CASSIE MANNES MURRAY
I cleaned my nails out with the tip of a mechanical pencil, lead-forward. I thought about the bits of dirt underneath, the stuff I could see and the stuff I couldn’t. How much we tread on daily—how much sticks. I don’t know what this metaphor is for, or who I need to give it too. Certain things, almost every word I write has to be given away—even if I don’t realize that I need to pass it right back into my own closed hands.
I’ve been reading Hold Still by Sally Mann and I started back today about 92 pages in after taking a significant break to putz around with reality television. This morning, after feeding the animals, and scolding Tucker for licking the cats’ paper plates before they’ve really moved on from the kitchen, I cuddled in behind, in between, and around the couch cushions, some of which supported my husband while he was scrolling through a blog of old houses for sale. We won’t be in the market for another year and a half, but we like to look, and more importantly imagine: our view if we had a spire, the gloss on the wood of a wraparound porch, what we would do with so much blush bathroom tile, or half-ripped but elaborate gilded floral wallpaper. I would want to keep it, and he would let me, but my mother, moving us in, wouldn’t allow it.
I dug into the book again after making coffee with too much cream (my cream intake has gotten stronger since I quit the wine) and entered the chapter about the farm and then the one about how she discovered taking photos of her family. Mann has a daughter, Jessie, and the first photo of this series is a picture of Jesse with a swollen face from several bug bites.
I, too, once sat on a pile of red ants when we first moved to North Carolina. My entire thigh-backs lathered in calamine lotion each night, and drying pink, for days. I woke up in sheets of crust.
Jessie has a short, cropped haircut. One of her eyes is swollen shut. She has “a look of battered defiance” according to Mann. I agree, how could I not? But what I wondered immediately, especially after having to change my password this morning for my grad school email, which references a middle school friend, is what happened to the literal Jessie of my own childhood? The boy I was first supposed to love in elementary school. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and stuck forever into a family album, staring into my mom’s camera lens. I think about him anytime I see a picture of Jesse McCartney. My mom has trained me to love this sort of look—boy band heart throb, and I married a blonde hair, blue eyed boy eventually, so I guess she thinks she got that right. Someone needs to write an essay about the show Pickers (that my father obsessively watched for a time while collecting hundreds of boats that float along the shelves of his bedroom) and picking a mate. What are we willing to dust off? I’ve dated men not like this description and for several reasons that I couldn’t quite name until after they were removed from my life. Perhaps, sometimes, we just need more laughter, and it has nothing to do with physical attraction.
My family has so many photos of kids in albums from my growing up who are behind that slick crinoline plastic, two fingers glossing over their supple faces, and sometimes I don’t even remember their names. What happens to the people like that of our lives?
The mailman comes and the dog growls at the window, and I realize that today is a gray day and if anyone asked me what the passing of cars sounds like (we live on the edge of a busy road) I wouldn’t quite be able to say even though they are pretty much the entire noise made of my day.
Told my husband at 12:38 that he should make sweet potato fries with the lumps that have been in our kitchen bowl forever. I made coffee that needs reheating. He has better knife skills. Neither of us have had breakfast.
On pg. 151, Mann says, “all perception is selection” and I immediately fear what I’m not telling you about my day: the cat’s water fountain trinkle even when they don’t drink from it, the video of someone competing on Fortnight my husband plays low on his phone so as not to disrupt my reading, the dogs cold inner ears, the silence of our Christmas tree although leaning to the right which usually elicits a groan from a human person. What quiet noises are any of the plants making? The lily, the money tree, the one dying from not enough water and too much water so that I never know what it wants exactly.
I never know what I want exactly either.
My mom posts a picture of my dad decorating Christmas cookies. When I take a break from reading, I study the fuzz of it. He’s in motion, reaching for a blank sugar cookie to ice in red or green, with sprinkles or edible pearls. He is 84 and the moles on his neck blend in much less as his face becomes lighter, more pale—I have thought lately I can almost see through him. He lays down in the middle of a day with a decorative throw over most of his body and his slippers still on, the volume low on his favorite tv show, The Price is Right. He falls asleep quicker than I do.
I am stressed most nights, and tend to fall asleep in the middle of prayer, only to wake up at 4AM trying to cobble together a finisher, an actual ask of God, somewhere to put those needs. My dad has told me on the phone that he is ready, he understands death must happen; I need to wrap my head around it. He laughs when I make jokes and I worry that I won’t be able to hear that laugh in my mind, conjure it up, once I can’t see it anymore. For a while, I had a voicemail on my phone from 2006 when I moved into my first dorm room. He just said in his sing-song morning voice, “goodnight, I love you,” but the o’s lasted past a whistle and the -ou was pure crooning.
I have tried to write essays that start with, “My dad has been dying my entire life,” but I’m unable to finish them. This is true for everyone, everywhere, but as a child, I knew intimately the figment of death, I did my living with it. When my dad couldn’t perform the duties of Father-Daughter dances or once taught me to swim, and by the time I was a teenager, barely skimmed the water with his loose, heavy arms—I knew. The garage had a sign over it before I was born that read, “52 And the Baby is New!”
I’ve only met one other man older than my father when he had children, my professor Clyde Edgerton. At one point during the semester, we discovered we grew up on the same road in Raleigh. When I see Clyde after that discovery, he grabs my hand and says, “heyyyyyy Leesville Road,” in his joyous, tremendous voice, popular in the hallway for its twinge of salt water and rafter melody of the southern presbytery. He grabs my hand, and his is papery, soft, smooth like the inside of a mollusk or what an oyster might feel like on a tongue, like my father’s, and still it encompasses the whole of mine.
I’m reading along all fine, eating a piece of bacon my husband has brought over (I only notice when he clicks the tongs at me and I turn to have crisp bacon within reach). And then I remember I have books to pick up at the library, three of them. Kristen Arnett’s debut story collection, Felt in the Jaw, Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds, and The Supper Club, which a friend received at a book exchange party and a flame of jealousy lit in my throat. I pick them up without putting a bra on. The security officer is one of the only people near the entrance, although several people are on the computers. When I get in the car, I wonder if anyone even saw me at all in there, if I left the house without making a single memory on anyone else's day.
In the chapters about Sally Mann’s family ancestry, women care mostly about pedigree. I’m assuming this is true of most families with financial means in the South. At one point in the chapter, it reads, her grandmother was, “...also eligible for the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution.” As a descendent of a Colonel in the American Revolution, and several Civil War soldiers, I often wonder what that eligibility means.
When I was growing up, I received letters to join the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution. And all I can picture is hoop skirts and lace, the boning of the re-enactment dresses, what possible courtesy this could give me in society that I want to be better, but is fueled by bigotry and hate. What do they offer beyond the ability to don white gloves and speak in a voice more dainty than the clinking of glasses? Do they mention the racism? Everytime I look at the live oaks on our street, I can’t help but feel uneasy, staring up to determine which of the branches supported lynchings. What could they possibly do (or reenact) about that? I can’t wash the dirty legacy from my hands, or my fingernails. Right now, the most prestigious public university in my state is paying the Sons of the Confederacy millions in a fake settlement to house a confederate statue, so it can be removed from campus. The scholarships that could offer would fill an introduction to biology lecture hall.
I’ve read the next one hundred pages of the book, warmed-up my husband’s leftover coffee in the microwave and need to work out, probably not while drinking coffee though. Slow and then speed.
After lifting weights and feeling professional about the amount of sweat, I do some thinking in the bathtub. If I can just touch my toe to the exact center of that circular silver bobble, right below the faucet, that generally has no purpose, but I use as a mirror, I can make my whole face disappear.
There are reheated onion rings from a local place on the stove when I get out. I run through our whole house and upstairs, naked, and chewing on onion fry remnants because there are no clean towels in the bathroom. Tucker follows hoping to lick the grease from my hands.
We have ghosts in our house because it’s 104 years old, but they don’t look into the non-faucet fun house distortion in the tub, one mostly hangs out in the guest room. Occasionally though, the hideaways below the stairs (this one is carpeted), in our closet upstairs, and right by the fireplace—large enough to climb into easily even as an adult, are unlocked when I know I’ve locked them. I keep them always locked our of my own dumb fear. I don’t really fear it until I’m going to the bathroom at night, right across from the closet hobby hole, and I have to navigate not only the dark of the bedroom, but my own darkness which is mapless and taunting. But then I do. And the little golden chain is dangling again. I stare at it just in case every time.
I don’t think, “fucking ghost” or “don’t touch me” or “call a priest” but I want to immediately be under the covers again, with my knees pulled to my chest like I’m a child, or a daughter. What does the spirit world look like when it collides with ours? I wonder which sense they’re always using that doesn’t speak to any of ours. It’s gotta be sound, or smell. I say a quick prayer to my dead sister who no one talks about, and sometimes I fall asleep with those namasté hands pressing into my cheek like rafters, like an ark, and I know when I wake up that my face will have red indents from the space my hands make. That my life lines and love lines will suddenly make maps of my cheeks. I’ll know that wherever my sister is, it gets dark there too, in that world—even when you lock every possible fool’s gold latch.
Cassie Mannes Murray is transitioning into literary agenting at Howland Literary, while also doing design for Ecotone and Lookout Books, writing book reviews and interviewing authors for Raleigh Review, and completing her MFA in creative nonfiction at UNCW. Her work can be read in Passages North, HobartPulp, and The Rumpus. Before transitioning into publishing, she was a high school teacher for six years and is always eager to support public education.
On this, the morning of the longest night of the year, as the advent of the season winds down and the last grains of sand trickle down over another year before the hourglass is turned over on another year of hope and disappointment, I should feel much worse about the world than I do. After three years of having our worst American as President, a divided Congress goes through only the third impeachment in our history like it’s a reality show where the outcome is never in doubt. Our planet’s rhythms have in fact been subsumed into the cycles of media and industry, to the point that we may have a finite number hourglass switches left. But, on this day at least—I’ll take the next when it comes—I’m happy, and it doesn’t even feel like a choice.
I’m still learning how to be a generally happy person. My most pressing fear is that it will make me a worse writer, and perhaps it has. I no longer write one of the most popular series I’ve put to pixel on my blog, my annual 12 Days of Christmas Songs (12 Strange Days of Christmas, 12 Days of Miserable Christmas Songs, etc). It’s definitely made me a different writer, even than I was this time last year, and definitely than I was this time three years ago, when I came closer than I probably even now admit to driving my car off a snowy bridge after completing that year’s 12 Days of Happy Christmas Songs.
This morning, though, I have a definite reason to be happy, for on this day I’m fulfilling a months-long mission. Today, I’m reuniting my friend Sonny with his cat Bentley.
Almost three months ago, Sonny went to jail and then prison on a minor technical parole violation after his parole officer probably said he failed a drug test. Sonny is thirty-five years clean and sober, and had been back from a bid upstate of about a decade. I met him at a reentry writing workshop I co-facilitate in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. He’s in his sixties, a marine veteran of the conflict in Beirut, and has Stage 4 prostate cancer. When he was violated by his parole officer (that’s what they call it —“violated”—which has a somewhat sick applicability) our group mobilized on his behalf. Carolina, who is about ten years back from a federal bid on a marijuana charge, called every journalist and advocate she could find, and my co-facilitator Joni, a humanities professor at LaGuardia Community College, sent him money. I knew he had two cats he loved dearly at the basement he was staying in, so I volunteered to extract the cats and find them a temporary home until he returned from prison.
I contacted my colleague Maureen, a cat lover, for advice, and she began querying in earnest with her cat-person network. After a couple of near-misses, she talked to one of the psychology professors at our college, who she agreed to let Sonny’s cats stay with her for the next two months. I talked to Sonny’s ex-wife, who is remarkably willing to work on his behalf, and she agreed to go with me on a rescue mission. I went to our workshop on the Tuesday after Sonny was violated with all this worked out, with the plan that I would pick up the cats with Sonny’s ex-wife from the basement where he’d been staying. By then I expected them to be hungry and maybe half-feral. After the workshop Joni and Carolina went with me to pick up gloves and cat food to assist in picking up the kitties. Maureen had provided two cat carriers.
As I pulled up at the address Sonny’s ex-wife gave me, she came bounding off the porch with a phone in her hand. “Here he is!” she said. It was Sonny, calling from jail. He reminded me his two cats’ names and defining characteristics, which he said were important because there are many other cats in the house. He also reminded me that the man who owns the house is a hoarder, and that the owner’s son and his friends are heroin addicts. He told me his ex-wife had the keys. “Get in, get my cats, and get out.”
Sonny’s ex-wife led me through the front yard to the door, and before unlocking it she said, “It’s disgusting in there.” She was right—the inside looked just like I imagined the apartment of Homer and Langley Collyer. As I stepped in gingerly and watched many cats zoom past me around a labyrinth of junk piled higher than me, Sonny’s ex-wife made as close to a beeline as possible to a door in the back and started knocking. After a few knocks, a man in boxers and a stained t-shirt came ambling out.
“We’re here for Sonny’s cats,” his ex-wife told the man.
“Ah,” the man said, not unkindly, “we haven’t seen the kitten for five days. Had a realtor in here who had the door open all day, and I think he ran out.”
Having heard Sonny talk about writing in the basement and backyard of this house for many hours with that kitten in his lap, I was hesitant to leave without scouring the place for it.
“Go ahead and check the basement,” the man said. Downstairs was much like upstairs, except for a relatively clean, well-lighted place in the corner where Sonny wrote. We’ve been reading Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the past few weeks, which I recommended after Sonny described how he used writing to escape the reality of living in this place. I thought then that I should have recommended Hemingway’s story.
I ended up picking up, with the help of Sonny’s ex-wife, his cat and a random kitten from the pack of feral cats that kept rubbing my leg and begging for food. They stayed with another colleague from my college, a psychologist so grumpy I’d always been a bit afraid of her who took both cats in, cared for them, found a home for the kitten through a no-kill shelter, and cried earlier this week when she left Bentley at the vet for Sonny to pick up. She couldn’t bring herself to give her over in person, but she’s been hounding Maureen all week to make sure Sonny’s coming for her.
It’s now late afternoon, and I’m returning home after driving Sonny and Bentley back to West Hempstead, where he’s staying at his niece’s apartment while he finds a new home for him and Bentley. His niece didn’t seem terribly excited to have a cat in the apartment, or me; I believe her response when Sonny introduced me as his professor was, “What I care about some professor?” But she warmed by the time I left, mostly because I’d made friends with her portly miniature pinscher, Coco. I think she might have been a little suspicious that she couldn’t tag me as either a cat person or a dog person.
I’m honestly too tired now to go through all the details of the day, but I’ll add that Maureen drove us to the veterinarian’s office in Stamford, where she has an insider’s relationship with the doctors and staff, and the best part of all of our day was bearing witness to a proud old man who is both a poet and a fighter, being reunited with his cat after being pulled away from the world into a cold cell for no good reason.
I’ll also note that, after the first paragraph or two, I’ve ceased in reflecting and just told some stories. As an essayist, I think of my job primarily as turning things over in words, looking at ideas from as many perspectives as possible. But over the past three years since I, in the words of either Joseph or God in It’s a Wonderful Life, thought seriously about throwing away god’s greatest gift, I’ve come to terms with a set of priorities by which my role as a thinker is necessarily subservient to my role as an teacher-activist, as a storyteller, as both a caretaker and a child of the world. It’s only in the friction and the frisson between these roles that the term “essayist” even means anything to me.
In the car ride back from the vet, after acquiescing that Sonny was going to take Bentley out of her carrier and hold her for the whole ride despite her protestations, Maureen leaned back with both hands on the wheel and said, “This is such a great Christmas for us all!” We all sat together in silence, sharing the moment and the space. “Hope,” she said as we sped along the highway, the afternoon giving way to the longest night. “It’s full of hope.”
John Proctor teaches writing at Manhattanville College, Rikers Island, and reentry and recovery workshops in and around New York City. He's been published in The Normal School, Numero Cinq, and the recent anthology Beyond the Rhetoric of Pain [Routledge]. You can find him at NotThatJohnProctor.com or email him at johnproct at gmail dot com to join his mailing list, Dispatches from the Carceral Apparatus.
AMANDA JS KAUFMANN
A treatment for … A long shortest day of the year
She wakes. The clock reads 4 a.m. Not rested, her wheels are visibly turning. The cat is propped up against her legs, cozy. But she eventually gets up.
Downstairs, she flips on the Christmas tree lights, and the cat excitedly noses the lower tree branches. She can hear her husband snoring upstairs as she takes in the stillness of the house. She snaps a picture of the cat in front of the tree, posts it to her blog, and texts the picture to friends and family members. After preparing coffee, she sets up a timelapse of the dawn brightening the Christmas tree scene. She paces the house, wheels turning, but she’s careful not to disturb the timelapse. After 20 minutes, the video’s done, and she posts it to her blog. She sits by the tree and writes a haiku-structured poem, counting the syllables on her fingers, and audibly working through the beats. She posts the completed poem to her blog.
With a fresh cup of coffee, she wraps herself in a blanket and settles into the couch for a phone call with a friend recovering from a scooter accident.
After the call, she receives a cell phone alert that her friend is now following her on Tumblr. She laughs.
Noon. She drives toward the outlet malls, playing with her phone until she realizes she’s in the slow lane behind a cement truck, going 50 miles an hour. She puts her phone down to concentrate on her driving. The malls are busy with cars and pedestrians, but she practices patience and civility as she searches for a parking spot.
Her targeted store quickly disappoints with its selection of men’s wear. Back outside, she does her best to walk nonchalantly around the other shoppers, even though her sleep deprivation and progressive lenses are making her unsteady. She visits several other stores, picturing her mom’s email that specifically outlined neutral-colored turtlenecks for her dad. She returns to her car to move to the next mall and repeats the same fruitless search. She ducks into a women’s boutique and peruses the clothing and cheap knick knacks, and winds up buying herself a shirt that says “FEELINGS.”
Although limp and uninspired, she moves her car two more times around the malls and finally settles on a sweater and socks for her dad. Back at her car, she sits for a moment and stares at the clock. It’s after 2 p.m. She blows out a long breath and heads to the grocery store.
She pulls into the garage and her husband greets her in his socks. She halts him while she sorts the groceries that stay in the garage freezer and storage and then hands him the bags to take into the house. She scoops the litterbox before toting the last of the items to the kitchen. Surveying the pile of bags, she notes the time—4 p.m.—and grabs a snack of turkey jerky, string cheese, and leftover salad. She asks her husband, who’s watching football, if he’d help wash the dishes that are in the sink, and he says he will.
After putting the groceries away and finishing her snack, she changes into her sneakers. She starts some file recovery processes on her computer and then gets on the treadmill. She chooses to watch Flip or Flop while she runs, breaking a couple times to check on the computer.
After her workout, she recognizes the futility of her file recovery. Annoyed, she pops her Petra mints and goes upstairs to shower.
Eight o’clock. While her husband watches college basketball, she makes fish chowder. The dishes are still in the sink, so she washes them.
Once dinner is ready, she sits on the couch with her husband and the cat and watches college basketball. Bill Walton is commentating, wearing a loud Christmas sweater. She asks to rewatch scenes of John C. Reilly playing Taquito in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Her husband drinks bourbon, and she laughs hysterically at the movie. They segue into watching YouTube videos of Will Ferrell.
It’s after 11 p.m. when she and her husband head to bed. Once tucked in, her husband makes comical motions for foreplay and she laughs, requesting that he be sexy. He starts to rub her back and moan, and she breaks into gut-wrenching laughter. After several minutes, they kiss goodnight and turn in.
Amanda JS Kaufmann, a writer and editor by trade, is an authoring specialist and has comprehensive publishing and production experience. As the principal of CA Thrasher Editorial, she has directed and produced educational video projects across the country, resulting in a catalog of hundreds of STEM-focused multimedia products. Kaufmann wrote and produced her latest short film, Water Glass, a co-production with KK Studios that she also directed; both of her recent short films are on Shorts TV and Amazon Prime. Kaufmann received her undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, Tucson, with an emphasis in short fiction and playwriting, and she went on to earn her master’s degree in English/TESOL at California State University East Bay, Hayward. She is an experienced higher education instructor with a focus on college and developmental writing, as well as online learning. Find her works in progress, poetry, photography, and other musings on https://diarygenxer.tumblr.com. Twitter: ajskaufmann
BRUCE OWENS GRIMM
December 21, 2019: An Introduction
I sit at the kitchen table to take my morning routine of medications. The voices of my roommates and the voices of their sons (three and six) mix with the soundtrack from Frozen and drift down the corridor between us. It makes me happy to hear them. It makes me happy to live in a place where I feel safe with people who make me feel welcomed and safe.
“Add magic to every brew.” It says on the inside lip of the box I keep my meds in. The box a keepsake from a witch’s cauldron mug I ordered when I first moved to my current home a few months ago. Seemed like the perfect keepsafe for my Gabapentin (anxiety), my Duloxetine (depression), my blood pressure meds, and diabetes meds. I eat. I drink coffee. I take a walk. The sun is out. I need the vitamin D. I need the light when I can get it.
I eat. I stare at my artistic statement. The Times New Roman font feeling more like scribbles in the dirt, a wish, rather than something I can submit. At 2pm, I take my afternoon dose of Gabapentin. My brain feels cloudy, an overcast of depression, which inhibits my ability to hold up my end of the conversation when my friend J calls. She makes me laugh. We talk for forty-five minutes. She wants to know what I’m going to do with the rest of my day. I tell her that I want to do something fun, but that I don’t know what that means. I say I’ll watch a movie.
A, one of my roommates, asks if I would help him mount the new TV in the living room. I remind him I’m not good at such handy things. He gives me a brief overview. I’ll mostly help hold up the TV when necessary and cheer him on. He looks up the tools he’ll need. Buys them online for pick-up in person. It’s growing darker as the sun begins to disappear. I go to my room. I turn on my TV but cannot find a movie or show to spark my interest. I leave it on as I lay down with the intention of a nap because I don’t want to sleep in complete darkness, don’t want to wake up to it.
It feels like the deep of night but is only 5:30pm when I wake up. Through the walls, the three-year-old repeats “dinosaur” over and over. Sometimes it’s a question and sometimes it’s a statement. I fully support his obsession with dinosaurs and have fostered a fascination with bats and pumpkins. I’ve told his parents that his deep dives into such things are a sign that he’ll be a writer or artist of some type.
As I step into the hallway, the kids have their coats on. A asks if I want to go with them to pick up my other roommate, M, the mother of the three-year-old, and then to the store for the tools he ordered. I say yes. We load into the car. I sit in the backseat with the kids. The six-year-old wants to show me the video game he is playing on a portable device. The three-year-old wants to show me his Frozen coloring book. He never colors any of the pages, he seems to only be interested in looking at the sketches and identifying the characters. I enjoy talking with them, spending time with them.
We pick up M. We drive over to Walmart. There’s conversation the whole time. Between the adults. Between the kids. Between all of us. I’m in the moment. I’m not worried about what needs to be written, what I haven’t applied for or what I need to apply for. We shop. I laugh with M as we browse the Christmas ornaments. We head over to the food section and pick out snacks. All of us are together. A unit of our own making. This is fun. This is what I needed to lift off some of the weight of my depression.
After shopping, after dinner, I go back to my room. I put on a playlist with The National and Phoebe Bridgers. I take one more look at my Lambda statement. Do some work on it and make some progress. I close my computer. I take my last dose of Gabapentin for the day and take my Trazadone. I turn on the Great British Bake-off. The lights are off. I rest under the accidental altar I have made in the window above me. I am safe. I can sleep.
Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Older Queer Voices, and elsewhere. He is co-editing Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer & Trans Bodies & Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. More can be found at www.bruceowensgrimm.com.
“I must cushion the pull of the line with my body and at all times be ready to give line with both hands." —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the SeaThe sky shone a shimmering silver that faded to a dull gray as I moved from window to window, opening curtains and blinds. I plan to finish reading The Old Man and the Sea this morning and liken the sky to the fading colors of the dead marlin as Santiago drags the fish home. I imagine, in the morning before waking, the sky included purple and blue colors like the marlin’s skin, but now I can only see the gray death-mask of the day.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize the sky on a sad day, a solemn day, though nothing in particular has made it so—it just is. Perhaps the trudge of daily life has added this weight, which I initially wore as a gossamer shawl in my 20s but through the past thirty years has transformed to an itchy woolen, overly-heavy shawl as the people of the world seem to become more sarcastic and cruel. What I really wish for is a long, black velvet hooded cape which renders me both invisible to and immune from others, enclosing me in a silky shush of my hem skirting along sidewalks and pathways.
The shushing this morning comes from the coffee maker, steam venting through tiny crevices in the top, in concert with the heating element of the toaster oven. I am thinking about the book as I spread a thick layer of salted butter on my toast. Because I have read Moby Dick, I have an idea of what is coming next. But I take the toast to the chair to finish reading the book anyway. Spoiler alert: sharks take bites out of the marlin and, despite Santiago’s efforts, render it to a skeleton before he can get it home. Everyone in the fishing community praises Santiago for the fish it might have been. They can all imagine the potential of the marlin as it was, just as Santiago could imagine his potential income and food stockpile from the catch.
As I put down the book down, this imagining of potential reminds me that my friend, James, recently recited Patrick Kavanagh to me again, “Though you know that no one loves you for what you have done, / But for what you might do.” The skeleton of the marlin helps everyone imagine its potential, which then makes me wonder about my potential as a writer and as a human. What is the skeleton on which I hang my ideas?
The walls in this room are off-white, which allows me to think these thoughts—a blank canvas as open as the sea without horizon. I lose focus. All of this thinking and reading and eating of butter-laden toast has made me tired. I go to the other room and stretch out on the lumpy, sun-setting yellow colored sofa and fall asleep.
When I wake, I am disoriented, the day still gray and dreary, time indeterminate. I discover that I have slept for over two hours, and I am mad because I could have been using the time more productively. I don’t know what I would have done, but something better than sleep. I am also always working in potentials, I suppose.
I shuffle back to the living room and decide that, since the day is turning out to be a wash, I’ll binge-watch Mr. Robot, the day bookended by Papa Hemingway and Sam Esmail. This is the final season of the show with a world so damaged and close to ours I can’t help but think something akin to the Illuminati is controlling all of our bits and bytes in order to hold us all in stasis, preventing us from becoming anything, really. The central struggle in Mr. Robot questions how to live in a capitalist system while trying to dismantle it. Hemingway is here too. Do we look at the remaining skeleton of the idea of capitalism and realize the potential it had at one time, or do we strike out on our own and try to catch some other form of living while being alienated and lonely throughout the process? I am giving myself over to the show as a study of narrative structure while also wondering why I am taking this bit of urban-fantasy entertainment so seriously.
There is another shushing, this time from the rice cooker. Steam escapes as I had not properly shut the lid. Rice is all we have for dinner, partly inspired by a discussion of the BRAT diet online earlier in the day, partly because, in the dystopian world I imagine happening any day now, rice will be a luxury to celebrate. As my spoon scrapes rice into two bowls, I realize I have not left the house in three days. I should shower tomorrow, I remind myself.
I stumble to bed after midnight and wrap myself in flannel sheets against the bedroom draft. Before I drift off, I try to capture this day, both cushioning my thoughts while being ready to slack the line for just a few moments. I stopped praying long ago; instead, I wish for a day tomorrow in which I will try again to become a better version of myself. I continue to dwell in potential.
Stacy Murison is a writer and educator living in Flagstaff, AZ.
Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will