Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rachel Ratner's June 21, 2018

RACHEL RATNER

June 21, 2018—

I am a summer baby, in the truest sense. I came into this world on June 21st, when the
day is long, and the night is short, and airy, chatty Gemini gives way to sentimental Cancer, and spring turns to summer, brimming with possibility, with wonder, with the enchantment of new smells and sounds: a whiff of sunscreen, a symphony of crickets, a blossoming romance. On June 21st, we’ve not yet accounted for the swampy asses, sandy crotches, and oppressive subway platforms ahead, on June 21 we are still on the cusp of magic.
     On this June 21, I wake up in a Courtyard Marriott in Sunnyvale, California. I can feel that I’m not home, even before I open my eyes; sunlight floods my hotel room in a way it never does back home in Portland, OR. I begin this day like all others: disoriented, reaching for the phone, silencing my alarm before it gets loud enough to be annoying, and autopilot-tapping my way onto the Astrology Zone app, where I read both Gemini and Cancer horoscopes.
     As a June 21 baby, I sit on a zodiac cusp—neither and both. Always the end, and always the beginning. I suspect my first identity crisis (there have been a few) was deciding if I was a Gemini Twin or Cancer Crab. Was I ruled by idea or emotion? I couldn’t decide, so usually, I read both horoscopes and accept whichever is the most exciting or most devastating, depending on my mood. At some point, I learned that astrologers refer to this specific in-between as the Cusp of Magic. One astrologer said this cusp, and those of us born on it, are symbolically likened to age 21, when we approach new experiences with a childlike wonder, when the world is our horizon, and we are enamoured with potential.
     I am nothing if not enamoured with the horizon. This is both a fantastic and terrible quality for an event planner (which I am). I approach my work, and each new event with an anything-is-possible mentality. My enthusiasm is infectious to all, until it’s time to put all those ideas in a spreadsheet and execute the damn thing. It’s hard to hold on to all the promise, when you’re 46 emails deep with a caterer who just doesn’t get your vision for the aperitifs.
     This morning I dress in all black (event day uniform) and head downstairs. When I get off the elevator, I see a few of my event team members waiting for me at a table in the lobby. They begin a sluggish version of “Happy Birthday,” but they are uncaffeinated and peter out before the end.
“Who has the van keys?” Kara, the senior event producer asks us. We all pat down our hips, and asses, and backpacks, until the van’s last driver, Lizette claims ownership from across
 the lobby. She hands the keys to Kyle, this event’s Creative Director. When I first met Kyle, I assumed that he was a San Francisco bro. He’s hip, usually hidden behind a MacBook Air, with just a flat-brimmed colorful hat and half-sleeve peeking out around the screen. But soon I know much more. He is from New Orleans by way of Detroit; an artist, a vegetarian, an Aires. His hands are big, rough, not the hands of someone who sits behind a computer all day. They show the markings of someone who knows how to work.
     “Ready?” Kyle says to me, holding the van keys. He is smiling. He is much more functional in the morning than I am. I feel my eyes widening with enthusiastic consent—they are Disney-princess-like as I follow him outside.
     Four days earlier, I rented that van from the Enterprise next door. When I noticed “pick up rental car and put down credit card” listed under my job duties, I panicked. Before I turned 25, I regarded renting a car as a signifier of true adulthood. If I could rent a car, I was adult enough to do anything. But now, car rentals had come to represent my own developmental delay, my adulting failures. Before they let you rent a car, companies like Enterprise place a large credit hold on your card, and even at times perform on-the-spot credit checks. Although I would be reimbursed for any expenses I incurred, my credit cards were usually maxed, and I was faced with the awkward position of asking my mother to help me make a dent on my Visa balance, so I could drive that van off the lot.
     The first day of the event, I pulled the van up to the Courtyard Marriott, and Kyle, who was still a stranger then, hopped in the passenger side. From the driver’s seat, I felt him watch me slowly inch out of the parking lot and merge into the morning commute. “I hate driving,” I said excusing my nervous merge.
     “Well, obviously.”
     “What does that mean?” I feigned outrage. I knew exactly what he meant.
     “You just don’t look that comfortable cemented to the 10 and 2.” He said he would drive from now on. I could DJ.

“Well, 34!” he says, inching out of that same parking lot on June 21. “Don’t remind me.”
     “Why not?”
     “Well, it’s 34—it’s like the last young year.”
     “How do you figure?”
     “At 35 you can run for president. Constitutionally speaking, that’s grown up.”
     “That’s fair, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think ‘presidential’ and adulthood are still synonymous.”
     “I guess I’ve always considered 34 to be a last chance year—your last chance to fuck up and blame it on youthful indiscretion or call it a learning opportunity.” I intentionally avoided specifics like, at 35 you’re too old to ask your mother to pay off your credit card so you can go to Enterprise.
Kyle changes the subject. Earlier that week we commiserate about recent exes, when mid conversation, he cut himself off, embarrassed: “If I tell you the full story I feel like you’ll think badly of me.”
     “What? No. I love talking about this stuff.”
     “You’re such a gossip,” he teased.
     “I am! Tell me on my birthday. We’ll drink tequila and you can gift this gossip to me.” Before the tequila, and before we even hit our first traffic light, he launches into it. I listen with the same care I would take unwrapping a beautifully wrapped gift—pausing to consider after I remove each layer of paper, anxiously anticipating where it’s going, what I’m uncovering.
     He tells me that over the course of their brief relationship—“we’re talking four months max”— this ex went under the knife three times, for three different plastic surgery procedures.
     “You’re kidding me!” I say. I sound like my mother.
     “No!” he laughs. “Her life and her surgeries are completely funded by her parents,” he adds, not hiding his disgust.
     “Wow,” I say, shifting to hide something he cannot see.
     We talk about authenticity, and the lack of it, how we present ourselves on the dating apps, and when, if ever, you actually know someone. I wonder if under other circumstances we’d swipe right on each other.
     Watching Kyle behind the wheel of the minivan reminded me of a recent episode of The Bachelorette, where contestant Garrett, hoping to make an impression on bachelorette Becca, arrives at the mansion driving a souped-out minivan. He takes her hand, and slides open the door to reveal a backseat full of car seats, sports equipment, and diaper bags. He says it represents the future he is driving towards. I thought Becca was too smart for such a hokey stunt, but she loves it, and watching Kyle drive behind the wheel, I can see the appeal. I doubt either of us will ever be in the market for a minivan, but I like playing this version of grown up with him—trying on a life, where together, we endure the morning commute, stop at the adjacent shopping center for iced coffees, discuss what we have in store for the day, me DJing, him driving, indulging my preference for Lite FM: Easy Morning Listening.
     It’s not yet 7am when we arrive at the event center. The catering staff is setting out breakfast when my roommate, Meredith FaceTimes me with birthday wishes. I sneak out of the event production office, and en route to a quiet place to chat, give her a virtual tour of the space. “Look at this pool!” I say, holding the phone to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the an Olympic size swimming pool in the middle of the campus. A few Googlers are swimming laps, some are tanning on surrounding lounge chairs.
     The first day of the event, after I got lost in a maze of on-campus cafes, nap rooms, and cute picnic spaces full of vibrant young people, I stood in front of the same windows and looked out on what felt like another world. Kyle stood next to me, and silently we watched a handful of Googlers breast stoke across the pool. “Where did I go wrong?” I asked him. “Why am I not working here? Why is this not my office view?” I was (mostly) kidding, enduring parallel silence was not? one of my skills.
     “You don’t want this,” he said. “You would be miserable.” He spoke with the authority of someone who knew me—someone who knew that despite the shiny perks (sunny views, massage chairs, snack rooms), such a workplace would suffocate my creativity, my sense of wonder, my enthusiasm for what could be. And though we only just met, I knew Kyle wouldn’t want this either. Kyle was unlike most other ‘event’ people I encounter. I mean, he’s a straight guy—we don’t get a lot of that in these parts—but specifically, there is an openness about him. He is not interested dictating from a clipboard or a creative brief; he is present, he is sharing the experience with you. Kyle is a painter, and when he is not working on an event, he is traveling, learning, creating—animation school in Paris, Spanish classes in Mexico City, buying property in New Orleans, and dreaming of what it can be—always adding more color to his pallet.
     After my birthday FaceTime with Meredith, some of the event team is tasked with jimmy-rigging 50 pieces of scrap cardboard into 25 science fair trifolds. I am the first to volunteer. “I love a craft project!” I say sincerely. A few others join me; we have one hour to finish before the attendees arrive, and we need to go, go, go. It feels like we’re on HGTV. Both Kara and Kyle insist that the birthday girl curate a playlist for the project. I tell them they’ll regret it. The craft supplies are out, the walkie talkies synched up, I am sweating from running trifolds around the event space, and the co-working banter is definitely reality TV-worthy, when Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” plays from my phone.
     “Oh goodie, another Billy Joel song,” someone says. I laugh, and tell them that as a Long Islander, Billy Joel music is the soundtrack of my life. I don’t tell her just how right this song is for this moment, when I don’t feel like I’m at work, or Google HQ, or a country club, but rather I feel like I’m summer camp, which has always been my space. It’s where strangers instantly become friends, life plans are dreamed up, new skills are mastered, and inspiration is always present. And like the song says, I haven’t been here in the longest time.
     My phone rings, and interrupts the Billy. Kyle glances at the screen, “Fran’s calling,” he says. “Again.” It’s very important to my mother, Fran, that she connect with me on my birthday. It was barely 11am, and I sent four of her calls to voicemail. Since we were just about finished, I answer.
“Happy birthday, Ray!” she yells. “How’s my summer baby?” I tell her I am good. I mean it—so much so, that I feel a little buzzed when I say it. “Really?” she says, and then after a thoughtful pause adds: “That makes me so happy!” She is genuinely surprised.
     For as often and enthusiastically as this summer baby falls in love with the horizon, I have a hard time holding onto all that is good, and all that is possible during a setback. It’s challenging to have a summer camp mentality when you’re knee-deep in finals week. The setbacks really do set me back, and during my 33rd year the setbacks hit hard.
     In November, my lifelong best friend died of lung cancer. We knew each other since utero, and were born three days apart. She, the first day, me, the last day of the Cusp of Magic. I spent most of the year collapsed into the couch, not working, usually drugged, void of any enthusiasm, or sense of possibility. I’ve always had a laissez-faire attitude towards adulting, but over the last year, would laundry cover the floor for months, accounts were overdrawn, work nonexistent, sobriety optional, showering not required. It was like being 21 again, in all the worst possible ways. My mother would call to ask ‘how are you?’ and like a parent of a toddler who has just stumbled, she would hold her breath for my answer, suspending her reaction until I’d either jump up to shake it off, or I’d decide I was too hurt to stand. For most of 33, I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t see beyond my own grief.
     My roommate, Meredith would whiteboard my accomplishments, exciting action steps, and all the great things in the works—there was so much to look forward to, she’d say. And I would feel positive for a matter of time, a moment, an afternoon, but then 3, 2, 1, poof! Like the sneeze or orgasm that slips away, the good feeling would disappear. When winter turned spring things started to improve for me, good feeling stayed around for a while, possibility bloomed again, but no one, myself included, thought I’d get through this week unscathed. How could I celebrate my birthday, when hers never came to be?
     “Do they know it’s your birthday?” my mother asks. They did. I slipped it in earlier that week, when we were all sitting in the production office, and someone mentioned the summer solstice. “Which is also my birthday!” I said, like I couldn’t contain it anymore. Kyle looked up from across the board room table, mischief on his face.
     “Ooooh,” he said. “I’m gonna ice you so bad!” I had no idea what he was talking about. “You’re gonna what?” I said.
     “Ice you!”
     “Like, you’re gonna separate me from my parents at the border, or...?”
     “No!” he stifled a politically incorrect giggle. He wouldn’t tell me what it meant, so I made an intern explain. Apparently, I already aged out of viral drinking trends.
     After I hang up the phone with my mother, and the science fair trifolds are set out, and we eat lunch, and white board our loadout plan, I hear rumblings outside the production office, and then, an eruption of “Happy birthday.” Kyle walks in, holding the cake, Lizette behind him with red, green, blue, and yellow balloons—very thematic for a Google birthday party.
     “Make the first cut,” Kyle says placing the cake in front of me. My face is burning red, part embarrassment, part joy. I cut into the cake, but the knife won’t pass through. It hits something hard and glassy. Kyle attentively watches; his eyes are wide, Disney-like.
     “Oh my god!” I say. I realize what it is. “Oh my god, oh my god!” I say again and again, uncovering the blocking object. Kyle films my reaction. I am laughing so hard that I keel over. Off-camera he asks what I found. “Smirnoff Ice,” I say, cutting around the cake to reveal the neck of a bottle sitting between layers of buttercream. This, as I learned from that event intern, is getting iced. It’s a drinking game prank, in which one person hides a warm bottle of Smirnoff Ice (you know, the sugary shit you drank in high school, college if you were a late bloomer) and when the prankee uncovers the bottle, they must take a knee, and chug it all at once. Everyone in the production office returns to their task at hand, but Kyle is still recording me. We both can’t stop laughing.
     That evening, after we clear the event space, and before we leave Google, Kyle hands me the bottle of Smirnoff. “It’s time,” he says. The team gathers round me, Lizette ties the balloons to my wrist, I take a knee, and chug. To be honest, I don’t really understand this prank, but it doesn’t matter. Like the sorority girl I once was, I chug quickly, jump up, and throw my arms into the air. Victory. The team cheers.
     After dinner in downtown Sunnyvale, we return to the lobby of The Courtyard Marriott, beers in tow. We take turns telling life stories, and praising each other for a great event, a great week; we all acknowledge that our team chemistry is magical. We say we felt it from the first night of this project, when our entire team went out for Chinese food, and clicked. That was the first of many meals that Kyle and I would share side-by-side, eating eggplant and tofu off each others plate. I knew then, with that group, the week would be fine. Great, even. I felt excited and inspired for the first time in ages. At the end of that dinner, we cracked open our fortunes, and went round the table reading them aloud. Next to me, Kyle read his: “The one you will love is closer than you think.” I couldn’t believe it. Later that night I texted my friends: “Get ready to hear about an amazing meet-cute!” and fell asleep dreaming about his fortune, and all the promise it held.
     I sit next to Kyle in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott, and I allow myself to wonder what will happen when we say goodnight? What will be when we board our planes the next morning, and return to our respective parts of the country. For the first time all week, I feel a twinge of a sadness. I don’t want him to slip away. I don’t want to lose this feeling.
     It is getting late. We can all feel it. “What time is it?” someone asks.
     “11:58,” Lizette says.
     “Oh! My birthday is almost over.” I convince everyone to stay with me for the next two
minutes— “I want to count it down. New Year’s style!”
     “I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works,” Kara says. “You’re not on the brink of anything this midnight.” But the beers are gone, and they indulge me. We count together: 10, 9, 8, we are yelling, 7, 6, 5, guest reception shoots us a look, 3, 2, 1, as if by magic, gone.

—Rachel Ratner

Rachel Ratner is a nonfiction writer with an MFA from Oregon State University. She has written for the Oregon Stater, Portland Monthly, and participated in live storytelling events like BackFence PDX.





(For more information on the June 21st project, see here; apparently we're still publishing the occasional straggler…)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Another June 21st from Matthew Vollmer

JUNE TWENTY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND EIGHTEEN

Woke up. Turned on phone. Watched a dead leaf butterfly open and close its wings. Wife announced that she had been up since 3:30 am, at which time she smelled that the dog had had another accident. Went back to phone. Phone told me that quantum mechanics says multiverse is real and that Christina Aguilera posed topless on Instagram and that I should eat these carbs to eat to lose weight and that a woman died in a closet and that a 15-year-old can draw animals from memory and the results will blow my mind and that J. Crew just launched some exclusive, extra-comfy underwear. Why are Americans so sad? Don’t know. Didn’t read article. Also: Canada legalizes marijuana, parasites can mind-control other animals without infecting them, and Ronaldo is grooming himself to resemble goat. Eventually got up, drank a cup of coffee with sugar and half-and-half. Made two eggs. White cheddar. On toast. Checked World Cup scores, watched Ronaldo’s header goal. Got in argument with wife about whether or not I should clean up shat-upon dog bed. Lost argument. Put shit stained dog bed in trash bag. Put trash bag in trash. Tried to wash shit stain off large woven mat that lives—or lived—at back door of basement. No dice. Got email from friend saying “XXXTentacion may have been killed by Soldier Kidd. Then sent something about an article that said Spotify users around the world streamed XXXTentacion’s music 10.4 million times—breaking a record set last year Taylor Swift for the most streams by an artist on a single day.” Friend said “half were just streaming to see what he sounded like.” I texted back: “same.” Drove to office on campus. Noted grandmother of son’s friend at the smoking deck—a place by parking garage where smokers gather—and thought briefly about son’s friend, whose name is Harold and who lived with his brother up the street where we lived during our first ten years in Blacksburg, before his father, who studies sustainable biomaterials, moved the family to Vancouver, where apparently many Chinese billionaires also live, and whose Lambos and Bugattis are parked up and down the city’s streets. In office, tried to read book by woman whose materials I agreed to review in exchange for $100 and the knowledge that I served as a good literary citizen and member of the professorate. Wished I would’ve been given something to read that wasn’t so boring. Took breaks to look at Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, reminded myself that I should take a look at that Chelsea Hodson book. Texted my friend Evan to say hey can I borrow that Chelsea Hodson book and he said yes and I said are you at home or Shanks, and he said I’m coming in around 11. He came in around 11, preceded by Bucky the dog, who jumped up on the couch where I had been lying, wearing a hoodie because I keep the air conditioner turned to frigid in my office. Wife texted, said I had hurt her feelings when I argued with her about not cleaning up the dog bed. Texted her an apology, and she said she was probably tired and grumpy. Talked to Evan about his wife’s head injury. Took a dump in the bathroom. Halls on fourth floor of building where office lives were vacant. Wondered where everyone was. On vacation? At beach? At home? Went home. Transferred boxes of son’s old toys from garage to garage attic. Disassembled tent that son and son’s friend had planned to sleep in but didn’t, found a popcorn bowl plastered with dog hair and butter and earwigs. Thought of son at work installing blinds in building where son’s friend’s dad works as contractor. Thought about blowing off porch, which is always strewn with pine needles, thanks to the neighbor’s towering pines. Didn’t. Ate leftovers from night before: a kind of make-it-yourself taco salad. Listened to two scientists talk about dinosaurs on NPR. Announcer reminded everyone that dinosaur meant “terrible lizard.” Retrieved mail: TIAA-Cref envelopes, junk mail from Suntrust bank, the new David Lynch bio. Read first few pages of David Lynch bio. Read first two essays in Chelsea Hodson book. Got in car. Partially composed email to fellow colleague who wrote prequel to the Godfather but now was waiting to hear back from his agent who was waiting to hear back about novel submitted to publishers. Drove to the ABC store, bought a liter of cheap vodka and a fifth of Maker’s Mark, reminded self to retrieve bottle Evan and I threw into the air the night before so as to shoot with handheld CO2 cartridge-powered BB gun. Dropped bag of liquor at car, went grocery shopping at Kroger. Went home. Paid phone bill via app on phone. Texted with Evan’s kid who said he’d go see Hereditary with me. Said good because your dad is a wuss. Evan’s kid texted back haha and crying laughing emoji faces and wondered if I’d bought any Jordans lately. Told him I’d ordered a pair of black obsidian Jordan 1 Re2pect high tops but had to send them back because they were too big. Evan’s kid said he was more into Vans. Went to the Vans site and concurred that Vans were cool, especially the SK8 HI high tops, which Evan’s kid said weren’t really his style. Wife returned. Said vet wanted to keep dog overnight, blood sugar low. Said ok. Thought about working on book manuscript. Opened Spotify. Listened to a few songs from the “Chill” list, remembered XXXTentacion from day before, and how good it was, so typed XXX into search bar and rest of name came up, hit enter, then clicked “follow” which seemed stupid since he was dead, or purported to be dead, what did anybody know for sure, then thought maybe he had some unreleased tracks or another album in production, so maybe not all that stupid after all. Opened Scrivener. Worked on book manuscript. Went to retrieve son from job where he works installing mini blinds in new town houses. Bought dog food—Taste of the Wild—and wondered if I would need to take it back, supposing dog somehow didn’t survive through the night at vet. Son sized up my clothes—T-shirt, flipflops, Adidas sweatshorts—and asked if why I was wearing pajamas. At home, opened pork chops, cut potatoes and put them on to boil. Chopped broccoli, tossed in olive oil and salt and pepper. Microwaved butter, squeezed minced garlic from a tube into bowl, along with sage, rosemary, and thyme. Salted chops, then slathered them with butter garlic mix, used tongs to place them in hot cast iron skillet heated on outdoor gas grill. Finished dinner, remembered that Evan had the tent we were to borrow over the weekend for a camping trip to Grayson Highlands, where many of the ridgetops are bare, and where I once hiked with a man who, with his big ruddy face and beard and his cheerful demeanor, resembled the character Yukon Cornelius from the stop-motion Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a man who, because his wife didn’t like living where they did, in a round house in the middle of nowhere, and longed to return, with the son to whom they’d recently given birth, to Orcas Island, which they did, after the man quit his position as an Associate Professor of English to become a Harbor Master. Texted Evan and as soon as I hit send a text from him appeared nearly simultaneously. “Wtf” he typed. “Jinks,” I typed. “You owe me a Coke,” he typed. Drove the six minutes to Evan’s. Went down into his basement. Six giant heavy duty plastic bins contained thousands of dollars of camping gear, which Evan and his wife had used when they’d gone to Burning Man. That’s from the playa, Evan said, brushing dust off the tent bag. Upstairs, Evan opened his laptop and found an instructional video. Returned home. Popped corn. Watched Westworld finale on phone while son played Fortnite and wife watched whatever show she was watching. Probably a mystery. Probably something British. Told son not to stay up too late. Son said okay. Crawled into bed, where wife was already asleep. Shut eyes. Slept. 



(For more information on the June 21st project, see here; apparently we're still publishing the occasional straggler…)

Monday, July 16, 2018

July 16: Stayci Taylor • Laura Schuff • Chris McGuire • Joshua Dewain Foster • Craig Reinbold • Carlos Davy Hauser • Heidi MacDonald


Today we present ten more dispatches from June 21, 2018 to you. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, through July 16th.
—The Editors



July 16: Stayci Taylor • Laura Schuff • Chris McGuire • Joshua Dewain Foster • Craig Reinbold • Carlos Davy Hauser • Heidi MacDonald





STAYCI TAYLOR

There are fewer options at this breakfast buffet, one of three on this island resort and the closest to the sea. The limited selection brings with it a sense of calm, but there is still panic inspired by the free time ahead. Unlimited choices are dangerous; they pave the way for a day lived incorrectly. Given the environment, this is despicable. A woman, probably here for a conference, asks for warm milk. She is directed to the espresso machine, but this will not do. She needs it for cereal. This request is mildly curious against the backdrop of palm trees, but only half-registered. There is pressing interior business. Don’t be miserable in paradise.
     It’s much warmer than home, but the coldest temperatures here in living memory. The locals are bewildered, and wearing polar fleece – an extreme response, perhaps. The temperature won’t fall below 20° C. Two days ago a lone visitor braved the swim-up pool bar, wading back, everything clenched, to deliver a tinnie to a waiting girlfriend. There is more than one pool, though, and the closest is heated. It can be seen from the balcony. The same balcony from which, this morning, a sunrise was witnessed over the sea. The accommodation, when booked, did not include an ocean view. Don’t be miserable.
     This outside table also affords a view of the beach. The plate is less overloaded than previous mornings but still strangely appointed. When else do fruit and pastries and eggs and toast and mushrooms and chia pudding share the same stage? At a table behind, someone reassures the warmly milked woman that she’s ‘still glamourous’ despite their shared advancing years. She reports she had her upper eyes done five years ago, ‘which is fabulous. It’s about looking fresh’, she says, ‘but not fake’. She’s also lost a lot of weight, on a drug that makes her feel nauseous if she overeats. There’s apparently—and quite literally—a downside to thin faces. You can go too far, she says, but at least she’s not devouring the lamingtons. 
     They do look like excellent lamingtons. They nearly made the plate.
     A cockatoo lands on the table beside and seizes upon the empty butter portions. A deft claw lifts the foil flap and the beak dives into the tiny shallow plastic tray. A tongue, presumably, laps up the remains. 
     Mid-morning, the reclining view from the pool noodle is of alternating knees, slowly advancing and retreating in the heated water. This performance of relaxation is watched and weighed up against activity in the solar plexus. It feels like fretting, but hard to discern amidst the competing sensations of caffeine and the pseudoephedrine fuelling much needed cold & flu meds. To pay this much inward attention feels unforgivably self-absorbed. Sleep is resisted and undoubtedly needed. There may never have been a better bed to accommodate such a task, but yet a bush walk is attempted. The swim-up pool bar is circled warily. Soon, and with no towel required, bourbon is added to the mix. 
     Later, the internet celebrates the birth of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s daughter. Ex pats join in with whisky on the balcony. The booze and the news do their job and the sunset is greeted with decided cheer. But a setting sun is always more promising than a rising one. There are always fewer options at the final hour. Fewer ways in which to fuck up five days in paradise.

—Stayci Taylor

Stayci Taylor is an Industry Fellow with the Media Program at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She brings to her teaching and research a background in screenwriting, which is still her main professional practice. She has lately become interested in creative nonfiction and critical autoethnography; mainly through an investigation into the performance of girlhood diaries with colleagues from RMIT's non/fictionLab.





LAURA SCHUFF

Katze’s warbling shout of “Myowwww,” the one that descends in pitch and usually means “I just pooped in front of the litter box,” wakes me up. She’s a talented ventriloquist.
     It’s early and things happen in dreamlike succession because I’m pretty much asleep. Lift Katze onto the bed. She purrs a minute before wanting back down, so I help her, fearing for her arthritic joints. Snooze my 5:50 alarm. Justin half-wakes and mumbles that waking up next to me makes him happy. Today is the five-month anniversary of the morning after we got married, when we woke side-by-side to express similar sentiments, snuggling and dozing again, united in contentment, feeling right and whole and excited for each moment of our future together.
     The daylight is dim for summer. It filters gray through the remainder of last night’s thunderstorm, blue through the tarp we secured over our unfinished roof last night. We are sore and sunburned, shards of shingle fiberglass stinging our fingers. I relish some of this exhaustion, or at least the idea behind it. There’s something fairy-tale-like about us literally building part of our home together, almost reminiscent of a pioneer couple hewing themselves a log cabin.
     The rest of the house is a disaster zone of neglect. Sink overflows with dishes. Katze’s litter box has annexed the hallway. Waterlogged raspberries fall to waste in the crabgrass jungle of our garden.
     My first 12-hour work day of the week yesterday provided a welcome deviation from the roofing project, but the novelty was short-lived. I snooze every alarm until 6:25, which is supposed to be my last call to get out the door. I still take more time than I should need to put on scrubs, brush my teeth, snatch a giant box of rice crackers from the pantry (leftovers from our wedding reception) for today’s potluck, and leave for the pet hospital where I work as a lab assistant. The send-off party for a coworker’s last day should take care of the breakfast I didn’t make time for.
     I’m sheepish about getting to work eight minutes late, but no one calls me out on it. The morning rush is sort of a plate-spinning circus act. Keep the ponderous, seventiesesque blood chemistry analyzers (Doom and Gloom), CBC machine (I’ll call that one Abby), electrolytes machine (um… Edgar?), and the Unicorn centrifuge (because someone, probably Lindsey, taped “RN” to the end of the “UNICO” logo) running simultaneously. The goal here is to finish at least the essential bloodwork for each of today’s nine surgery patients as quickly as possible so the surgery doctor knows whether to run more tests, cancel, or start pre-meding. Add in whatever urgent bloodwork the two exam room doctors need and whatever maintenance issues come up. And the ever-abundant heartworm snap tests and fecal samples to be spun down and read under the microscope. I rerun some tests for stupid reasons, like when I realize I’ve probably grabbed the wrong blood sample or misplaced a results print-out on the wrong pet’s paper.
     Edgar, usually one of the lower-maintenance machines, needs a new gas canister and I don’t find replacements where I usually do. Jen locates them quickly in a different cupboard and I feel stupid. I start the electrolytes test for Cosmo kitten, but can’t find his blood sample. Edgar insists that I discard the unused reader I’ve inserted when I take too long searching under Doom and Gloom, behind Abby, everywhere I can think of that a sample tube might roll under or fall behind. Without thinking, I state my frustration to the brusque surgery doctor when she walks by, but of course she is unsympathetic to my stupidity.
     Turns out I accidentally tossed Cosmo’s blood along with last night’s samples. I retrieve it from the trash can and avert that crisis, but then run out of hematocrit tubes. Apparently these are important enough (a recent development) that Loni leaves her surgery prep post to borrow some from another location. Korey tells me I should have noticed when we were down to two containers and ordered more. When Loni comes back, I find her tirade about the traffic amusing. (“Why do so many people live here? It’s not that great. Go back home.”) But then she tells me how I’ve cost our business an hour of her time. She wants me to do a weekly inventory procedure that I haven’t been expected to do before—unless I’ve grossly misunderstood—and I find it confusing.
     I would have figured all this out long ago if I were the sort of go-getter I’m supposed to be to “succeed in life,” but I’m not. Instead I slink.
     A doctor maneuvers the end of a leash on a shrieking, thrashing, teeth-baring chihuahua, careful and attentive while consoling with words like, “I know, you’re so scared. I’m sorry.” An anesthesia-drunk pit bull starts up a lament of dinosaur noises in his kennel.
     Doctors keep asking me, “How’s my [insert name of test] going?” and I keep having to admit I haven’t gotten to that yet, more frantic and drooping each time. Korey asks something I don’t make sense of because I’m tired and distracted. The doctor he’s assisting, who often hovers while I beg the machines to go faster, surprises me by telling Korey not to stress me out. Later Korey says, “I’m not rushing you. Just checking” in a way that reminds me of his doctor dealing with the aggressive chihuahua. It hits me that these veterinary professionals I work with approach me with the same cautious attentiveness to stress levels that they’re trained to use on dogs.
     “Dogwoman” would be the worst superhero name ever.
     My hands keep working while my mind goes to town producing a tabloid showcase of I’m so Incompetent. The feature ties in extensive replays of something I regret saying to Justin two nights ago that sting my eyes, even though that scene is long since talked through and moved on from. The melodrama subsides when things slow down enough to allow a snack run.
     Our makeshift potluck table is actually a freezer where the bagged and labeled bodies of euthanized pets await pickup from the cremation service. There’s a euthanasia today, so I help Teddi move our party to the x-ray table.
     The brusque doctor is a master of efficiency and surgeries finish early in the afternoon. We all cheer on Braden, today’s guest of honor, as he cuts an ice cream cake for all of us and stores the remainder in the pharmacy freezer (not the death freezer) where he has posted numerous “No Food or Drink” signs. The surgery doctor plotted this specifically as a memorable conclusion to several years of teasing Braden for being a stickler.
     While taking lunch in my truck, I discover that my phone’s battery is dead, probably over my failed attempt to record notes this morning, and I don’t have an alarm to wake me up before I exceed my hour. Still, I’m losing my mind for need of a power nap, so I take it on faith that I’ll wake up on time and do.
     The rest of the afternoon is less hectic. I’m witness to a medical miracle—a 26-year-old cat in fairly good health. I’m jealous of this old lady who can still leap onto furniture and keep her fur dred-free while my Katze, only 18, can’t. But it’s kind of ridiculous to describe a cat as only 18.
     Since I’m planning to write about today,  I quantify some of my duties. 25 kennels with no major diarrhea, urine, or pulled IV catheter incidents to clean up today. 12 canine snap tests (heartworm etc.), two feline, two canine pancreatitis, and one giardia, all negative. Instead of discarding the plastic indicators right away, I collect them in a pile to see how big it gets at the end of the day. Emily gives me a weird look and reminds me that they show inaccurate results if you keep them too long. All 20 fecal samples I read today were parasite-free.
     I wrap and sterilize the surgical packs. Sweep and mop the floors. Despite the hectic morning, all the closing chores are done by 7:00 p.m.
     Justin and his dad are working on the roof when I get home. I intend to join them after I snack and write a few notes about today, but I get too comfy and my body turns to cement. By the time I finally drag myself up, it’s getting dark and the roof project is being wrapped up for the night. I feel guilty and relieved that I’ve escaped, and guilty for feeling relieved.
     Justin comes down from the ladder and hugs me for a minute, still in his plumber’s uniform. I’m still in my scrubs. We are fairly well matched in exhaustion and the grossness of our work attire. I don’t know how Justin is still standing, having put every spare moment into that roof before and after going to his job for the past four days.
     My brain is too tired to process much of how I get from outside to crashing in bed. At some point, Justin gives Katze her evening dose of pain medicine and I pop a birth control pill.  It would be much simpler if this really were the end of my June 21st, but tiredness is also a form of drunkenness that impairs judgment into doing fun, but not necessarily practical things. Like staying up any later than we already are when tomorrow is full of work and Dungeons and Dragons and, in Justin’s case, probably more roofing in between. But we start to make out and I tell him that going further might be a problem because I intend to write a truthful-as-possible account of what happens today and I don’t think either of us are very comfortable sharing details of our sex life with the public.
     Katze squeezes through the gap in the door and interrupts with an indignant “Mroooow!” She’s silent once we banish her to the living room. But I have a lingering sense that her meow might be translated to, “Seriously, you two, for all your prudishness, can’t you have the decency to consider me a threat to your privacy?”
     Someday I’ll meet Katze at the gates of kitty heaven and she’ll greet me in fluent Human, reminding me that nothing was actually safe with her. But meeting her eyes will be all it takes for realization to burn in my cheeks.

—Laura Schuff

Laura lives in Oregon. 





CHRIS MCGUIRE

The sun on a spoke toward the eastern corner of my office window heralds the longest day of the year. June 21st finds me hunched over my desk, shell-shocked gaze on the traffic sweeping by on East 5th Street. In my crotch I can feel my father’s hand, a memory shard left over from the 3-day EMDR Intensive I just completed on Bainbridge Island, WA.
     That hand, drenched in callous bone, the brutality of which I’ve always known. But not this. Not this horrible awakening of my flesh, refusing to be silenced, refusing to retreat. I rock with the after-quakes.
     But now there are my clients, needing my attention, needing me to hold space for them, hear them, validate them. My mind drifts to the little red kayak I paddled out around Bainbridge’s Eagle Harbor, seeking rough waves, something edged and raw against which my body could throw itself. The pair of eagles I watched, transfixed, in high branches, shrieking their indignation against an assault of crows guarding nests. My kayak beached as the tide receded beneath me. Me, all at once embodied, trudging knee-deep through the heavy mud toward water to get the little boat afloat again.
     I hear my name, paged overhead. First I see R, who’s here on the advice of her attorney on an asylum case. She’s fleeing Mexico b/c her abusive stepfather waited for her outside her nursing school class and tried to kidnap her. She cries soundlessly while stroking the red sand of my sandtray as if it were her pet cat. I become hypnotized by the gentle, rhythmic movements, my heart breaking for her at a distance, because with the current Administration, her case does not look favorable. In my mind, my father’s voice: “Boys are gonna love that ass” while his hand—
     Next there’s a couple of kids, siblings, jubilantly unselfconscious in their unsuppressed bodies. Sprawling on the carpet, limbs askew as they play with the toys on my shelves. Their untarnished sexuality breathless and innocent. I balk, freeze, grit my teeth through the hour. Curl like a pillbug on the carpet afterward, my door shut against colleagues.
     Subsequent appointments will arrive and depart in a blur, shades of pale passing in and out of my scope of consciousness, accompanied by a low hum. I will wonder if I’m asleep, drifting in dream. Outside the window, the sun will shift along its spoke, growing dimmer as the afternoon progresses. A thought, like shattered crystals: “What did happen today?” My eyes searching the street outside for a response.
     I find a bright bird on a bare branch in the mesquite tree across the street. It is only there for a moment. I watch it lift from the leaves, sweep over the whisking traffic, disappear after the stretched sun.

—Chris McGuire





JOSHUA DEWAIN FOSTER

So I woke up after nine a.m.—which is not something I like to admit but also something that happens a lot so at this point why lie? So I wake up late and I stay there in bed, which is not something I usually do. Usually, I’m up and at them as soon as my eyes are open; most days, I spring from my sheets to my shoes. Normally, I work at a standing desk in the other room. But not today, the summer solstice, June 21, 2018, the longest day of the year. The sun is out in Houston, Texas for another ten hours—or something. I relax. So what if I’m starting late today. I have plenty of time. I scoot away from the warm round ass of my bed-partner so that I can actually get some work done, reach off the bed to the floor and get my janky cheap chromebook.
     I open it up and write an email to my agent. She is in New York City, a place I have visited three times in my life. Once, the most recent, was to meet her. I’ve been telling her I’d have a novel ready since 2014. I’m surprising her with it today, attached as a PDF and shared in the cloud as a DOC. It is 399 pages; 107k words. I told her I’d send her the manuscript by my birthday, July 5, but I’d finished it early, could not stand to read it one more time, so I decided to print it out and put it in a binder for my own edits and to email her and invite her to finally take a look and at least get the good grace of beating my own often extended deadline.
     What did I feel like, after I sent it? Glad, and proud. That email took me like thirty minutes to get right. Happy, I got up to take a leak.
     About then, G rolled over. It was her ass I had been lying beside. Her kids were with their dad for the summer, and we were luxuriating in these slow mornings where modesty could be relaxed and neither of us really had anywhere to be but to our desks, in our books. Except I no longer had a book to write, I’d written it, so I had nothing to do. I asked G if she’d cook us some french toast.
     This is also not something I usually do. Usually, I handle my own food intake, especially for breakfast. Most days, I’m a black coffee banana kind of guy. If I have time to really cook, it’s meats eggs hashbrowns. Never breakfast cakes. Pancakes? Waffles? Too heavy. Those put me back to bed, and that’s something I cannot abide. But the day before, G and I had been in the grocery story together, and she’d been waxing nostalgic re: real New England maple syrup, which I had never tried, so she bought some, and I got a good loaf of five-dollar sliced bread knowing I would try to talk her into cooking French toast for me soon. Which I did, successfully.
     She put on a robe and went to the kitchen and made the French toast. I piddled about, scooped the cat boxes, shit the dog in the backyard, brushed my teeth, took my meds. Extra naproxen, because a bunch of shoulder pain had returned to my left arm, where I had had an operation in 2017. But three weeks ago, this pain had settled on me again, left me wincing any time I reached and turned, pushed or pulled, typed, drove, washed my hair, or anything of the sort with my left. I thought I was better—I’d been pain-free for six months—and clearly I was not. I froze all my summer plans, including a trip home to Idaho for a family reunion, until I could meet with the doctor, which would happen tomorrow, which, as I told the doctor’s scheduler, might as well be two weeks away. As soon as I knew what was up with my arm, I could plan the rest of my life.
     G and I ate French toast together. The New England maple syrup ran thin and warm and washed across the butter egg bread, tide-like. I could see why she relished this great American sap, appreciated that I’d been let in on the secret. I felt the same way about russet potatoes. There, on the plastic table in front of us, was the manuscript that took me four years to write. It was in a hot pink plastic binder, four inches thick. An inch a year—so much for personal growth.
     10:30 a.m. My agent had had my email for over an hour. Had she read the book yet? Did she love it? Already sent the contract? Check(s)?
     I gathered up the dishes to wash them at the sink, my pleasure and gratitude after such a food gift. G removed to her desk to edit and knit. I washed and dried and shined the dishes, put them up. Folded and refolded the dishtowels. Swept the kitchen floor, something I’d been wanting to do for seven months. In the bedroom, I turned on the World Cup—France versus Peru—and rooted for the Spanish-speakers. I always pull New World. I took out my empty luggage and looked inside my closet, starting to plot what I would need up north, back home in Idaho, if we were lucky enough to make it back there. G and I had a secret hope and plan: if the doctor cleared me to travel, we would pack the car and leave by Saturday, be to Idaho by late Sunday so that we could surprise my mother, who was turning sixty on Monday.
     I didn’t see the point in actually packing without knowing what was up with my shoulder, so I hooked up the leash to the dog and took her around the block for some fresh air. Out on Gray Street, I paced and scoped out a palm reader sign that G had told me recently showed up. I had always wanted to have my palm read. I can handle the truth, and am happy to pay for it. Of course, I wanted to buy G a round of hand-reading too, as a late birthday gift.
     So I walked the dog past a sagging peeling house on a main drag in the historic Rosemont district of Houston, with a covered front porch and a beat to shit Ford Excursion in the cracked uneven driveway, a neon OPEN sign in the window, not illuminated, and a phone number on a placard on the sidewalk. In the front window, a shadow appeared behind the curtain. I wanted to make nothing easy, no dead giveaways, no easy outs. I hustled around the corner with the dog and called the number. I wanted to keep everything I could a secret; I had no faith in the palm reader, but had a hope I’d learn something somehow, anyways. I didn’t disguise my voice or give a fake name. I asked if she had time to read the hands of two people as soon as possible. She said she could at one p.m. That was less than an hour away. I said okay.
     She told me to call back in a half-hour to confirm my appointment. So I confirmed something with her then: She wanted me to call her in thirty minutes to tell her I’d be there in thirty more minutes? Yes, she said. I said I’d text her at twelve-thirty, and that we’d be there at one p.m. on the dot.
     The dog rushed me home. There, I informed G of the plan, and she took a break from the editing and fussed about the flat, changing clothes a few times, deciding a hair situation, and wardrobe. I too checked myself in the mirror, wondering what the palm reader might discern and misinterpret. For two months, the temperature hadn’t dipped below eighty degrees, and I was in shorts and a tank-top and a farm hat, always sweaty, far from my element. I decided not to change. The palm reader, like most people, would have no idea who I really was.
     These bustling moment in our relationship when both are readying for a joint event, equally energized, are intensely gratifying, and do a lot to unify. This was still fresh, vibrant, steeped in meaning, cosmic, revelatory. As G and I readied, we smiled and winked at each other, took one another by the waist, danced, swayed a bit.
     What does the future—our future—hold? I couldn’t guess, and didn’t need to know but was asking just because I could, just because I was with someone who wanted to go along with me to find out. I pinched an ass as it went by, kissed a cheek, said thanks and also hurry up or we’re going to be late.
I texted the palm reader and tell her we’ll be there at one p.m. on the nose. Which we weren’t. We’re a few minutes late.
     At the house, half a cigarette smoldered in an ashtray. Oh, how peppery and lovely that smoke smelled. Cigarettes had not been present in our lives for 84 days, according to G’s stop smoking phone app. I had finally stopped coughing long enough to want another cigarette. I didn’t pick it up and smoke it, though. I was past that point. I simply longed for it, reminisced about the good old bad days. I stamped down the nico-urge, knocked hard on the thin front door. Above me, a diamond window cardboarded from the inside shook against the glass.
     A little girl opened the door. Younger than eight, for sure. Cute kid. Looked a lot like any one of my nieces. Pink clothes, long hair, a few missing teeth. I asked her to go get her mom. I didn’t really think about it. Old Mormon Missionary reflex. A young short woman came to the door and shooed back the kid and her little brother, who had been in the shadows of his sister the whole time. The mother, who was our palm reader, A, brought us inside and shut the door. We stood in an empty living room with thin path-worn carpet over a bowed floor. A, chewing gum, speaking English Italian Chicagoan, set the kids up and explained she’d be in the other room, working. Once they were settled, A led us into another front room, behind a white door—her palm reading room.
     A large pink lounger, in front of which A stood, centered, at the back wall. In front of A, center of the room, was a table piece, alter-like. Facing this desk were two fabric covered chairs, nice enough, but with stains. I took the far chair, and G took the near. We sat down once she did.
     A reminded me of my youngest sister E, and my first ex-wife R. A was twenty-four, twenty-five. Poised, serious. Wise but unrefined. No pushover, but easy to confuse. A, who was wearing jeans and a shirt, had three burns or scars on her sternum. They looked surgical, earned, unfortunate, designed. We discussed what services we were looking for, and landed on one in which we could each get our palms read, a tarot reading, and the opportunity to ask any questions we could come up with. That ran me sixty bucks a piece. I paid A through the cash app.
     Transaction sent and received, phones down and away, A crossed one leg over the other, interlocked her hands, mystic-like, and asked who would be going first. I looked at G to see what she wanted, and I could tell she wanted me to go, so I said I would. A got out a deck of tarot cards from the alter desk. She warned both of us that regardless of what we were to each other, who we were in each other’s lives, things might come out in a reading that could damage a relationship, so she invited G to leave the room if I was uncomfortable. I said I’d like her to stay. I could trust G with any bit of information, any secret, any sin.
     I was disappointed with A, incredulous—she was trying to figure out who G and I were together; she was reading us. Which I knew she would do, but didn’t anticipate it being this obvious. Maybe she wasn’t psychically inclined; maybe this was all just jig.
     “So she can stay?” A asked me.
     “Yes,” I said, again.
     A flipped over some cards and arranged them on the table. Then she took my palms and looked at them. She leaned back and interlocked her hands again.
     “Okay, so before we start, I have a message for you. I don’t know what it means, but I have to give it to you from the other side. Did you recently lose a child?”
     I’d never had any kids. It was a strange whiff to start with. I considered my very much alive mother and father, my living breathing five sisters and their husbands and children, G, her two kids, my cat, their cat, the dog—all all good.
     “No,” I said, “Not that I can think of.”
     I looked back at G. She had this look on her face like: Are you kidding me?
     “Who then?” I asked.
     “H,” she said.
     I realized I had been thinking too narrowly about A’s question. Selfishly, I had only been considering my immediate family. But just a few weeks before, my ex-family of my second wife M suffered the catastrophic loss of their youngest member, H, a little girl age three. I had not been in contact with this family since the divorce, but once I heard the news, I texted M and let her know that if there was anything G and I could do, we would. M took us up on that, and brought over her two cats for us to watch so she could return to Idaho for the funeral. She had just retrieved the cats the day before, and was actually coming over to have dinner later tonight because she needed some good company and a meal. G had offered to cook.
     I said to A, “Yes, there is one person, but my connections are hard to explain.”
     “Here’s the message. Celebrate her in her time of death. Don’t blame anyone. Celebrate, and love.”
     I nodded and said that I would pass that along, which I planned to do, but didn’t yet know exactly how, or to whom.
     That gravitas delivered and leveled, A reviewed both my palms again quickly, roughly, and set them back down on the table. She told me I led a simple, but complex, life. I agreed. She said it would be relatively long, which brought a lot of relief. She said I was happy on the outside and sad on the inside. She was so right that deep down this made me quietly weep. But that was all my hands had to say about me, and so I took them away and she turned her attention to the cards.
     She told me to think of three questions I wanted answers to. This gave me pause. I was not prepared to think while at the palm reader. I looked at G. Was there anything I wanted to know with her? I knew she was as solid and beautiful as a person as any I’d been lucky enough to be with, and felt we would be together for a long time, one way or another, and since we spent all our time together anyway, I’d had all my questions answered, whether she knew it or not.
     I told her I had them. She told me to tell her two. So I did.
     What would happen with my book?
     Where would I go next?
     On the first, she said I’d be fine, on all counts. With the book. I asked her how fine. She said fine fine. I didn’t want to jinx anything, so I left it at that.
     And what about the next thing?
     She said she was was really feeling Arizona, Arkansas, or Colorado. Any of those places would be good. Also, I’d have a house for once in my life.
     I trotted out my third question, too, this about G, about us and our future, but I cannot write it here. So I listened to that answer, and felt good about everything and had nothing left to ask.
     G and I swapped seats, and A and G got right down to it; it would not be my place to go into all that was revealed. You’d have to ask her. As for me, I was feeling pretty glowy and golden, having a message to pass on, knowing I still had some life left to live with a person I loved, and a fine fine book situation on my hands.
     G’s future all came back good too. I can at least say that. A made some mistakes on that one, reading her, flubbed a bit. But who doesn’t? G’s a tough nut to crack. We left through the front door, saying thanks to A and adios to the kiddos, time well spent. 
     We talked about everything on the walk home, and for an hour at the flat. It was 2:30 p.m., and once we had rehashed everything a few times, we shut up and got back to our desk work. We had a lot to do if we were ever going to get out of Texas. She edited. I paid all of my July bills and budgeted the rest of my summer money. Transferred cash over from savings to cover the travel and upcoming doctor’s visit. I walked to the bank and took out some road cash, went to CVS and bought heel bandaids for G and toothpaste for me. Returned to the flat. I read the news on my phone.
     Around seven, G started cooking chicken curry, and I made some watermelon juice Mexican-style—watermelon, lime, a bit of sugar, water, some ice, blended it up in G’s kickass ninja blender, served in a pitcher—and set up the table in the back driveway. Soon enough, M showed up and we went and dished up curry and all three of us sat out back and ate like we were starving and talked about her trip to Idaho. She got to sing at the funeral. Sad but good.
     Our upstairs neighbors and their daughter came down and joined us. I hadn’t seen them for two weeks, as they’d been in Utah on summer vacation. I’d been sitting upstairs twice a day, taking care of their birds while they were gone, a cockatiel and two budgies. The daughter and wife caught up with M, who had lived in the flat with me for a month or two, and had started a friendship but paused it, and now wanted it again.
     The kid went to bed at ten, her summer vacation bedtime on certain nights, and after that someone spilled vodka into the agua fresca, and wine and kind bud materialized, and stories were traded, and we all laughed about the north country, which everyone had been to but me and G, and we were pining for it. But it felt like after the palm reader, we both knew our plan was a good one, and we’d be leaving Texas soon enough. We squeezed hands in the dark.
     I told M of the message from A, and she told me to relay it to H’s father, so I said I’d contact my friend and ex-bro-in-law, and let him know to celebrate, and love, and not blame. So much of life is out of everyone’s control.
     M was in great spirits, too, after having come home, because she had met a new man, a twenty-five year old snack-bite, as she called him, a lil nugget. Made us laugh; reminded me of funny sweet things M used to coo about me, back when we were in love. I was happy for her in this new flu. I looked around the table. We all were.
     Then a miracle happened: M produced a half-pack of love cigarettes, bought with her new beau, in Idaho. She didn’t want to smoke all of them, or smoke alone. Well, it was the perfect timing to break us. We were all weak. All the rest of us in the house, upstairs and downstairs alike, had been living healthy for most of 2018. G and I had been clean for over eighty days of the nicotine smoke gum vape et al. But we were all in that transitory summer state, hot and bothered and itchy, and could use a break.
     So the pack went around, and we all smoked one together in the humidity, this at about eleven o’clock. M left the pack, and took off with some tupperwares of leftovers, and drove to her place across town.
     Then it was just the four of us. There were five cigarettes left. We each smoked another one, talked for another half hour. These people were my family, my friends, my tribe. We could do this all night, and often did. But by the time the smokes were up, the neighbors excused themselves to bed. They had dreams to dream about home.
     Eleven-thirty, it was just G and me, out in the back drive, staring up at the new builds looming on three sides. What a sad wonderful joke this neighborhood will be in the future, we thought together, when the palm reader and us are gone. G and I will be in Fayetteville, Show Low, Trinidad, I’m sure. But where will A be? Can she read her own palm and know? The truth was in the backyard, G knew my future, and I knew hers—what else could be said? We were smug, satisfied, content. We shared that last cigarette, puffing and passing, not ever coughing, old pros. It was a real treat.
     After midnight, G and I, happy, horny, needy, tugging at each other, got up and went inside and—technically, what occurred next was on June 22, so I don’t have to mention details, but know that morning I slept well, woke loved, made it to the doctor on time.

—Joshua DeWain Foster


Joshua Dewain Foster is the online fiction editor at Gulf Coast. He tweets @jdfish_9 & instas @jdfish9





CRAIG REINBOLD

My 20th blurs into my 21st: I'm wrapping up an 1100 to 2330 shift and I’ve stocked my rooms and I’ve handed off my elderly fall patient and my abdominal pain with a history of bowel obstruction patient to my nightshift replacement, but I wanted to stay on to discharge the ankle pain who's been here going on three hours. She's a little, off, right, and came in with a previous diagnosis of gout, but the PA on her case tonight ruled that out so she's going home with a referral to an orthopedist, an ace wrap, and a prescription for ibuprofen. He also wants her on crutches and she wants a cane and now, after three hours, she tells me she’s a minister and needs a cane for Sunday’s service, and  what? I tell the PA and he says, No way. She needs to be non-weight bearing on that ankle. Eventually she leaves with crutches, and a cane, and now it’s 0015, June 21st.
     I bleach-wipe my shoes, my stethoscope, my shears, my pens, my nametag, the roll of surgical tape I carry around, and my watch, and while I stand there performing this end-of-the-day meditation, I chat with the third-shift crew about their seating arrangements and why the only guy on tonight has been segregated to the far side of the arena. This group’s playlist is typically Trap Rap or Pop Country, and he apparently resists both, and no one can stand his music, so there he is, way over there. Ten feet away, in a different world. As I’m leaving, finally, fuck it’s late, I stop and ask what he’s listening to. Tool, he says, and I say, Oh. I thought it was going to be something really far out. You know them, obviously, he says. And I say, Sure, I used to listen to them when I was a kid, which I later realize might be an offensive thing to say, but I said it, and I can’t spare much energy to dwell on these things.
     He suggests I dig out those old Tool albums, for the nostalgia, if nothing else. He seems excited at this thought, happily indulging in this nostalgia himself, so I just say the obvious, For sure. Well, take it easy, man, instead of the honest, I have no interest in indulging in nostalgia for that time in my life. 
     I am enveloped, and happily so, I think, in the present tense.
     Home, shower, wind-down with 20 pages of The Fifth Season. Then it’s 0200, and I melt into the mattress.
     Jack, who’s three, is up at 0630, and Angie works today—she’s already in the shower—so I pull him into the bed and try to cuddle with him until he turns perpendicular and, pretending to swim, starts kicking me in the face. Ari, 5, appears at the door. I tell him to go pee, because if I don’t, he won’t. Does anyone else struggle with this?
     I know it’s June 21st today, the solstice, the longest day, the day of this big project, all that, but it’s also just Thursday. It’ s any day, every day. Enveloped in the present tense. A creature of the present tense. This largely means living inside a very comfortable routine.
     Today is a Cathi day, Cathi who runs a small daycare out of our house two days a week. I drag myself to the stove to get the coffee going. Stretch a little. Get the boys fed, dressed, teeth brushed, and then hand them off. Two days each week. Sometimes I work on these days, but today I’m off, so it’s truly a free day 0800–1630. I’m off today, so I suppose I mean 8:00 to 4:30.
     Head to the basement to work out. The aim is two days a week of planking, two days a week of intervals. Today it’s intervals: kicks, pullups, star jumps, handstands, squats, leg lifts. This should take me 30 minutes, but I can’t really pull it off in less than 45. I feel good when it’s done, but also so tired, like I’m being slowly pulled into the floor. All I want to do is go sit in a coffeeshop and read all day, and maybe fall asleep there. But these free days are rare, and I made plans to meet an old friend for lunch. Angie has the car, so I’m already late for catching the cross-town bus. It’s a 10-minute walk and 30-minute ride and a 20-minute walk and I’m at this lake-front café a little early so I just sit outside with my feet up and eyes closed and try to empty it all out, you know what I mean?
     Eventually I open my eyes and my friend is 10 minutes late. I head inside, then outside again, and find him parked by the bike rack waiting for me. He’s newly retired from the cubicle world where we both once worked, and we order BLTs and coffees and he catches me up on his latest workout routine, his latest injuries, books he’s been reading. We’re an unlikely lunch couple, and I can’t quite figure it out myself, but here we sit, every few months, catching up. I value this friendship, it’s idiosyncrasy, I worry about a bit about him, too, and this is good, this seeing him periodically. To see he’s doing all right. He did tell me he’s been wearing elastic-banded exercise pants for the last month. He doesn’t say sweatpants. He just says pants like these. Elastic-banded exercise pants. I make fun of him a little bit, and that’s important, I think, that I can do this.
     I walk back to my bus route, a mile along Prospect Ave., quintessential MKE, East Side. Past coffeeshops I used to frequent, bars I haven’t visited in years. I think about stopping for a drink, a quiet sit by myself, maybe take some notes for this project, but I admit I’m anxious to get home, too, to hang out with the boys, and enjoy that space. Once upon a time I was a stay-at-home dad. I often miss the ease, the easier franticness, of those days. I miss the boys, when I’m not there with them.
     On the walk, I’m so tired, people everywhere, noise, cars, kids biking against traffic with no helmets on, so much happening and my head spins. Some college kids are leaning against the bus stop next to me, texting—texting each other?—on their phones, and I feel a little old. Worn. But really good, too, satisfied, and tired, and satisfied, and heading home having not accomplished anything today, but that was a nice walk and I never walk in the city anymore, and it feels almost foreign it’s so unfamiliar to me now and that’s a wonderful feeling. Rejuvenating. So there’s that.
     I fall asleep on the bus.
     The kids hit me when I open the door, the five of them, grabbing my legs, all trying for my attention.
     I get dinner started, can’t remember what I made, just another dinner, one of the five or six I make all the time. The not-our-kids get picked up, then Angie’s home and she takes the boys outside to water the gardens. We eat, we clean up, walk to the next neighborhood over, then back. The boys on their balance bikes. Ari should probably be on a pedal bike by now, but we haven’t picked one up yet. Never seem to get around to it, but whatever. He doesn’t mind, his days are so filled with everything else. Back home, we get them undressed, they both pee, we get them dressed, teeth brushed. It’s hot, so shirts off tonight. I read the bedtime books—I work the next three days 0700-1930 so I won’t really see them again till Monday.
     In bed, they goof, and we’re in and out of their room for another 45 minutes. Finally, they’re out. I pack for tomorrow, scrubs, snacks, breakfast, lunch, more snacks.
     Angie and I take to the couch with the laptop and watch a Marcella, but seriously, why can’t all of these shows be Happy Valley? She invites my hand under her t-shirt, and this is the best part of my day, it’s the point really, or the pinnacle, I don’t know. It’s as if the day with all its momentum, gears grinding, wheels in motion, is just a vehicle meant to arrive me here. So many lovely moments in the day, most days, all days, today, and here is one more.
     Of course, we start falling asleep almost immediately. Rouse ourselves to brush our teeth, our own teeth, let the dog out, and in again, take off our day clothes, hit the lights, get up again to turn the ceiling fan back on, tuck back in with just a sheet—this is our routine. A little cuddle, a roll away. And there are all those things I’d wanted to accomplish today, emails to finish, other friends to catch up with, words to write, the toilet is still running needs a new flapper probably, the boys’ ceiling fan isn’t going to fix itself, the lamp in the front hall needs a new pull chain, the garden is still carpeted with purslane, the front porch that took a year and a half to build is finally finished but needs staining. Stacks of books, so much reading. I’d love to just hit the lake and do some fishing. There is this constant list, a daily litany, but perhaps my greatest survival trait is my inability to stay awake. I crash hard and sleep easily.
     All of that clutter, I push it aside and focus on a memory from last Sunday—I’ve been falling asleep to this memory all week: We’ve finished dinner with my folks at the campsite, sausages and corn and watermelon, and then we hike to the boat launch on the far side of the lake, where the kayaks are tethered, and where it’s less crowded and everyone’s dogs are let loose to swim, and it’s after 8, the sun almost orange now, the water so warm and peaceful, and Jack is in a lifejacket next to me as I float on my back, only the sky and the green tops of the trees in my view. He can propel himself through the water now, but as I drift away from him, he reaches out and grabs my big toe, and now I’m pulling him, and I look at him, his hair wet and wild, spiked in every direction, and his eyes are wide—he’s thrilled to be getting this ride—and he smiles, such a big smile, and I float, weightless, and I love him, and this, all of this, so much. There is nothing else. Nothing. I will fall asleep to this memory forever.
     And then I'm out.

—Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold was once the managing editor of this site and continues to curate Essay Daily’s series featuring international essayists. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital. 




CARLOS DAVY HAUSER

Should be asleep already (12AM; long drive tomorrow), but choose to flip through channels. Must first take Clorox On-the-Go Disinfecting Wipe from backpack and sanitize hotel remote from top to bottom; front and back; in the grooves; behind soft buttons, esp. Power and Channel Up.
     Infomercial for Age Spot Cream, Free Naughty Channel, Infomercial for Ab Cruncher. Think about buying one Ab Cruncher w/ Free Exercise Band (Low, low price of $39.99). Last week I jabbed my lil pinky into softness of belly and almost felt one ab coming thru. Soon I will be big and strong.
     Here’s a good one: it’s Dumb-But-Well-Meaning Parcel Deliveryman Has an Angry Wife. (Episode in which Parcel Deliveryman attempts to hide fact from Angry Wife that he has purchased sports car, but she’s too smart for silly Parcel Deliveryman. Wife figures out Deliveryman and fight ensues.) Many laughs. Nagging Wife! Silly Stupid Deliveryman!
     Eek, a gnat has landed on my plush duvet! I kill it and disinfect the area with a combination of bar soap, hot water, and Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer (kills 99.9% of germs!)
     At 12:30, more laughs!—on New York Sports Writer Has Angry Wife and Lives Across from Overbearing Mom and Lazyass Dad, Angry Wife thinks Sports Writer might liker her better if she gets a boob job. (Episode is called “Boob Job”.) Already seen. Back to Ab Cruncher while I do a crossword on my phone.
     Lights out. Close eyes. Remember that even the most scrupulous housekeeper would not likely think to disinfect the little knob beneath the lampshade, so I double-wash my hands and return to bed.
     Sleep.
     Up to pee. Almost pee usual way (standing), then remember urine epiphany from last week after Friend B.O. and I hiked big muddy mountain. When B.O. and I returned to his house to relieve ourselves, B.O. said:
— Gotta pee like a racehorse.
— Ok, B.O., you go first.
     B.O. only in bathroom minute or so. Now my turn. Standing at the toilet, I see two muddy boot prints facing towards the sink, not the toilet. Did B.O. make a poo in such little time?
— B.O., did you make a poo?
— No, just a pee.
— Then why were your bootprints facing away from the toilet, B.O.?
— I pee sitting down. It prevents splashing.
     Yes it does! Why have I not previously thought to do this? When I was a child I asked my parents to install a low-flow urinal in my bathroom (they said no), but I never thought to just sit down like a lady does.
     So I sit down to pee. Wash hands twice. Can’t be too careful.
     More sleep.
     Up. Shower. Pee sitting down again. (It’s quickly becoming a habit, although I’m still mad I’ve wasted an entire quarter-century splashing myself while urinating.) Pack up. Down to the front desk to check out and turn in my keycard.
— Checkin’ out? asks Needlemark Jim from behind the desk.
— Yep.
— What brought you to Cathedral City?
— Just passing through. On my way to Phoenix from the Bay Area.
— Oh yeah, you from the Bay Area? Me too! What part?
— No, just visiting family in the South Bay.
— Ah, don’t know that part too well.
(A relief. Neither do I. All I know is that down in the South Bay there are many old men on bikes with all their gross leghair overflowing from their wool socks as they pass me. The worst part about them is that when you honk at them, even curse, all they do is wave at you and smile rather than the more customary approach: present you with their finger.)
     Needlemark Jim bids me adieu as he achoos into his crusty sleeve. Bye Needlemark Jim!
     My car’s temperature gauge says it’s 112°, so I lower the thermostat to 60° and turn the fan on high. By the time I reach the Jack in the Box drive-thru a few blocks away, the car is comfortable. Thank jesus for technology. Otherwise he only redeeming thing about this Coachella Valley desert town would be the local oppressive sun’s ability to remove all scent of street piss immediately.
     After enjoying one Chicken Fajita Pita and one Medium Jumpin’ Jack Splash in the parking lot, I drive 275 miles. Along the way, I listen to a few podcasts, including How and Why I Broke Up My Marriage by Killing a Series of Prostitutes and Who Killed Grandma Eleanor with a Blunt Object?
     When I arrive in Phoenix, Young Friend Millicent asks to meet me for dessert.
     We go to one of my favorite eateries, Hipster Diner Where All Waitpersons Must Have at Least Three Arm Tattoos, which has recently added some delicious pies to its menu. Young Friend Millicent orders strawberry rhubarb, but they are out, so instead she settles for blueberry.
     Young Friend Millicent and I catch up.
     I see that Young Friend Millicent has unshaven armpits. In fact they are as furry as the rear end of the hefty hirsute man named Dwayne I see in the gym most weekdays. I know his name is Dwayne because he likes to introduce himself to new gym patrons (—Hi buddy, I’m Dwayne!) in the locker room while naked, but thankfully his hirsuteness and big belly veil his tiny pecker.
     Recently Cousin Nelly told Grandma:
— I am going to stop shaving my pits.
— That’s just silly! protested Grandma. Girls should shave every day. Haven’t I taught you anything?!
     Normally I would side with Cousin Nelly, but I too do not understand why anyone, woman or man, would desire to have unshaven armpits. My pits are currently as bare as a baby’s bottom. This allows my Secret Powder Fresh Solid deodorant to glide on effortlessly.
     I would quite like to be hairless. I imagine that hairless people generally have less stank than the haired, as stank often seems to be a product of sweat mingling revoltingly with arm hair, leg hair, head hair, eyebrows, pubes, et cetera.
     Done with pie, am beat, it’s getting late, return to apartment.
     Am about to slip into bed when I remember that Friend Zander, who was watching my cat and my bird and my apartment while I was away, had been sleeping in my bed. Friend Zander seems to engage in sex quite often, so I don’t know what or whose germs I might be exposing myself to if I choose to lie down on what has surely become a cesspool of dried bodily fluids.
     I strip my bed, place the sheets in the hamper, and walk to the laundry room downstairs, where I spy my dirty neighbor Stanley.
     Will just get a hotel room.

—Carlos Davy Hauser

Carlos Davy Hauser is a poet and photographer originally from Skagway, Alaska. He recently received his MFA in Photographic and Electronic Media from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He shares his apartment with his cat, Tim-Tom, and his parakeet, Brandon.





HEIDI MACDONALD

I'm at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, sitting in Cafe Botanica with my new laptop—an experiment. I'm a member of the Gardens and I told my peer counselor that I wanted to come here one morning a week to start the day elsewhere, because I tend to waft around my apartment in the morning, petting my cats, drinking iced coffee (I make really good iced coffee), sitting at my desk, then on the couch, thinking about taking a shower, and taking a shower, or not taking a shower, remembering and forgetting that my number-one job is to write, and hours later remembering, oh, shit! that's what I was going to do: write! I don't have a job-job anymore because there's no job-job that I can do consistently, or that I can do without making mistakes, because my brain keeps jumping the tracks. When I was at the end of my job-job working life, I got used to feeling incompetent. As the administrative assistant slash receptionist, I’d sit at my desk with pens and post-it notes, a stapler and a 5-line telephone, a list of stuff I needed to do and the stuff that needed doing. I would read my list of stuff to do, start the first thing, but then I would stop, turn my head and read my list again, and then look at what I’d just started, and say, “Okay.” The phone would ring. I’d answer it, talk, write a message, and then I would read my list, again. I felt like I was a third grader put into the 11th grade by mistake and I would cry because I couldn’t keep up. It turns out nobody wants to work with a crybaby, and neither do I. So now I don’t have a job-job, but I get a check every month from the Feds. I’d always wanted more time to make art and write, but this doesn’t feel like “free time,” because part of my brain is on vacation. But now I’m writing. Right now. I’m writing what happens. Today.
     I'm amazed that I made it here. I woke up at 9:00 a.m. and got up. That doesn't sound very impressive, but for me it's an accomplishment worthy of a high-five. I use the alarm app, “I Can’t Wake-up!” to make my phone wake me up. (Really, that’s the name of it.) It has a slew of tasks you can choose from, that you have to accomplish before the alarm will turn off. So once the alarm starts playing the extremely irritating blues riff that I chose to wake me, I have to do three tasks: copy a string of random text, press five buttons in the correct order in a five-by-five button grid, and get up, go into the bathroom and scan the bar code on my shampoo bottle. Waking gently just isn't something I can do. The previous music I'd used was too lyrical and lovely to wake me up, it only served as a weak prompt to get me to consider waking up—it might as well have been a lullaby cooing to me to snooze the alarm again—even after doing the tasks.
     It's not that I need more sleep, but as my prescriber told me, "vivid dreams" are a common side-effect of one of my psych meds—quetiapine—the generic version of Seroquel. In my case, if I open my eyes, do the tasks my alarm requires, and snooze it for any length of time, 10, 7, even 4 minutes, as soon as I close my eyes I enter an instant full-blown vivid dream. They are richly colored breathing scenes that spring out of my unconscious mind like a lady bursts out of a cake at a bachelor party, and I can’t wake up from the party, the lady, the cake, the bachelors. But today, when I heard the irritating electric guitar blues riff, I woke with a growl, started the tasks, put my feet on the floor and stood up.
     Sitting here isn't comfortable, at all. My back hurts like a sling shot stretched too far. Ouch. This is not conducive, even with Bob Dylan on the system. The sound system. I just noticed that the word shoulder has the word "should" in it.
     The lady with the black apron is crouched in the shade of a patio umbrella holding out her arm with something in her fingers. Ooo! A lizard approaches; it's a big lizard, fat and checkered. Hmm, how big? how fat? It’s about ten big blueberries long, and two big blueberries across. She drops the something, the lizard darts and the something is gone. She stands up, and looks into the distance—this is her habitat—she shares it with lizards. I think she's lucky, and I am lucky to have come here today.
     When I first walked into the empty cafe, I asked her how much a cup of coffee was. “$3.50 plus tax,” she said. Geez, that seemed like a lot, I thought, so I didn’t order coffee, but asked her if I could sit and write for a while. She was slow to answer. “You can sit at one of the little tables until it gets busy, then you’ll have to go.” I thanked her. It was so un-busy at the moment, with only me there, that I had my pick of the tables, which is worse than having only one table available, because I had to choose one. Choosing confuses me because it involves considering, and I am a slow considerer. Each table was by a window, so I looked out each window, considering what view I wanted. I put my stuff down on one table, then looked out the window again, and chose a different table. I wanted the optimum table. That reminds me, I stopped at the 12-foot square little Japanese garden on my way to the café. It’s one of the little gardens in this big garden. It’s neat because there is a sand table with miniature monolithic rocks sticking out of it. I picked up the heavy, steel, miniature rake and slowly drug it through the sand, making little sand waves around the rocks. A little girl saw me doing it and I offered her the rake. She didn’t take it from me. As I walked away, the lady with her said, “This is feng shui. I’ll teach you about it when you’re older; how does that sound?”
     I wanted to say, “That sounds horrible. Fuck feng shui. It’s just sand and rocks.” But that wouldn’t have been very Japanese gardenesque of me.
     When I asked her what she fed the lizard, the café lady said, “A blueberry.”
     “A blueberry?!” I said.
     “Yes! I dropped a blueberry once and a lizard ate it. They LOVE blueberries! Now two of them will eat out of my hand. I feed them all day long." I ordered a cup of coffee.
     I told her about my project, "A bunch of people from all over are writing about what happens today." I wondered if the lizards’ tongues turned blue, like mine, when they eat blueberries, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have told her what I was doing, because I didn’t have to, and maybe I’d blown my cover. But no, I’m not an undercover kind of gal. A lady, a lizard, a garden, a stretch of shade, another lady, a computer, a cup of coffee, a saucer, a see-through garden table with see through chairs—expanded metal—lathe. Oh, yes, I always want to add an extra lump of expanded observation to every thought. It is my way. This is not a police report.
     I'm getting out of here. It’s super-hot already: 11:42 a.m. 97 degrees. Tucson, Arizona. The high is supposed to be 106 today. Will I go to the YMCA? That's my plan, and today is today and available.
     I went to the Y. Other stuff happened. I ate. I watched the news and turned it off when I heard that Koko had died in her sleep. Koko the gorilla was dead. I started to cry when I thought of the Mister Rogers episode when he went to visit Koko, and how she took off his shoes and socks, and how little he looked when she held him in her arms. He was very brave. Two gentle beings, both gone. I looked up some articles online. There was an email address. This is what I wrote:
I'm so sad to hear that Koko has died. She was a beautiful being. She taught me about kindness and I thank you for raising and caring for her and never mistreating her.
     You are a wonderful example of how much goodness we bring to the world when we choose to be the best human beings we can be.
     I will never be able to fathom how we can be such a loving and kind species, yet some among us persistently devote their time, their spectacular minds, and our shared resources to invent and invest in a constellation of tools and methods to kill one another and institutionalize cruelty.
     I disagree with people who believe that we humans, specifically the males of our species, are unable to control our cruel and deadly "instincts," that war is a given, and that "evil" is an actual proven "force" akin to gravity.
     Maybe I stray too far from our shared grief at Koko's loss, but I do believe that to live gently, as Koko did, would be a wondrous achievement for humanity; we might even find that it feels natural. And if it doesn't, we can learn to do it anyway.
     Without Koko and without your work, I would not have come up with this version of the (my) truth on my own. Thank you for inspiring me.
—Heidi MacDonald

Heidi MacDonald writes nonfiction and poetry. She has a BFA in sculpture from the University of Houston. She began writing in 7th grade because it helped.





And… that's all folks, at least from our Write-a-Day June 21st project this year. We're back to our regularly-scheduled programming in a week or so. Keep an eye out for the next version of this experiment and some thoughts on what happened. —Editors

Sunday, July 15, 2018

July 15: Erin Rhees • Will Slattery • Ellen Sprague • Shell Stewart Cato • Laura Swan • Cassandra Kircher • Amy Probst • Ashley P. Taylor


Today we present ten more dispatches from June 21, 2018 to you. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, through July 16th.
—The Editors



July 15: Erin Rhees • Will Slattery • Ellen Sprague • Laura Swan • Cassandra Kircher • Amy Probst • Ashley P. Taylor • Shell Stewart Cato





ERIN RHEES

On the morning of June 21, I woke just as the pale grey light of morning filled my room. I got up, washed my face, and patted it dry with a hand towel I accidentally stole from my mother’s house—it somehow found its way into my luggage. I just returned from two weeks away at my parents’ home. My three siblings and I congregated there after the expected-yet-somehow-unexpected passing of my grandma—my dad’s mom. “Passing away” is a strange euphemism, as if she’d just passed into a different room instead of a different world. Hopefully somewhere, rather than nowhere. I’ve always believed in heaven. But she knows now, whether she’s wrapped in golden light with her husband and siblings, or not. If anyone was going to heaven, it was her. I learned, after her passing, that she made a birthday cake for every member of her religious congregation. Over the years, she made hundreds of birthday cakes, took meals to neighbors who had new babies, who lost babies, or who had sick babies. She canned peaches for family, took the extras to people who seemed a little down. In her old age, she hand-fed deer in her backyard—a thought that both delighted and terrified me in equal measure.
     After I washed my face, I dressed for the day in a dark blue jumpsuit I bought online on a whim. On the model, it looked chic, effortlessly cool. On me it looked ok, a little like a toddler onesie, but it was lightweight and airy, and it was too hot for jeans.
     I sat at my computer and tap tapped on my keyboard. I highlighted and erased large blocks of text. Then quickly undid erase. Then erased again.
     After writing next to nothing for nearly an hour, I stood up and buzzed about the kitchen, threw a handful of frozen blueberries, a cup of spinach, and avocado in a blender. I sliced the tan-grey skin from a ginger nub, smelled the sweet spice as its skin fell off my knife. I dropped it in with the other ingredients, heard its satisfying little “plop” and turned it on. As it whirred, I packed my bag for my meetings at school. I was on break between semesters of my graduate program and teaching. In a week, I would begin teaching another section of freshman writing.
     The day was usual, mundane even. The afternoon was a whir of meetings, dropping off books at the library, then driving home in the dry desert heat of Northern Utah. My blue jumpsuit clung to the sweat trickling down my back. My hair wilted in the heat, little wisps of baby hairs curled around my temples. I held crumpled tissues in each hand to lessen the heat of the steering wheel. Even the backs of my knees felt hot.
     When I arrived home, I opened the freezer and stood in front of it for a few minutes, then ran an ice cube along my neck.
     I sat down at my computer again, this time willing myself to write something. Anything. I typed the words, “write something down,” then stifled a giggle.
     In the evening, my husband and I prepared dinner together. I held a round radish with my fingers, sliced it into pink rimmed moons with the other hand, little pools of purple bleeding onto the cutting board. We both used to hate radishes, until one day we didn’t.
     While my husband and I cooked, my brother sent me a text with a photo of my grandma during World War II. Her dark hair was set in glossy, shoulder length waves. Her red lips curled in a soft smile. She waited for my grandpa, who was serving in the war, for two and a half years. When he returned, they married and had five children. After 38 years of marriage, my grandpa died of a rare form of sarcoma and my grandma never remarried. She was alone for another 34 years and fumed at anyone who called her single. She always wore her wedding ring, but stopped wearing red lipstick—my grandpa’s favorite. The night she died, she kept saying how she was trying to get home. She put on red lipstick and sat in her high-backed pink chair. She passed away in her sleep shortly after.
     It sounds fantastical, too peaceful to be real, but it really happened that way.
     That night, as I laid in bed next to my husband, I looked at that photo of my grandma on my phone. My husband rolled over onto his stomach, as he always did at night, pushed his pillow up over his head, and exhaled a little vowel of relief. I turned my phone over. The room went dark without the glow of my grandma’s photograph. As I closed my eyes, I imagined her sitting in her chair, that deep red lipstick feathering into the small lines around her mouth, the folds in her face softening as she fell asleep.

—Erin Rhees





WILL SLATTERY

Summer is a hazy, liminal sort of non-space for me—it always feels like a little caesura, an ephemeral reverie, a gap in between the content of my life, whatever that may be. I’ve spent so much of my life now (as a child, as an undergraduate, as a grad student, as a high school teacher) wedded in one form or another to the rotations of the academic calendar that I struggle to think of it any other way.
     I wake up mid-morning, see that Melania has done something obnoxious, and then drive to the high school I teach at, grabbing some gas station pizza and one of those Starbucks espresso canned drinks on the way. I’ve been teaching a creative writing summer camp (the first one ever offered by the school I work at) for several days now.  It’s a small camp, just me and about 10 students, ranging from 5th grade to 10th, for 4 hours a day.
     The camp offers up more difficulties than I expected (keeping that wide an age range occupied for that long is very hard). Still, the whole thing is pretty chill: they free-write while I play instrumental covers of pop songs, we work on some illustrated erasures using a giant pile of markers I found in the teacher’s lounge + a giant pile of old lit mags I had in my apartment, and then the kids do writing exercises in which they write letters to famous people. We take a break, get snacks from the gas station next to the school, and look at yearbooks for a while.
     A student asks me who my favorite member of BTS is. I truthfully but unhelpfully offer that I don’t have one, on account of how I only dimly even know that BTS is a K-pop boy band, and I have almost no real knowledge of that genre. The students are shocked that I don’t know anything about K-pop. Everybody their age knows K-pop, they tell me. Lately, this has been the primary way I notice that I am getting old: the shift in cultural reference points.
     Camp ends at 5:00 PM, and as I’m cleaning up the room I notice for the first time this week the hunk of canvas drop cloth attached to the door. Every classroom in our school has something similar--a curtain, a piece of fabric, a section of cardboard, a bunch of construction paper, something—on the inside of the door, so that we can cover the window in case of an active shooter. This one is brightly painted, in order to look like a rainbow. I shut the lights off and head home.

—Will Slattery

Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.





ELLEN SPRAGUE

French Fry Fail

When your first big marital fight is about French fries, you shouldn’t be surprised that your brother-in-law, a witness, is worried that the marriage won’t last. But when that fight is two-plus decades behind you and that same brother-in-law claims he just ate the best French fries ever, you take a risk. Despite those two decades of relative tranquility, French fries continue to tempt the fates in this marriage.
     I hadn’t thought much about Shake Shack until local and social media insisted I take note that the restaurant now had a location in St. Louis’s Central West End and that I should expect to wait in line for their supposedly famous food. Now I was hearing this from family. Still, I harbored two resistances to Shake Shack: 1) the repulsive “everybody’s doing it” phenomenon and 2) long lines. I’d learned about the lines by binge-watching Bosch, where the crusty, eponymous detective puts up with the Shake Shack lines because it means spending time with his daughter. I would get to spend time with my husband, so maybe it would be worth it—for French fries.
     I have the summer off. My husband had a rare weekday off. So at 4:30 pm, a time Google metrics assured us was a slow time for business, we arrived having sharpened our appetites with a very light lunch. The first time I went to Shake Shack, there was no line. Having waited in over 20 lines in 19 hours of trans-Atlantic travel just days earlier, I was ready for this. And clearly, not everyone was doing it. I could proceed.
     Inside the shiny and high-ceilinged establishment and on the far side of the crowd controlling stanchions and dividing ropes, a trainee staffed the cash register. Black shirt. Black baseball cap. Green burger logo? Definitely green Shake Shack worker and customers. Over his shoulder I saw mounds of golden fries, ready to go.
     Since we had a little time, I told him it was my first visit to Shake Shack. His blank look told me he was unmoved. I dragged suggestions and answers out of him. Single or double? What’s the special sauce? You see, I was trying to be a good customer, not the controlling type I usually portray. I was trying to be agreeable, something that’s hard for me when I’m nervous about getting what I want. Ask my mother-in-law, and she’ll confirm that I can’t go to Panera without noticing some mistake or inconsistency (don’t get me started on the tiny baguettes they serve these days) or some process they could do better. If only I ruled the world.
     My husband was still ogling the menu on the wall, so I ordered my burger and added fries. “Fresh fries, I hope,” I said with one of those smiles I give when I know I’m telling someone how to do his job but don’t want him to know it.
     “Uh huh” or “Huh?” he might have said.
     Moments later he confirmed that the two people across the register from him had requested three orders of fries. “Uh, no, just two.”
     At our table, we were confused about why we didn’t have drinks yet at least. We spotted a manager interviewing someone in a neighboring booth. The pager buzzed.
     So my brother-in-law had promised us hot, crinkle-cut fries—“the best ever,” he said. What I conveyed to our table in exchange for the buzzer was below standard then. Okay, it wasn’t even close, and it wasn’t a surprise. Once again I’d predicted the failings a restaurant worker although I’ve never been one and have determined I’m not really suited for customer service in the food industry. And once again I would suffer for it.
     For what was not the first time in our marriage, we returned lukewarm fries and demanded hot ones—“fresh” ones, if you can call them that. We didn’t even discuss it. Well, there was some tension in determining which of us would do the returning. I was afraid I would say something mean. It’s happened that I have behaved badly when it comes to French fries—perhaps more so than my husband, if we’re being honest.
     We resigned ourselves to starting our burgers—my double with the perfect toppings. “How did you get pickles and lettuce?” my husband asked. Another casualty of the trainee, who didn’t ask my husband what he wanted on his burger after I had placed a precise order for myself. There may have been brief pouting.
     Burgers depleted, I went to check on the fries where two employees were lollygagging. Anyone not making fresh fries is a lollygagger. I was nice. Honest. We drained our drinks. We pretended we were fine. I realized that the TV my husband was watching had subtitles while mine didn’t, and it started to make sense why he was so interested in it. A good 15 minutes after we had re-ordered and seen others come through the now-forming line, our hot fries were delivered with no particular fanfare. And behold, they were very good.
     “Best ever”? I don’t know. I prefer hand-cut fries myself, with crinkle-cut and steak fries in a tie for second. And my husband and I are on track for our 24th anniversary, despite the ever-lurking danger of French fries.

Ellen Sprague

Ellen Sprague's essays and translations have appeared in Emrys Journal, The Laurel Review, and Asymptote Journal. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes personal essays, translates from French, is learning Slovenian, and teaches both academic writing and creative nonfiction at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.





LAURA SWAN

I tried on 9 personalities on June 21, 2018.
     My day started too early, the sky almost light enough to read by, if it weren’t for the morning fog already making the air heavy. Still thick with sleep, my mind was straining to hold on to my dreams but the bite of mint toothpaste jumpstarted my brain. I abandon the nonsensical Cher lyrics to scan ahead to the day’s schedule and plans, the hours that are already booked and plotted.
     I slipped on my yoga pants and my Healthy self. The local class is small and I am the youngest person by 15 years, but I am probably the least fit attendee. Tree pose is tough, and I’ve learned to hone my focus here. We end with bridge poses that feel amazing on my lower back, and I feel the bliss of an empty mind for almost eight whole seconds during final relaxation.
The drive to work is quick, and so is my transformation into Sarcastic Comic. I regale my coworkers with a self-deprecating story of how I attempted to hang three pictures in my bathroom and failed hilariously in my use of a level. Leaving the room with laughter behind me, I settle into my office’s desk chair and shrug into Robot mode.
     For the next few hours, I am functioning only on logic and routine, problem solving via flow chart and following procedure. My fingers move the slides on and off my microscope and my eyes skim over millions of cells in a practiced method, finding what does not belong. My job is a never ending Where’s Waldo, having trained my eyes to see instead of look, and now Find-A-Word Searches are no longer fun. But who I am does not matter, only the cells, and we all look the same under the microscope.
     Today I am only at my desk for a few hours, I get to leave early. I start the two hour drive still mostly in machine mode, thinking of the route I will take and calculating if I have enough gas for a round trip. As I settle into cruise control, the options for my auditory entertainment are plentiful. The radio scans across the stations and I am quick to select any song I know, belting out the lyrics and cranking up the volume for my favorites. This is when I feel the most like myself, whoever she is.
Once I was out of range of my pre-set buttons, I turned on the podcast I had started earlier in the week. I was listening to old Pottercast episodes from 2005, when the Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing. These episodes had been recorded before all the books had been published, and I enjoyed listening to the passion of the fans. I have an intense desire to slip backward in time, and for a moment I feel sixteen and giddy again.
     My destination is a coffee shop, but I arrived thirty minutes early and decided to investigate a gourmet popcorn shop in the same plaza. Dark chocolate salted caramel popcorn melted on my tongue, and I considered the trip worth it, regardless of the meeting’s outcome. I selected a seat in the empty coffee shop and then consciously decided on a personality to wear while meeting the doctor. Should I be cool and aloof? I wanted her to like me, but this was not an interview. I settled on effusive and engaging, with a hint of humble, my best ‘Charming The Mom’ self.
     Doctor R reminded me strongly of a childhood friend’s mother: bony and eccentric but constantly smiling and oozing compassion. This doctor had started a foundation aiding women in a third world country, providing women’s health and maternity services. Cervical cancer is preventable, treatable, curable, and I wanted to put my skills to use. We were on the same page, we shook hands, and agreed to email and start working on the paperwork.
     I got back into my car and drove across town, slightly tweaking the personality to be ready to be Darling Niece for my great aunt. Prepared to be helpful and patient and full of family gossip, I let myself in to my aunt’s condo. She sat in the family room, surrounded by years of photographs and pleased as punch to have me visiting. We talked all about my meeting and my china pattern, and Aunt C promised to tell her daughter that I was to have first dibs on her Ivy Corelle when she died. After discussing the health status of every relative we had in common, we went to dinner. Over fried potato skins and chicken sandwiches I told Aunt C all about my sister’s new boyfriend and listened to her stories of my grandmother as a young woman.
     With a hug and promise of staying in touch, I left her house with a lipstick print on my cheek and a can of pop for the road. I put on my Wife persona and called my husband, letting him know I was hitting the road and promising I would call him if I got sleepy while driving.
     Alone in the car and tired after the long day, I was surprised that my mind turned to the story idea that had been growing like mold in a back corner of my brain. As the sun set and I headed home, I dove into the disjointed imaginings that are the dramatic scenes, constantly shifting perspective and adjusting the plot. I enjoyed the Author self, as she is fickle and never seemed to stay long.
     Though my speed was the same as earlier in the day, the now dark surroundings obscure landmarks and make it hard to perceive my progress. It seemed sudden when I spotted the sign for my exit, and I was both relieved and faintly disappointed that the journey was over.
      My day ended too late, I knew I would be quite tired at work the next day. I went through the motions of my nightly ablutions and shed my many personalities the same way I shed my dirty clothes. I dropped heavily into bed and drifted into sleep, wondering who I would be tomorrow.

—Laura Swan





CASSANDRA KIRCHER

Woke up before alarm, before Kevin. Remembered I’ve been misspelling pika for a very long time. Showered. Made coffee in a machine that didn’t exist last time we were here. Took crowded bus to the airport. A one-hour ride. Looked out the window the whole way and practiced saying every number we passed. Wondered why I never learned any higher than 69. Funny, that number. But it’s true: the seventies, eighties, and nineties are harder.
     At the airport I rented a car. It surprised me that I knew the vocabulary since I’ve never rented one here. The driving was easy. That surprised me too. We made the 11:00 a.m. tour, and it was pretty much as I expected: the tower, the solitude, the space where Montaigne would have shelved his books. The views. The tunnel beside his bed so he could communicate with his wife sleeping on the floor below him. I hadn’t known about that. Before the tour ended, all six of us, plus the guide, were locked inside the tower by accident. I wanted to say that there were worse places to be stranded, but I didn’t know how.
     On the way back to Bordeaux, we filled up with gas at a place where four pumps weren’t working, and I avoided English. From the airport it was all a breeze. Kevin and I were able to sit together on the bus and I realized that women in France might have smaller breasts and that might be why I felt comfortable. I liked being with strangers on a bus. The kid with the cleft palette. The woman in the wheelchair who could back up fast. I could have been either of them. 
     Before returning to the apartment, we stopped at Paul’s and I did okay ordering two quiche and a baquette. When I went into Monoprix for lettuce, Kevin stayed on the street watching France beat Peru.
     It should have been a quick trip for lettuce, but it wasn’t: I was stopped by a man, my age, who, at first, I thought wanted money, but he didn’t. He kept speaking in English, so I’d understand, and I kept speaking in French, so I’d learn. He wanted me to buy soap or toothpaste for his organization to distribute to gay youth shunned by their parents. I did. I didn’t have the words, but I decided to tell him about my son.

—Cassandra Kircher

Cassandra Kircher's nonfiction has recently been nominated for Best American Essays and a Pushcart, and has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Flyway, Apalachee Review, and others.  She is the winner of Flyway's 2010 Notes in the Field contest and teaches at Elon University.  





AMY PROBST

It was a time when my garbage cans were full of stink and wiggles from missing trash day two weeks running. Today was another chance and I shot out of bed twenty facebook-surfing minutes after the alarm went off, when I heard the garbage truck on my street. The dogs staybed in bed, the cans made it to the curb. I also dragged out a 6’-round Oriental rug off the back deck railing, tragically exposing a thriving society of ants and their cup-of-rice-sized huddle of infant eggs.
     Plus, one day the previous week, I'd walked by my Jeep in the driveway, which I only use in Winter months, and saw its windows covered thick with flies, from the inside, like a horror movie, and the consequent hero's journey inside turned up the frozen raw meat patties I feed my dogs, pruchased in January and left until the present heat wave had turned it into a leaky, bloated, baby-fly-nourishing bag of raw heat meat, and that bag was in one of the two-week-old trash cans, as well.  Baby flies, by the way, are maggots, which I saw none of in the Hour of Jeep De-flying, but I did see several more little bundles of symmetrically aligned, exru, thin oval eggs, like anorexic rice grains with Dwarfism. And how tragic, really, the generations of flies in my Jeep this summer before I'd noticed the Amityville scene going on: born in a Jeep with windows rolled up in a summer swelter warranting Head Advisories—don't pump gas today, stay in the air conditioning, hydrate the elderly —only to lay eggs of their own and then die.
     Exhausted from these brushes with nature that made me a monster, I wrote my Morning Pages like a good first-week Artist's Way student, went to a new yoga class that didn't happen because I was at the wrong location, then talked on the phone for an hour and 39 minutes to a sober friend struggling to keep the bottle away.
     Again exhausted, I went to the backyard with my dogs and a book and stared at facebook until I dozed off.  Came inside, worked on a training program for a client who thinks all training materials should be done in PowerPoint, then dashed off to a Drum Corp show with my sister, mother, and newly minted high school marching band niece, Gina, after dropping her sister, Bailey, off at circus school for contortion class.
     The drive home was long.
     My dogs were happy to see me, and I them.
     No larvae were present upon my arrival.
     A decent day.

—Amy Probst

Amy Probst rescues worms from puddles.





ASHLEY P. TAYLOR

Nothing smelled that day; if it did, I don’t remember it.

My alarm went off at 7:20 but I stayed in my twin bed, the coolness of my fan and the cover of my top sheet balancing each other, for another hour and a half. When I sleep in like that I get up feeling like I’ve arrived in heaven, but if I don’t start doing something within an hour or so, I fall into a lazy, guilty depression that’s difficult to reverse. Every hour that passes, I feel further behind.
     I ignited the gas beneath the kettle, put two tablespoons of Café Bustelo into my French press, and fixed a bowl of Rice Chex. Once the water boiled, I filled the French press to just below the lip and carefully, slowly pressed the lid down on top. Success! No spillover. While the coffee steeped, I ate my cereal and streamed HBO’s Big Love on my laptop, floating each woven grain pillow in a kiddie pool of skim milk before swallowing as on screen, proverbial shoes dropped and dropped. I slurped the remaining milk and took my bowl back to the kitchen, where I fixed my coffee.
Sometime after coffee, in the lime-green section of my notebook, I made a list: schedule MRI; cut my nails; shower & shave. I was also planning to talk on the phone with a friend and go to a literary salon, called Les Bleus, in the evening.  A freelance journalist, I was between assignments but not really looking for a new one, as I would be leaving for a short vacation trip the following week.

In the same notebook entry, “Thursday, June 21, 2018,” I wrote down what had happened the day before: how I’d been in a blue mood, had started my period, had walked from my Brooklyn apartment to Prospect Park, where I’d begun reading the Philip Roth story “Defender of the Faith” from the collection Goodbye, Columbus. I think I finished the story on the 21st, which may be why it preoccupied my entry that day.
     In “Defender of the Faith,” a young Jewish soldier at a U.S. training camp tries to win sympathy and favors from his sergeant (also Jewish and just back from World War II in Europe) by making shows of piety and asking for accommodations, supposedly so that he can practice his faith. From the beginning, the sergeant dislikes this trainee and doubts he’s telling the truth, but they continue uneasily along until an elaborate falsehood—the trainee forges a letter, supposedly from his father, regarding the camp’s non-kosher food—seems to set them apart. For a while, it seems as if the trainee has learned his lesson, has learned restraint.
     Near the end of the story, the trainee, having minded his own business for some time, approaches the sergeant again and asks the sergeant to let him and his friends leave the camp for a belated Passover seder at his aunt’s house. The sergeant resists at first but, as usual, relents in the end. When the trainee gets back to camp, he approaches the sergeant at his bunk and they have the equivalent of a heart-to-heart, which the sergeant actually enjoys—he mentions having “a homey feeling.” It’s in this setting that the trainee gets the sergeant to tell him where he and his friends will be assigned as soldiers: the Pacific Theater. It’s a moment of sadness for both parties. Changing the subject, the sergeant asks after the leftovers he’d been promised from the holiday meal and the sergeant pulls out an egg roll in a paper bag. The trainee had been mistaken, he says, the invitation was for the following weekend—so he’d probably be asking special permission to leave again—the aunt wasn’t home. The sergeant realizes that there was no invitation to begin with and effectively says to hell with the trainee.
     Some days later, the sergeant sees that the trainee is the only one of his number not assigned to go to the Pacific. The trainee has gotten someone else to make an exception for him. When the sergeant realizes this, he makes one last call on the trainee’s behalf—in order to make sure that the trainee is sent to the Pacific—and claims on the phone with a higher-up, in a nice touch, that this is a favor to the trainee, who can’t stand not to fight after his brother died out there (lies of the sort the trainee might tell).
     The story bothered me because it was obvious that the sergeant liked the trainee, though the trainee drove him crazy, and that the trainee’s efforts, however manipulative, to create some kind of special connection with the sergeant had worked. The relationship, not of chumminess but of a fly and the person swatting it away, became familiar despite the sergeant’s best efforts to prevent it; the sergeant knew the boy and what he was likely to do and say. Something about that nineteen-year-old constantly piping up about Jewish traditions reminded the sergeant of himself and his past. Near the beginning of the story, for instance, as the trainee and his friends walked off to Friday services, their departing sounds reminded the sergeant of his childhood: “But now one night noise, one rumor of home and time past, and memory plunged down through all I had anesthetized and came to what I suddenly remembered was myself.” The connection between the trainee and the sergeant wasn’t just the product of the trainee’s brown-nosing; it was that the sergeant saw himself, before the war had hardened him, in the trainee, and it was to that past self that the sergeant felt so much tenderness. The satisfaction of sending the trainee potentially to his death was not total.
     I felt a certain sensitivity to the story because it reminded me of my own past, of a time I went too far in pursuing some kind of closer-than-average relationship with a higher-up—a professor—and ended up cast off, though I also had plenty of reason to believe the professor still liked me to an extent. What made me sad reading the Roth story was the way the sergeant believed the trainee had learned his lesson, forgave him—and then the trainee just blew his second chance and went on to manipulate someone else. The professor also forgave my missteps, before the final one. I felt the sergeant’s mental anguish as he tried to decide whether to believe the trainee; I saw the way the sergeant thought about the trainee even when he was being gruff or they weren’t speaking, and even after the trainee had gone and the events were just a story. It bothers me to think I might’ve caused the professor similar worries—or that she might not have been able to turn off her thoughts about me quite as easily as “casting off” implies.
     So, on the summer solstice, I was still thinking about something that happened nearly seven years ago. That’s not unusual.

According to my notebook entry on June 22nd, I did as planned on the 21st. I probably cut my nails over a piece of newsprint from the London Review of Books, then folded the paper around the clippings to throw it out. This is the best method I’ve come up with for not getting nail clippings everywhere. Cutting them on the round black dining table I share with my roommate and sweeping them into my palm seems distasteful. Your roommate’s bodily waste does not belong on the dining table (or on the kitchen counter). An alternative, cutting my fingernails on my own desk and sweeping them off, means in practice that the clippings accumulate in the crevice near the desk’s edge, something distasteful even to me. Despite my interest in the writings of Jenny Diski, who chronicled her death in the LRB, I haven’t read enough of the LRB subscription my parents gave me to justify it, so in collecting nail clippings, I’m glad to use it for something.

The morning of June 21st, I was thinking about revising a short story in order to submit it somewhere with a July 1st deadline. It’s possible that thinking about the story discouraged me from getting out of bed with the alarm. I aimed to finish the revision before my trip, but I was feeling down about it, unsure if it could be saved. What I had already written, which my writing group had faulted for its lack of propulsion and conflict, was ornately finished. One thing connected to another the way I had it. I was unwilling to rewrite the original story, which had become the middle section of the new draft; it was either frame the story to make it work or give up.
     “I was craving satisfaction,” I wrote in my notebook, “and since [the story] wasn’t satisfying, and I’d decided against the kind of marathon work session that might have made it satisfying [ie., skipping the salon], I went for my run despite the heat and sun (the running path itself is not shaded) and the knowledge that all the away around plus to and from [the park] was a lot for someone who hadn’t run at all since this winter and not a long run since—”

After the run, my thoughts turned to the literary salon and the phone date. I hadn’t spoken with this friend in a long time and, in particular, not since I’d spent nearly a month in the hospital and had had three brain surgeries, “revisions,” as they’re called, of the shunt that treats my hydrocephalus. After the hospitalization, in April, I’d spent a month at my parents’ house and farm in Kentucky. So I’d been out of commission for a while. My friend, an editor, had offered me an assignment while I was away, but I’d turned it down. After my trip, I told myself, I’d get back to it. We arranged the call to fit neatly before the literary salon, which was yet another reason to follow through and attend. So I showered and shaved, careful not to nick the pimples from the poison ivy I’d picked up in KY, put on a light blue-and-white zigzag-patterned dress, and got on the subway a few minutes early so that I’d be near the salon when my friend called, at 7, and would be on time to the 7:30 event.
     I was feeling quite put together—early, seated on a clean rock slab near a flower-filled bit of landscaping—as I waited for my friend’s call. I took a selfie and made it my Facebook profile picture. When I asked my friend how she was, she told me that she wasn’t so great, that a fairly close relative had killed themselves. I had imagined that the conversation might focus, to some extent, on me and my recent ordeal. Yet here I was, alive, recovered, about to go to a fancy-sounding event. I was glad that I had not let more time go by without checking in with my friend.
     She was talking to me from a park, she said. She mentioned something about taking off her uncomfortable work shoes. I chimed in that although I was wearing flip flops my uncomfortable shoes were in my big yellow bag and I would soon put them on. After we hung up, I crossed the street, leaned against a telephone pole, kicked off an orange Teva and tried to smoothly replace it with a cream and electric-blue sandal. The crisscrossing ankle straps made smoothness impossible—they made a circle barely larger than my ankle; they caught my toes. I describe these sandals as “good for standing around in,” and that was exactly what I planned on doing in them.

At the Les Bleus destination, a friend from my writing group followed me in the door. “I’m going to give you a hug,” he said, and did so. It was a welcome back. Then we started up the stairs, still talking, until my legs complained, I slowed down and declared, “This is exercise!” But it was worth it to get ourselves up high.
     The salon was on a rooftop deck. There was rosé and there were DIY Aperol Spritzes with strawberries floating in them and we had a view of a sunset that progressed along with the schedule of the evening. Each reader had a different backdrop in the photos I took. But the sunset wasn’t behind the readers, at least not from the side where I sat, so there were no complicated color changes; the sky just got darker blue.
     As for conversation, I found out how one Les Bleus friend had been in a bad bike accident, riding around Prospect Park. I learned the story behind the name Les Bleus. I also heard about a gala to raise money for a literary journal that had happened the night before and felt a sense of having missed out—what’s that called?—though I could have gone if I had been willing to pay for a ticket. I’d seen, on Instagram, that there was a black-and-white backdrop sort of like what you might see at a film awards ceremony; I’d seen pictures of writers I’d heard of posed in their gowns before it. I wondered, had I gone, if someone would have taken my photo there and thought about how embarrassing it would be to expect to have one’s photo taken and then learn that you weren’t known enough for that, or something, that not enough people would recognize you. Back at Les Bleus, open to everyone, I wondered: Is this the real thing, a real literary party? Because if they’re letting me in . . . The real thing is a fantasy only, a fantasy of exclusivity. Of course I’m not in it.
     One attendee talked about a trip would soon take, within the U.S.; her children, U.S. citizens, having heard about immigration officials separating kids from their parents at the border, were afraid they might be taken from their parents if they went to a new place.

At some point that evening, I started reading “Epstein,” the next story in Goodbye, Columbus after “Defender of the Faith,” and it reminded me of my short story in that it involved grown children returning to a childhood home and people sleeping in other people’s rooms, children’s rooms still theirs in name and in decoration, though the children have grown up, moved out, died. Unlike my story, I noted with envy, Roth’s had conflicts, and sex, and death, not just characters thinking of the possibilities of those things.
     My poison ivy, I noted, was still spreading.

—Ashley P. Taylor

Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016 and 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.





SHELL STEWART CATO

Osage Orange at Summer Solstice

Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. —W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn

21 June 2018

A man walked up to me today. I was sitting cross-legged
under my favorite tree. I was also doing research for a story
on my favorite tree on campus. It’s my favorite tree because
it’s:

1.
Got so many names—like me—I am Shell I am
Shelly I am Mama I am Mac I am Teacher


I am Kudzu  I am Bones I am Skelly-ton
(in order of importance) I am me
It is Osage orange it is mock orange it is hedge
apple it is horse apple it is Bois d’arc (bow-
dark) in the Delta where I’m from it is
green monkey brain tree

2.
Got so many uses—like me—I can dance I can
write I can paint I can teach I can birth I can
love I cannot sing the Osage orange’s wood it
can make canes make flutes make bows
make war clubs for the Osage to hunt its fruit
can scare away roaches away spiders also if you
grind up the fruit you can dig a little trench
put the fruit in you’ll have a row of hedge apples
a hedge of hedge apples a living fence

At this point in my research, that man walked up to me asking about my new electric bike parked under my favorite Osage orange. I am holding an Osage orange leaf and a piece of Osage orange bark I ask him if he knows some bike paths around here he said yes he told me how to ride off the mountain he said he rides sometimes to his mother’s in Petersburg his wife picks him up

I ask him if he knows about Osage orange trees. he said yes he grew up sixty miles away his father planted these trees they have big thorns he said see? yes I see I said I am trying to make a story about them I said here’s a place where a branch was cut two thorns are still there sideways almost



like a cross he held up a branch said crown of thorns? that’s it I thought my story I thought he said we call it a hedge apple it makes natural hedges because of the thorns see? we cut the wood for fire it burns hot he said it’s hard he said bois d’arc means wood of the bow I know I said bois means wood in French I know I said the duh means of I know I said then I said the arc means ark like Noah’s ark I said no he said it means bow my father called our place Bois d’arc Hills Farm he said the wood is orange it turns yellow when it is old

I asked him if he ever threw the apples. he said of course I found my story I thought he said his brother ten months younger they would roll fruit down the hill oh I found my story I thought it’s like bocce ball I said yes he said but we rolled to see who could roll the farthest I said oh and you knocked the other apple out and that’s who won like bocce ball I said smiling he said if you rolled it in a ditch and it went farther it still counted I did not say oh it was not like bocce ball we rolled it to see who could roll it the farthest he said oh I said

he said once when I was nine I stepped on a fallen branch and lodged a thorn in my heel I said oh I said I bet that hurt he said yes I said I bet it hurt getting it out he said they never got it out I said I bet they tried a lot your parents with tweezers and a needle I said how sometimes you have to hurt people it’s for their own good even your own child I said but sometimes a child doesn’t remember it that way only the hurt is it still in there I guess so he said looking like he hadn’t thought of his thorn in the flesh for years

I have lead from a pencil in my palm I said my mother has lead in her arm he said I thought lead paint he said my mother has lead in her arm from a shotgun oh I thought but didn’t say it

I said oh I was supposed to meet you God does this for me this was supposed to happen I said tell me your name again you have a lot of stories you helped me so much now said he you’ll have to decide if it’s true oh I said oh I said oh I thought


—Shell Stewart Cato


Shell Stewart Cato teaches American literature and first-year writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She writes poetry and flash, but considers this piece a new venture into genre—the photo poetry essay.





Check back for more dispatches from June 21, 2018 tomorrow. —Editors