitious in its winters and fishes, we feel we have seen enough to get a handle on it…” Timston has become to rely on this lately, in means of recuperation from the ongoing work weeks. He decides he should let the day happen, rather than hide from it.

[Timston Johnston texts a friend]

who has a palindrome birthday: “happy birthday, butt.” The same text was sent the day before—an early accident. Timston creates a scheduled text to be sent the morning of the 22nd. It reads: “happy birthday, butt.” He will most likely do this until it stops being funny to him.

[Timston Johnston takes his supplements]

which includes an Omega3 (heart palpitations), a cinnamon capsule (for flavor (kidding, blood sugar and blood pressure)), a B12 (energy) he’s supposed to first dissolve under his tongue (he doesn’t), and vitamin D (he doesn’t drink milk). In the evening, with a meal, he will take some magnesium (leg cramps), if he remembers. He cuts a garlic clove into pill-sized pieces and swallows it all down with a glass of water with apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. He doesn’t know if any of this really does anything, but he feels healthy.

[Timston Johnston walks a block away to shut off his friends’ hot water heater]

because he was asked to, not because it’s some intricate prank he does; although, there’s an idea. They had forgotten to shut it off before leaving for Philadelphia. The friends recently bought him a nice pair of socks, which he wears now, so this task is the least he could do for them. Afterward, he stands in their living room; there, the furniture(bought, not found); there, a functioning bookshelf; there, an heirloom coffee table, a rug, a wall mirror, kids’ artwork, photos of family, and he thinks he could have a home like this, that is, if he chose to take on the life of a grownup.

[Timston Johnston overthinks the use of an exclamation point in a reply e-mail]

to an early-morning acceptance of a vignette he’d been having a hard time placing. He is in no way an exclamation point kind of guy (except among friends in sardonic ways. Example: [Oops! I meant, Happy Thanksgiving!]), and understands that there is a certain amount of excitement and appreciation that is meant to go into happily accepting a journal’s offer, however, he doesn’t like giving false expectations of his personality where one is meant to really sell one’s excitement and appreciation. That is, of course, under the impression that he will, one day, be in the presence of people with these expectations, and instead of being that excited, approachable person, he will instead be [gestures to himself, as if unveiling a pocked and wheel-less Chrysler bought on eBay]: this. He replies: “Thank you! I’d be honored!” instead of “Thank you. I’d be honored.” It’s at this point that he realizes how loud the second hand on his wall clock is.

[Timston Johnston dresses for public appearance]

old, holey, paint-stained work boots, a good pair of jeans, a gray zippered cardigan lined with a thin green hooded sweatshirt. Over that is nice camelhair colored overcoat, a green scarf with a Sasquatch (who also wears a scarf ), and a weathered, paint-stained ball cap he once found in a ditch.

[Timston Johnston heads in the direction of the muffin shop]

but first, he drops off a couple of books at the library, meanders there, looking at the new releases, finds nothing he would be able to return in 14 days (he still has quite the stack to get through on his bedside table), and walks down to the bookstore, a block away. He has been in the market for Lydia Davis’s new collection, and finally decides to commit. As he enters, he wipes his feet at the door, and a clerk proclaims he has earned a “wiped feet” discount (which was not honored at checkout). At the register is a bowl of Dove chocolate. Under the foil reads, “Enjoy a moment of yuletide bliss.” He doesn’t.

At the muffin shop, he buys an apple-cinnamon muffin and a vegan, gluten-free double-chocolate glob. Argue all you want about vegans and the gluten free: they’re doing just fine with what they have.

[Timston Johnston points to himself and says, “Me?”]

when a lone, oncoming woman on the sidewalk proclaims, “The sun’s out, yay!”

You got him again, Bluetooth.

But, yes. The sun is out. Yay.

[Timston Johnston soaks his beans]

which is not a euphemism; he’s preparing chili (unless you have an opinion on what constitutes chili, then he is preparing beans and peppers and tomatoes and spices). He considers what other chili preparations could be misconstrued, and figures it could be just be about any verb and noun combination as long as it contains ‘his’:
     Timston Johnston blanches his Romas
                                   grinds his cumin
                                   powders his mustard seeds
                                   sifts his coco powder

[Timston Johnston ties up the curtains]

in a half-assed half-Windsor. It is to let in the sun (sun’s out, yay), and is also an indicator to passerby friends that they are welcomed in his home. He has several loose leaf teas and several bagged. Unless tea is not your thing, there are beers and whiskeys and wines (unless stagnant wines can go bad, then there are no wines), and he has a Brita filter as a last resort. There’s ice in the freezer, or snow in the yard (if you’d want to risk it). There are good cherries and simple syrups and ginger beer in the fridge. There are two types of bitters atop the fridge and dried ginger in the pantry. There are plenty of mugs for the tea, or glass peanut butter jars for anything else. Music is on or you can join him in conversation, or revel in the solace that is reading in the sun, which is what you would find him doing, if you were to knock on his door. Kettle’s on the stove.

[Timston Johnston checks the news]

ope, no he doesn’t.

[Timston Johnston goes looking for a picture frame]

for a watercolor painting he had purchased off the Instagram the week before. But in order to buy a frame, he must know the size, and he has no ruler in the apartment. There is, he supposes, a tape measure in his tool bag, but why risk the rust and grease getting on the paper. So, he takes the painting long-ways, from the tip of the middle finger, and makes a mark in ink at the base of his palm. He does the same with the width. Then he seals the ink in liquid bandage so it will not wash away. He, again, thinks of what it means to be an adult.

[Timston Johnston forgets his sunglasses]

but only a block away from home. Marquette’s grid system is simple to navigate. A right-turn here, another after, and a straight shot forward gets him home. On the radio plays Lemon Pipers “Green Tambourine”. He sits outside his home until the song is over. “That’s probably about drugs,” he says.

[Timston Johnston takes another roundabout]

one of about eight in Marquette, this one, the old intersection between the Wal-Mart and the Target, an exceptionally busy spot. Timston stays in the center loop for five passes and then continues north to the Target parking lot, enjoying how pissed off so many drivers seem. “Anarchy!” he yells. The radio plays “Kodachrome”.

[Timston Johnston visits the Target]

for no particular reason other to than be around people, a swift exercise for an introvert with crowd anxiety. He eyes a line of rulers hanging in the stationary aisle, and so he picks one and measures both ink lines on his hand (5 x 7). People walk by and visibly question what they see. The trick here for Timston is to act as if every Target stationEry aisle in America has a man in a nice coat measuring the length of his hand. “No big deal,” he might say, “Welcome to Marquette. In Boise, they have Glenn; his cholesterol is also on the high-side of normal.”

A few aisles over, a shopper knocks over two boxes of Chicken in a Biskit and both land right side up. An aisle over from that, somebody says, “He loves Clif bars, doesn’t he?” She has grabbed over a dozen, so let’s hope.

Oreos: $2.50.

[Timston Johnston buys a few groceries at the Meijer]

where the parking lot is covered in a layer of compacted snow, giving Michigan drivers the chance to dust off that good old fashioned common sense. Inside he buys essentials: enough bananas until Tuesday (about eight), a loaf of multi-grain bread (that’ll last a week), an avocado for Sunday breakfast, a couple bulbs of garlic (again, a week, maybe less), and Brussels sprouts (a good price for those: two one-pound bags for $4.00). The store is crowded with so many voices they all mesh together like the surf. He sidesteps the people in an obvious rush, and nods an appreciation to those who let him slip between the rare cracks and vacancies between aisles.

Back in the parking lot after paying, Timston walks between two men, one saying proudly, “The wife isn’t too happy with me!” and Timston is looked to, as if for affirmation. Timston does spend an inordinate amount of time wondering about marriage, but he still does not know what kind of husband he would be. In an attempt to engage, he says, “Brussels sprouts are two for four; does that help?”

It does not.     

[Timston Johnston goes to a Michaels]

craft store, but has a hard time finding the frames. They are in the back, under a large hanging sign that reads FRAMES.

[Timston Johnston buys beer]

at a place outside of town that specifies in selling only Michigan made products. Timston chooses a new selection from Bells (down in Kalamazoo), an imperial red IPA that is 11%. The clerk notes that it’s an “ass-kicker,” where Timston replies, “Good.” At the register, there is another dish of complimentary chocolates. This one is a brand he does not recognize. It is bell shaped (and better than the Dove). 

[Timston Johnston idles at the South Beach Park]

while the sun sets. A haze lingers along the horizon that is a mixture of lavender and opaque cornflower. The lake is a choppy shade of every blue. A lazy ore freighter drifts into the harbor. The snow left on the break wall is a shade of rose and pale orange. Here, the park’s view to the south is Harvey’s shoreline, and to the north is Marquette’s lower harbor where you can see the Ridge Street hill where nice homes are nestled in the rocks and trees. Behind, on the iced-over bike path, a runner glides by. His stride is careful, even, and high-kneed.

[Timston Johnston finds a respite at home]

while one of the landlords’ children practices the cello. A soupy adagio bleeds through the shared wall. After that, some pizzicato.

Dinner is an ass-kicking beer with stir fry with broccoli, orange bell pepper, garlic, and mid-grade ramen.

[Timston Johnston watches Sesame Street perform an NPR Tiny Desk Concert]

and Jesus hopscotching Christ. 

[Timston Johnston goes drinking into the night]

stopping first at the Landmark Inn, a couple of blocks from his apartment. In the lobby is a Christmas sing-a-long where about fifty people listen. The music is jazzy and personable and the pub entrance is blocked, so Timston takes the elevator to the sixth floor to the Sky Lounge where the light is dim and mahogany and the view overlooks Lower Harbor, the old ore dock, and the scattered lanterns of the marina. Seated nearby is couple in what seems like a budget meeting. One is more astounded than the other: “$538.27 on shirts!” Timston was hoping to sit, enjoy a drink by the fire and read, but instead he is enamored in the absurdity of the seriousness of their situation, whatever it may be. A shame, the time wasted comparing the weight of shadows.

[Timston Johnston has an old fashioned]

(or three) at the wine bar down the hill. The night gets a little fuzzy from there. He talks to the staff until 11, when the bar closes. He then leaves toward Lower Harbor and the empty marina. There is no clear line where dark water ends and dark sky begins. The evening clouds have somewhat cleared and there is no moon; he was hoping, by walking this way, to see it. He is just sober enough to take its absence in stride and just drunk enough to not check the rest of the sky behind him.

[Timston Johnston welcomes loneliness]

and not for the first time; it is a feeling that replenishes itself each time he gets a break from his workaday life. Sometimes it comes slowly, other days, like now, abruptly and fierce. The weird thing to him is that he doesn’t think of it as a foe or as something to remedy; it’s just a feeling, the same as embarrassed or hungry. Along the harbor, there is a light lapping of waves against the landing, which is a common noise, but there, to Timston, it is the reminder that it’s a noise that would exist whether he was there to hear it or not; he finds himself lucky enough to be there for it and the other simple pleasures around him: the lamppost lighting up the untouched snow, the clanging of an iced rope against the flagpole, a late-season marina duck quacking a language only the other ducks understand. Loneliness here only prevents Timston from telling someone he knows what the duck is saying. It’s saying, “I’m a duck! I’m a duck! I’m a duck!”

[Timston Johnston goes home]

uphill—Front Street onto Blaker. By the Presbyterian Church, there is a minivan, the side door ajar with the interior light on, and inside in both the front seat and the rear is a collection of helium-filled Mylar balloons: round shaped, daisy shaped, heart shaped. Nobody is around while he walks by, and he nods and says, “Evening, compact circus.”

Nearby, across the back lot of the Landmark Inn, employees smoke under the service lights of the loading dock. It’s easy to predict they have somewhere else they want to be, someone to go home to, to lie in bed with while a nothing-noise, whether it be a clock, or a neighbor’s TV, or the ticking of an exhausted radiator edifies their sanctuary. Maybe there, the other, who’d been home a while now, waiting, would lean in, stymie sleep just a little longer to ask, “So, how was your day?”

Timston Johnston lives in Marquette, MI and works for a company he can't tweet about.


What Happened on December 21, 2019

Solstice comes to the Rim Country, the Transition Zone, the part of Arizona between the high deserts and the low ones, where you can look out over the exact edge of the Colorado Plateau as it drops off into canyons winding away towards the Sonoran Desert below.

I’ve been coming here for work, off and on, for about a year now. I’ve been here often enough to sense patterns: the scorched trunks of living trees and the brushy burn scar of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the sticky red clay after rain, the universally awful decor of rented vacation homes, the cut stumps and bulldozer push piles from clearing after the fire. Patterns of the forest’s archaeology sites are becoming familiar too, since my job is to help record them. The sites are made of broken pottery in black, white, brown, red, gray; sharp stone tools and smooth grinding stones; shadows of rooms cut through by bulldozer swaths; fired clay with imprints of sticks and human fingers where it was pressed into walls; piles of small artifacts rejected by looters; bulk food and tobacco cans; scars of mid-century logging roads with stacks of empty oil containers; dumps of 1960s household trash.

Country radio wants a hell yeah this morning, but I’m not in the mood. “This song was not written when it was 18 degrees outside,” says Seth, my coworker. The rented work truck is so ridiculously big that I have to give myself a pep talk every time I climb in and out of it. It drives stiff and unforgiving down these roads of carved mud that Seth calls the kidney-grinder, and we rattle around with our gear in the enormous cab. Holly flips the radio station, bolting away from kamikaze Christmas songs that come out of nowhere just when 70s rock has lulled her into a false sense of security. The sun has not yet come over the horizon, although it’s light enough to see. This is all we need.

Archaeology survey asks that we cover an area at 15-meter intervals. We walk in cardinal directions, east-west or north-south, trying to adhere to the little numbers on our GPS units and the imaginary grid of latitude and longitude. None of these grids care about the kind of landscape we might have to walk over. Lat/long doesn’t care if your line crosses the braided water in Phoenix Park Wash, like this morning, or if it goes through stands of young ponderosa pines so dense you can’t fit between the trunks, each one trying to crowd the others out of sunlight. The line might go through thorn bushes or straight up and down a steep ridge, like today. Unless the situation is deemed dangerous, we walk the line wherever it may go.

This way of walking contrasts strangely with the way people traversed this country in the past to create the sites we’re looking for. They followed the rise for the view, or followed the low spots for water. They followed the paths of deer and elk and the niches of pinyons and wild onions. They walked familiar paths to bottomland corn plantings, and took the safest paths to visit family. In other words, based on what I can see from my ridiculous scientific line, they did things that mostly kinda made sense.

As soon as we get out of the truck, a pack of coyotes sets up a yip and a howl that goes for several minutes, the chorus echoing dramatically from the valley walls. There is a silence out here that I appreciate, when you stop walking and there are no birds or animals or ATVs. The same silence that was here before you came and will be here after you leave. We go down into the cold air drainage, hear the comforting gurgle of liquid water beneath the ice, and feel the marked difference in temperature as we walk up the east-facing slope. We shed layers and put them back on. I sweat and take off my hat; the sweat cools and I scramble to put it back on again. Water freezes in the plastic tube I drink from. My shoelaces catch as I stumble up the hill and back down again.

But Holly calls out and we stop. “A core and a flake,” she says, and we leave our lines to join her. We spiral out from the artifacts, looking for more, and there are pieces of flaked stone and broken pottery scattered down the slope. It’s a new site, not one recorded before, so we give it a number and mark its location on our grids. It’s a good view for sitting and sharpening your tools, not too far from water.

A number of ancient sites in the broader region have solar calendar features. The ones still intact and working are made from stone: gaps, alignments that shoot daggers of light or shadow on petroglyphs or built rock walls. The most famous ones in Chaco Canyon and Hovenweep mark the summer solstice, a helpful point of reference in both the agricultural and ceremonial calendars of Ancestral Puebloan people. Sometimes whole buildings are aligned with the sun’s position on the solstice or equinox. Out here the sites are mostly small, buried, silent, unstudied. But even if my job might have seemed ridiculous to them, the people who made these sites cared very much for some kinds of lines and measurements. At least some of them probably knew, with great precision, when the winter solstice happened.

Another site appears, this one previously recorded, not far from the site we encountered earlier and pretty similar in its remaining bits and pieces. We’ll come back later to record these sites in more detail, counting and describing every broken artifact and drawing more invisible lines around the scatter so that it can be protected from controlled burns and brush clearing. The hillside is warming up and by the end of the work day, all the ice has melted but what’s still in the shadows around the water and under the trees. By the end, I feel this day in my knees. Holly waves at two deer as they pass by. “One day they’ll wave back,” she says.

By the end of the day I feel hungry, burned like a candle in the cold, ready to heater-worship with canned soup and Jane Austen under the bossy decorations of the rented cabin (“Follow your dreams! Relax! Live, Laugh, Love!”). Archaeology is focused on artifacts and famously acquisitive, but all I ever take out of the forest is time. We leave the sites under frost, slowly sliding down their hillside. I leave the perfect curve of a deer antler poised on its log under fading light like museum sculpture.

Abigail R. Dockter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and has done botany and archaeology from the high plains to the Southwest. Her work appears in, Edible magazines, and in Essay Daily’s What Happened on June 21st.


What Happened on 12/21/19

I wake up at 5:30 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and listen to the ‘LectroFan Micro hum until my alarm goes off at 6:00. It is the first full day of Christmas vacation at my sister’s house, and we are going to a wrestling tournament. It will be my first. I’m excited to see my nephews compete, but I’m pretty certain I’m headed into alien territory. I’ve packed a giant bag of snacks and a novel.

R. and I are night owls and prefer not to speak until after noon. We ritually show each other our teeth and a flurry of furious whispers about how to act ensues. We slump on the AeroBed for a moment and stare at the dark windows. We kiss. Then we descend to the kitchen for coffee. Everyone clears a path. My father is pouring milk on his cereal in the dining room. He has a hand towel over his head. My sister has been up for ages and is bustling around. She puts pants on the littlest kid. I grab a handful of blueberries. R. sips a milky coffee from an Arkansas Women Bloggers mug and heads back upstairs. He puts on aqua pants and a matching shirt. Apparently, these are the team colors. Only then do I think about the team or who might be on it. I don’t really care. I am only going to see two boys, to observe how their bodies move as they grapple and twist, to watch how they plant their legs, and to cheer them on.

We go in three vehicles. My sister is headed out at 7:15 with nephew #3, the youngest. He started wrestling this year. He is a morning person, like my sister, and he is wrestling early. I follow with R., my father, and my oldest nephew. Nephew #1 has a red hoodie on and headphones slung around his neck. He isn’t pleased by the early hour. My father is still stiff with sleep. We get into the car at 7:45 and head to the Neosho Battle for the Belt.

The view is of farmlands and fences; there’s a barn stacked high with giant spools of pale hay. The sky is blue and rippled with dark blue clouds. The sun comes up. Everyone is quiet in the car. Nephew #1 puts on his headphones. My dad looks asleep. I’ve forgotten my gloves in the trunk. My right hand is cold from the steering wheel and R. warms it in his. We cross Bear Hollow Road. Missouri welcomes us. The first view of the town looks grim, like the back wing of a rest home. There’s nothing above one story. I feel glad we don’t live in Neosho. Then we arrive at a large high school. The parking lot is jammed. I wedge the Toyota between giant pickups and worry it will be crushed like a tin can when everyone roars out in a rush. We gather our things and head in past the custom-painted parking spaces of the seniors, through the double doors of the school, and into the crowd. I reel in the noise of hundreds of people revved up on caffeine, carbs, team spirit, and adrenaline.

We hand over three dollars apiece, get our hands stamped, and head past concessions and the sales tables. A woman is selling some kind of special drink mix. I hesitate with R. in the lobby before heading in to find the others. We’re about to head into a very large gym jammed with people, which gives us both pause, perhaps for different reasons. We wait to go in as the national anthem plays. The gymnasium has a high ceiling with curved beams like the sanctuary of a Protestant church. We plunge in as a loud announcer begins what sounds like an uplifting speech on good sportsmanship. We get halfway to the bleachers before realizing it is a prayer. We freeze, confused. This pedagogical petition doesn’t last long, and the matches begin before we even turn around. There’s a bunch of dithering when we find my sister dissatisfied with an excellent spot; no video is allowed from our side and we’ll have to move. We switch sides and climb to a place high up under the one burnt-out light in the entire gym. I can’t see anything clearly. I scowl. I am rattled by the noise, the press of people, the flags, the feng shui. I princess around for a moment as if one spot on the bleachers will be more comfortable than the others. Eventually R. and I go down to be close to the fighting floor. My father joins us. We plop our pillows down on a wooden bench where we will sit for the next seven hours and finally focus on a match. Two girls are desperately trying to get ahold of each other.

What did I imagine? Something like a prize fight? A pair of boxers in a spotlight, with every spectator cheering for one of two contestants? There are five matches going on at once, all in a row. Everyone else in the gym is yelling for a different person or perhaps for something entirely unrelated to the tournament. It is impossible to tell who is winning or losing in the sped-up chaos, and children run off the floor without visible signs of triumph or defeat. A line of mobile scoreboards reports a set of numbers for each match, but they don’t mean anything. The officials sit stoically. One has a puffy pink mohawk and a RBF that suggests experience with angry parents. Every girl in the gym who is not a contestant has a giant bow in her hair, which disturbs me. I hate this kind of over-anxious gender identification. But I’ve worn a shirt of blue camo to pretend to fit in. The adults are in team shirts or sweaters that mark them out as wrestling moms. Little kids in singlets are everywhere: coming on and off the floor, pouring out of the stands, running through the halls, shaking the hands of coaches, listening to the exhortations of their parents, or disappearing into some back room only to recirculate onto the floor and into the arms or under the legs of another child.

After twenty minutes, the constant blowing of the whistles begins to erode my temper and I stick my earplugs in. Relief. I start to figure out what is happening. The smallest kids in the first division are at the far end and the bigger ones are right in front of us. The former flutter around in their match like whirling dragonflies, hardly seeming to touch the floor. Gravity seems to take effect somewhere in the middle, with kids being flipped and or flopping over one another. On our end, everything slows, and we can see the look on the kids’ faces as they go down. Intense concentration and frustration. They are here to win.

Texts fly. 6013, 6022, and 6028 are the first match numbers for nephew #2, who will come in the final car with his father and wrestle in the afternoon. He is competing in two divisions: his own and the one above him, against bigger boys from whom he is to learn new tricks. Nephew #3 is hopping up and down across the floor, waiting on his own match. He runs in, places a green strap around his ankle, touches the hand of his opponent. The match happens and seems to go well, but I’m too busy trying to figure out the scoring to track his moves. Everywhere boys are grabbing other boys by the waist and trying to upend them. Nephew #1 comes cruising in, cramming a doughnut into his mouth. His face is covered in powdered sugar. His mother doesn’t have time to watch him while she videos his baby brother. He will disappear periodically all day, weaving in and out of the crowd. At one point, my sister will take his phone and review its browsing history to see if he is living up to his end of the bargain.

Some of the older girls end their matches with a handshake and a hug. I learn from my sister that girls’ wrestling is about to start in Arkansas public schools. Here, they are also wrestling boys in open matches. My father says he doesn’t approve of this, as if that were in doubt. I suddenly see that the bands around the wrestlers’ ankles correspond to bands on the referees’ wrists and to points on the board and I grasp how it all works. Time passes and the tenor of the losses change. Some kids are quietly crying as they leave the mat; others rush up into the bleachers to their parents and let loose, defeated and heartbroken. It is double elimination. They are falling down the brackets. One girl is in front of me, her face a picture of utter despair as she looks back over her shoulder for someone to comfort her. Her friends gather and in fifteen minutes they are eating slushies and playing games on their phones.

2028. How do these match numbers work? The little nephew runs in again for another go. I run to the floor to cheer. This match is longer: he gets some points, loses some. He gets another and it is over. He’s won. Won the entire division, in fact, even though it seemed he had hardly any matches. With no fanfare, the division placings are announced and my nephew is named champion. No one stops wrestling for even a moment; everything continues, the tournament is already an hour behind. My nephew is given a giant white belt with a gold plate in the middle. It is ludicrously large. It almost wraps around his body twice and looks like something a middleweight boxer might wear for a photo shoot. It says “world champion,” which seems rather hyperbolic, even for a kids’ tournament. It has advertising from a chiropractor on it; perhaps it is really for the champion’s parents, who have sat on high school bleachers on numerous Saturdays. My own back is killing me; my father is getting up to walk around with more frequency. My nephew hauls the belt around and gets pictures with his coaches, who take a knee and put their arm around his waist for the photos.

It seems like the peak of the tournament might be over for us and things start to blur. Two redheaded girls wrestle. Their French braids are tight and the ends are stuffed into their headgear. The bottoms of both of their shoes are pink. The audience flows in and out of the gym carrying nachos, nasty-looking chili, cups of soda, Gatorade, and pouches of Kool-Aid. A woman in a Trump shirt walks by with a large poodle in a service vest on a leash. We go on a walk outside. My father labors slowly up the hill with me. We go back in and eat pita bread and hummus from the cooler, wiggling on the bleachers and twisting our spines around. The older boys start to arrive for the upper divisions and the air in the gym turns sour.

The middle nephew arrives with his father and wrestles in two divisions—one his, one for practice—with one match coming close upon the next. He has a wall full of medals in his own division, but the older boys are beating him. He starts fighting not to win but to avoid losing, making them expend a lot of effort to prevail. He is wily and wiry. He splays his legs out, holds his head off the mat, and lifts his palms up so they don’t touch.  He’s working the rules of the game and his opponents look exasperated. They have to beat him, but he’s spending their strength. I feel a surge of kinship at his tenacity. He looks satisfied with himself and has no intention of giving up. But he’s getting tired too, and once a boy gets a fifteen-point spread on him, the match is over. My nephew goes back to his own division match. His parents discuss whether he should keep wrestling up during such a long day.

There are a few exciting matches on the floor with older boys who’ve been at this for a while. A lean, serious pair crouches in front of each other and fling their arms toward each other. The fight has no middle tempo: there are slow moments where they look for an opening and sudden, effective holds we barely see happen. One moves like a bullet every time the whistle blows. Their contest looks different from the others, as if a strong gravity pulls them in toward each other. They keep getting free, then falling together like water swirling down a drain.

Suddenly nephew #3 is lost. He’s here somewhere and I’m not worried, but we all separate and look for him. I stand at the top of the bleachers like a hawk in a tree, scanning for his round face. In a flash, I remember a moment after his oldest brother first came home from the hospital. I placed the baby on the bed and put my arms around him to form a protective nest. I don’t see his little brother in the gym. His coach starts looking with us. He goes into the locker rooms, peers into the closets, and sticks his head out of the back door, which has been thrown open to let in the cool air. There’s a paved alley at the back of the building; anyone could drive up. Then the little champion is found playing outside with strangers, oblivious to all the fuss.

It is three o’clock and we’re exhausted. Sitting in bleachers for hours is excruciating. R’s eyes look glazed, as if he’s falling into a healing stupor to preserve the last of his energy. My sister gives a speech about how we don’t have to stay, how nephew #2 has had plenty of attention, how his division could go on until evening depending on conditions. She’s pulled him out of the upper-division matches, so there’s nothing to see for hours. I look at my dad and R. They want to go. I feel torn. I don’t want it to seem like we’re leaving because he isn’t winning every match. He hates to lose. Does he understand he’s wrestling outside of his weight class? What he gains by every loss? His father tries to persuade us it is ok to go. I close my eyes and give in; I get ready to drive my carload home.

Or to dinner. We make a plan to meet in Rogers at Abuelo’s. My sister departs. My own passengers ride in silence. There’s a wait at the restaurant, which has big murals on the walls and a fountain with water falling down strings of plastic beads. Nephew #3 walks to the TV to look at a football game. We stuff ourselves into a big booth. My sister perks up. R. and I order margaritas and start to unbend. My dad doesn’t order any food; he’s been a little nauseated all day, and his ears are bothering him. There are chips and salsa, stuffed mushrooms, shredded pork, fish tacos. Salt is on my lips and I order another skinny margarita. I am temporarily restored. My brother-in-law sends a text; nephew #2 has just won third place in his division. 

My sister is pleased, but she is getting a look on her face that says her window of coherent thought is running out. She should head back. Everyone leaves for home in the van, except for R. and I, who decide to walk to the organic grocery to get brown sugar. We end up with a bunch of holiday treats, including apple cider and Nutella-filled crepes. The cashier smiles at our stash. We head home in the dark. My dad says goodnight and gets in bed as soon as we arrive. We are in pajamas and cycling through our bedtime rituals by 9:00. We’re crashing. The final vehicle arrives home, but we don’t even see my middle nephew before he collapses in bed. The Battle for the Belt is over.

Raina Joines has received residencies from Blue Mountain Center, the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and the Lillian E. Smith Center. Her work may be found in Chattahoochee Review, Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, I-70 Review, and Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. She lives in Denton, Texas. 


What Happened on December 21st

The clock reads 4:50 a.m. I know it is the shortest day of the year, but it will not be a short day, only dark. Enough half days and abbreviated weeks as a teacher have taught me that the days I expect to be short and easy rarely are. The two small children still asleep down the hall remind me of this lesson daily. I can hear that the younger one is awake now, just babbling, so no need for me to get out of bed yet. I rue the early hour, but not the extra rest I am afforded by being able to stay in bed a bit longer.

Soon enough, everyone is awake. The morning is cold, cloudy. We put a fire on and will keep it going all day. Our three-year-old is sniffling, a head cold coming on, which means she acts cranky, but not routine cranky; rather, she exhibits world-is-ending crankiness. M’s temper flares when she is getting sick, and I try to remember she’s three, she’s three, she doesn’t feel well, but my patience stretches only so far when the crankiness turns into demands that seem excessive: get me my monkey, now; pick up my tissue; get me another tissue (within her easy reach); hand me my orange juice (also within reach). I briefly wonder whether other small children react so strongly to the onset of a mild head cold. I take a deep breath. She’s three, she’s three, she doesn’t feel well.

The baby settles easily for a nap after the limited wake period of a five-month-old, all smiles and cooing at the music that plays from an otherwise defunct mobile above his swing. But the head-cold-induced grouchies persist in the other room, every word I say contradicted by a nasal voice. By the time C returns from his late-morning run, my patience is all but gone. I offer to do the grocery shopping. Immediately. I cannot get out of the house quickly enough. But don’t you need lunch first? he asks. No. I’ll be fine. Fresh air and quiet will feed me as well as any meal right now.

Several months ago my mother gave me a kitchen towel that reads: Motherhood. You know your life has changed when a trip to the grocery store by yourself is a vacation. I generally can’t stand sayings like these that paint basic obligations, like showering or grocery shopping, as some sort of reward or luxury. But this one is accurate today, which I suppose is okay for now because it won’t always be true, just like the baby’s fuzzy hair won’t always tickle my face when I hold him close. In the meantime, I just want to get to the store.

There, I see a young girl, three or four years old and from all appearances good-natured, trailing after her mother, and I wonder why this isn’t my situation. Often, though, the good-natured little girl trailing me is my situation. Strangers compliment me on her behavior. So I think to myself, she’s three, she’s three, she doesn’t feel well. It is so hard to remember these things in the midst of a hair-pulling day.

I buy the groceries and treat myself to an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. I get home, eat the lunch I picked up from the hot bar, and enjoy the cookie with a cup of tea. I do laundry and more laundry.

It is difficult to capture the mess that is the middle of the day. It is a loop of whining, crying, fatigue, and trying. Whoever coined the term “threenager” knew what they were talking about. Eventually, the only answer is to go outside. We decide on a family walk and make it a long one, chill the kids into silence and have what feels like our first actual conversation in months. At some point we forget the kids are with us because we walk farther than we’d intended. The baby sits contentedly in his stroller, near motionless in the December air, but the turn to go back elicits protests from M. We remind her that she will get to see the yard with too many inflatable decorations on the return trip; this satisfies her.

The fresh air is restorative for all of us, even if only briefly. Once home and back inside, the baby fusses when I try to put him down for his late-afternoon nap, which clearly is not going to happen. We all sit by the fire, which is still burning, the dusk sneaking through the windows, making the flames look brighter. M looks out the back door toward the sky. “It’s getting sunsetty,” she says. Moments like these bring me back down.

At dinner, all four Advent candles are now burning as we read today’s prayer about the sun of justice and saving light. M has been waiting all these days for the moment when finally all the candles would be lit, but five minutes into the meal we are on our umpteenth meltdown of the day. C takes her to sort it out while I sit at the table to finish my meal, baby on my lap, four candles glowing and darkness all around.

We get them to bed. Rekindle the fire. They stir. We get them to bed again. We sit, we read, we stew, we wonder, hope for more patience, for fewer tears, for a weekend day to hold some favor every now and then. This joint holding of our breath that we’re doing this right even when everything feels wrong, this parental exhaustion, delight, burden, way of life, has us hoping that the difficult moments will blur into the background, leaving us to remember mostly what shines.

Solstice won’t occur until 11:19 p.m., and so we go to bed this Saturday night. Tomorrow is a new day. Let there be light.

Elizabeth is an English teacher in Montgomery County, MD, currently on long-term childcare leave with her two children. She knows that the years are short, but that some days, namely this past Dec. 21, are very long.


A small orange traffic cone, sitting on a frozen lake. Most would barely notice it. Some would wonder for a brief moment, and then dismiss it. A very select few would stew over that cone for days, all the time coming up with possible reasons. Someone tried to show that the ice was unsafe to skate on, to prevent incidents similar to what happened in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or, alternatively, the cone marked the spot of the famous shipwreck of the HMS Meerkat, which was sunk during the seventh great pirate war. The cone could be a beacon for the evil horse aliens from Pluto, so that they would know where to aim their death ray of doom (although why they would aim at a small pond in southern Idaho is beyond me). Consider something else: the cone sits on the surface of the water now, correct? This could only be possible when the water was in it’s solid state of matter, also known as ice. Water does not turn into ice until the temperature drops below freezing: 32℉ or 0℃. The temperature only drops that low during the winter, because of the complicated physics that I’m sure I’ll never understand, but the fact remains that the water would turn into a liquid every spring, and the cone would sink to the bottom of the pond. Now if the person who did this did it every winter for whatever reason, the sunken cones would slowly collect in a pile at the bottom of the lake. That might not seem very interesting to “normal” people, but just imagine the possibilities. They could be etching out an enormous symbol at the bottom of the lake, or a message that could only be read when all the water on earth evaporates. Even better yet, they could be slowly creating the famed portal to fardlebum, the dimension of Popsicle (full directions for creating this portal can be found at Or possibly this cone was concealing a secret. Maybe it was a croissant that was burned and the guilty person hid it under an orange traffic cone and slid it to the center of the frozen pond. Or perhaps it was just a traffic cone that my hyperactive imagination decided to play with.  

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

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