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

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