Wednesday, January 8, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Patrick Madden II, Patrick Madden III, Lynn Grist, Amy C. Braun, Matthew Vollmer

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


It’s all about geometry—celestial geometry, actually. Once you get that figured out you can determine why December 21 is the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. That’s what I told my grandchildren on the winter solstice this year while we gathered in Utah at the home of my son, author Patrick C. Madden, III.

It helps to have a globe handy, and a powerful flashlight to mimic the sun. My first question was, “Which way does the earth turn?” Most of them got it right, west to east or course, but some did not. The globe, a Replogle®, has the direction of turning designated along the equator, so someone could have cheated. A good way to remember the way the earth turns is the “right hand rule” which states that if your thumb is pointing toward the North Pole (where Santa Claus is making his final preparations for his Christmas Eve run), your fingers point in the direction of turning.

While we were at it, I thought it would be a good time to define the positions of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. I asked for a ruler and then positioned it horizontally and announced, “Here comes the son.” The immediate response from these Beatles lovers was, “Doot-n-doo-doo” which elicited smiles all around. I continued, “At this time of the year, at noon, the sun’s rays are directly overhead at the line of latitude known as the Tropic of Capricorn. In other words, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.  Because the earth’s axis is tilted at 23.5⁰ from the vertical, the Tropic of Capricorn is situated at the 23.5⁰ southern latitude line. Similarly, the Tropic of Cancer is located at 23.5⁰ northern latitude. You can mark these names and measurements on the diagram below, but if you have a globe handy, that would be more useful.

What about the Arctic Circle? Well, this is the point at which the sun’s ray is tangent to the northern hemisphere, placing all points north of 66.5⁰ (90 – 23.5) latitude on December 21 in total darkness for 24 hours. (In practice, this darkness lasts considerably longer, especially for the northernmost points, until the earth moves a significant distance in its orbit around the sun.) The opposite is true of the southern hemisphere, where points “below” 66.5⁰ southern latitude remain in total sunlight for the period of the solstice. This defines the position of the Antarctic Circle.

At “normal” latitudes outside the tropics, the length of days/nights can be seen by observing how the sun’s shadow falls on the hemisphere in question. In the north, with the earth tilting away from the sun, as it is on the winter solstice, a much greater fraction of the hemisphere is in shadow than in sunlight. So today where I am, in Lehi, Utah, the sun will shine for only about nine hours, while the night will reign for 15.

So what to do on these short days and long nights? Why not make cookies? That’s what we did for much of the day, even during my “lecture” on celestial geometry. We kept it simple, making Chocolate chips sprinkled with salt (a new addition this year) and sugar cookies, the latter stamped out in the shape of candy canes and sleighs and stars and trees and reindeer and Santa and other blobs that could later be frosted in red, white, and green icing. We still plan to do some peanut butter pumpkin cookies later, but not oatmeal cookies, as there was little or no interest in those. Sorry.
It was cold outside so, short of walking the dogs and a brief period of “pickle in the middle” with the younger, more energetic children, my time was spend inside, reading David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain, and conversing family members and neighbors who happened to stop by. In his book, Brooks splits life into two parts: the “first mountain,” where you pursue your education and career and job and spouse and house and curve ball (not necessarily in that order); and the “second mountain,” where you observe where you’ve been, pronounce it good, and move on to more important things like mentoring the younger climbers, loving your grandchildren, and discussing politics and religion with lifelong friends. This is the mountain I am currently on.

The long nights in Utah are often spent playing board games and laughing. And munching on various snacks like cashews, M&Ms, cup cakes, candy, and so forth. One such game involves two teams in which the leaders attempt to give clues to the rest of the team that are synonyms for one or more words displayed in a grid on the table. During this game, called Code Names, I decided to wear my ridiculous Christmas court jester hat, to which others later attributed my winning. There were other games too, most of which I lost badly. I used to try to be competitive in virtually all games, thinking that the purpose is to win. Now I know that the purpose is to laugh together and delight in one another’s company and observe the many personality traits that make out world forever interesting and perplexing.

We all slept in the next morning; even the sun, which rose with a big wintry yawn and stretch as it hid for a good while behind the mountains and the clouds. I’d tell you more about that day, which involved much laughter, but the earth had already moved too far in its orbit to be included in this essay.

Father, widower, cancer survivor, originally from Wisconsin.


In the interest of fuller disclosure (full being one of those superlative words that I struggle with; one thinks of Chunk spilling his guts and confessing “everything” to the Fratellis in The Goonies, which, of course, still wasn’t everything), I am writing this essay several days after December 21st, on several days, and here below, reproduced, are all of my notes for this essay from that day, jotted (thumbed? into my phone) in a number of moments, soon after the things they describe occurred to me (in both the “happened” and “I thought of them” senses):

  • 21/12 (Rush album)
  • Living deliberately (Thoreau), plotting life, singing in the rain, making life conform, workshop advice (do things, live for essay)
  • Vince’s clock gift
  • Superconductor song
  • On this day in history format 
  • Clearing kitchen island to bake cookies
  • Navigating Costco, can’t find cheese
  • Notice Amber Beck, whom I haven’t seen for years: polite nod (bkgrd)
  • Longest conversation I’ve ever had with Sam Swiderski. At Costco, in line, after perfunctory how are you doing? (me: I lied; him: called wife, front row at Costco; me: yeh, put problems in perspective, etc...) I may have misunderstood him re: front row (car? checkout?)
  • Now that I’ve written it, I can remember this conversation better than the conversations I’ve had with my parents, including with my father this morning, about quite interesting things
  • We Didn’t Start the Fire on way home
  • End night w Yellow Ledbetter (indecipherable)
  • Thirteember discussion w Dad
  • Karina didn’t hear it, had to repeat for her, not as good (see writing)

While several of these entries seem viable, several do not, especially if I am to write an essay and not simply an unfiltered listing. So little of life is writable, whether because of some inherent failure in the life or frailty in the writer. I think, then, I shall discard much, perhaps most, of what the notes capture (the fact that 21/12, the international formatting for the date, evokes Rush’s 1976 Orwellian concept album 2112, is merely a curiosity; I will not chase it) and instead rely on memory, already fading, already unreliable, even, certainly fast transforming into abstraction and summary.

It is painfully apparent that most of what I experienced this day was drivel and dreck, not the kind of things to write the world about. But there is this: Because I knew going into the day that I would write about it, I felt transported more wholly to a realm of meta-experience, where I experienced my thoughts and actions as performative, not quite in the Judith Butler sense, but not entirely different from it either. What I mean is that I felt, far more than I usually do, that I had an audience, though it be an audience in the future, witnessing only my then-still-theoretical selection of moments and details. And I felt that this audience influenced my goings about, such that I could not be sure if I was being authentic or fake. Although I often perceive of the world as a system that includes me and thus excludes my comprehension, I now felt stymied by my overconscious participation. At some times, this felt like a game I was playing with myself, one that only I was aware of, at least in its intricacies. Perhaps others noticed my affected manner. I don’t know.

Attendant to these thoughts, sometime early in the day, Thoreau showed up, vaguely referring to his famous line in Walden about living deliberately. I couldn’t quite decipher his mumbling, so I told him I’d have to look him up, which I did, though not until right now. Here is what he was trying to convey:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
You can hear the dramatic music crescendoing behind the speech, can you not?

It being many years since I read Walden, somewhat superficially under deadline of a class, I find it difficult to feel how much of the quote to excerpt here, or to really appreciate its context (it appears not near the beginning of the book, as I’d expected, but over a hundred pages in, in the second essay, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”). And I suppose my mind conjured old Henry D not simply to agree with him, which would seem too earnest for 2019, but to borrow his phrasing for other purposes, to twist the meaning of living deliberately away from his rugged high-mindedness into a recognition of Shakespeare’s notion that “All the world’s a stage,” a phrase I first met as the title of Rush’s first live album, which followed only months after 2112, and met again in the lyrics of “Limelight” a few years later, with emphasis: “All the world’s indeed a stage / and we are merely players / performers and portrayers / each another’s audience outside the gilded cage.” We live deliberately, too, I thought, when we are consciously aware that we’re being watched. (And most of us, me especially, are not very good actors.)

So there it is, then: living deliberately not as noble unattainable goal but as check on authenticity, the kind that makes me question the very notion of authenticity. Or, to think of it another way, living deliberately in order to write what one lives, which category we usually reserve for stunt journalism, George Plimpton playing football with the Detroit Lions, Barbara Ehrenreich taking an undercover minimum wage job, Nelly Bly spending Ten Days in a Madhouse and traveling Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, that kind of thing, but now expand to the mundanities of an ordinary day, which may be the kind of heightened, double awareness writers live in often: at base going through life routinely, sleepwalking, and somewhere above that perceiving as things happen their possibilities as “material” for the page.

More appropriate to this essay, I think, is this line, from the paragraph above “live deliberately”:
Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
Which also seems like a kind of motivational claptrap, but I sidestep that meaning to instead read it as a celebration of essaying, where every little thing, if attended sufficiently, may lead to worthy contemplation.
From the most ordinary, commonplace, familiar things, if we could put them in their proper light, can be formed the greatest miracles of nature and the most wondrous examples. —Montaigne, “Of Experience”
For instance: that morning while I was navigating Costco, along with hundreds of other late Christmas shoppers, I was on the lookout for what writable thing the universe might present me with. Perhaps the fact that I couldn’t find the cheese--the pre-cut four-variety pack of cracker-ready cheeses that we mostly loved (the cheddar was always last to be eaten, often molding before we were hungry enough)--despite involving a worker who was certain she knew where it was, perhaps this was my writeable moment? A real-life Who Moved My Cheese? Yet, having never actually read the book, I decided against it. But maybe my brief interaction with Amber Beck, whom I knew years ago through church, and whose husband had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while on an HVAC job, which hadn’t killed him, thank goodness, but which seemed to have affected his alacrity in cognitive tasks? But no, our only interaction was a pair of brief nods and wan smiles. Then maybe my longest-yet conversation with Sam Swiderski, also from church, whom I passed briefly with nod and smile, responding “fine” to his “how’re you doing,” before he showed up behind me a couple of minutes later in the far-left checkout line, forcing an awkward deeper engagement, in which he praised my ability to avoid the longer lines in the middle, then, well, let’s let him and past-me recreate our conversation:

Me: I lied before when you asked me how my day was going. I hate shopping.
Sam: But you’re saving time now. I just told my wife [makes phone gesture] how lucky I was to get front row at Costco on the Saturday before Christmas.
Me: [thinking he means the short checkout line, but wondering how he called his wife without my noticing.] You’re right. I should keep things in perspective. I complain too much.
Sam: [sympathetic laugh] Yeah. Me, too.
Me: Welp. I hope your family has a wonderful Christmas.
Sam: You, too.

So… nothing, I guess. Or nothing beyond remembering and then recognizing Thoreau’s implicit challenges, the realization that while attention to life is nearly always enriching, the pressure of awareness of life as fodder is usually not. I’ve often wondered idly about the influence of story on the ways we live and perceive our lives, the actions we choose in order to conform to patterns we’ve internalized through unrelenting exposure to artistic (and even conventional, derivative) structures for life. If we’ve been surrounded by sit-coms for decades, whether we watch intently or simply soak up the stories nebulously around the water cooler or in the checkout line, are we conditioned to generate drama, to create false resolutions, to expect swift justice? Can we even imagine a life free from the influence of expectations subconsciously planted by our culture’s stories? Or can we conceive of a deliberate life in the ways Thoreau seems to suggest and exhort?

I cannot. I also cannot pull from my day any narrative worth sharing for its dramatic potential. Not even the utterly entertaining escape room Karina and my father and I did with our friends later that night: a contrivance designed with difficult but solvable puzzles, a microcosm of a world that we trust has been carefully planned and balanced in ways that guarantee our engagement and joy. We “escaped,” by the way, after an exhilarating hour searching for clues and making unexpected connections, though we failed to complete the bonus challenge in the allotted time. The kid running the room consoled us with the fact that in the four months he’d been working there, he’d only seen one group solve everything.

At the end of the day, as we drove home, Dad and I, thinking on the solstice, mused about the artificiality of human calendars, the misalignment between months and lunar cycles forced by irregularities in celestial rotations, or, more properly, the moon, earth, and sun’s refusal to conform to mathematical integers divisible by one another. Still, Dad pointed out, we could devise a system of twelve 28-day months, roughly calibrated to fit a full lunar cycle into each set of four weeks, then finish off the year with an additional, 29-day, month, which, correcting the misplaced Sept-, Oct-, Nov-, and Dec-embers, or skipping ahead and anglicizing, we’d call Thirteember. The mood was right for jollity and giggling, and our cleverness carried us away for a moment. Soon enough we returned to a semblance of seriousness, and as we waited for a red light to change, Karina, who’d missed what was so funny, asked us to repeat it, which we did, but the moment had passed, the energy had dissipated, and Karina is never a fan of punning anyway, so our recreation or explanation, even so soon after the fact, fell flat.

Patrick Madden is the author of Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), essay collections all.


The Winter Solstice


It is 7:00 am, and I am waiting for the shortest day to begin. I sit down at my window, pen in hand, and look out at Lake Ontario. There is only one small spot of pink in the eastern sky, already fading to grey, and I am disappointed. This time yesterday I was greeted by a brilliant display of red and orange and rushed to grab my camera before I had poured my coffee. The spectacular sunrise inspired me to start this diary a day early.
     At least the Canada geese are still here. For two days they have been staging a convention twenty feet from my window, gabbling and honking day and night. Are they discussing which route to take when they fly south to the Chesapeake? Surely they have left it too late. Maybe that’s why they are arguing. Hundreds of them are drifting and bobbing in the shallow water, and a flotilla has turned their backs and is swimming away.

It is 7:39, and my Canadian Almanac says this is when the sun officially rises in Ottawa. I don’t live far away, so the sun must up here too, somewhere behind the pale puffs of grey cloud. Yesterday there were bubbly patches of ice forming on the lake. But today is warmer, and the water is rippling and liquid, a subtle greenish-grey. If I held a paintbrush instead of a pen, I could capture this tableau. But I like my pen better, for it can draw the shifts and changes as they occur, capture the dance that is never still.
     Now the water bleeds into the sky, obscuring the horizon. A line of pure white separates from the dark clusters of geese and moves through them like dashes across a field of dots. A royal parade of swans, sailing through a mob of gabbling peasants dressed in drab.
     This was yesterday’s sunrise pageant: A swan awakens among the dark clumps of sleeping geese and stretches up her perfect white neck. She glides like a queen through a mob of peasants in drab clothing. As the sky melts into mauve and pewter, the dawn belongs to her alone. She opens and shakes out her wings, awakening a flotilla of geese who start to swim away, shifting the pattern again. Then the mauve disappears, and shades of frosted silver brush the water, obscuring the clouds in the distance.
     All at once it is full daylight. I am sitting staring at a lake and a flock of birds, my coffee cold beside me. The geese have swum further out, and their distant honking fades behind me as I go to pour myself a fresh cup of coffee.
     That was yesterday. Today the geese have stayed close to shore, but the swans are gone. Two miraculous unique mornings. How many moments have I ignored what was right in front of me? How many ticks of the clock have gone unnoticed, unobserved, unremarked?
     Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
     My almanac tells me that today will hold eight hours and 43 minutes of light. 523 minutes, or 31,380 seconds. So many moments to be plumbed, even in this, the shortest day of the year. The possibilities are staggering.

It is 9:30. The goose conference continues, and I am still wondering what they are talking about. Their enthusiasm is as fierce today as it was yesterday in the brilliant sunshine.
     Unlike the birds, I am not inspired by this lacklustre day. I miss yesterday’s glittering crystals of snow. I tell myself to stop drifting backwards or I will lose sight of today’s miracles. I force myself stare at the ground, and discern a glow. The warming air has begun softening the snow, preparing to turn it into a crystalline mush.
     This hint of change reminds me that today is the turning point. All the world is holding its breath, suspended at the apex of maximum night, waiting to change direction and turn towards the sun. Tomorrow the long climb to spring begins, bringing more light each day to beat back the darkness and take us to the Summer Solstice, the longest day.
     I feel a glimmer of hope.

It is 4:00 o’clock when I remember that the sun will set shortly, at 4:22 (my almanac again). I have mostly forgotten about this diary since the morning, lost in the chores and duties of the day, and I am dismayed it is almost over. I neglected to be vigilant as I walked the dog, wrapped Christmas presents, and received the visitor who came enjoy the view out my windows. I do remember the sun coming out as we chatted in the sunporch, and that it was gloriously warm for a while. But the day has slipped by quickly. I resume my vigil at the window, turn towards the west, and pick up my pen.
     The sky is a pink and mauve mist blending into a blue-grey haze of water. The lake looks feather-light and inviting, and I send my soul to be soothed by its caress. The geese are far out on the lake, their gabbling faint and undemanding. The evening calls me to let go of the imperatives of the day, to rest and receive the gift of night.

An hour has passed while I sat in reverie, and it is still not fully dark. The pinks and mauves in the sky have intensified, and the horizon has become a darker line across bluer water. A soft wind has risen and waves are rolling in, breaking on the rocks in a reassuring rhythm, echoing my heartbeat.
     Then the colours fade, the stars come out, and the day slides into night. Steve Miller’s voice loops through my mind:
Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’
Into the future...


The winter night is a womb, and I am safe and warm inside it. I plug in the Christmas tree and turn on the coloured lights that twine along the picket fence. Then I finish making my pasta fazoule, adding beans and noodles to the watered-down tomato sauce and vegetables.
     This is a comfort food from my childhood, one that welcomed me when I arrived home from playing in the snow. As it began to get dark, I would become aware of my frozen limbs and cheeks and rush to enter the light and warmth, strip off my wet snowsuit and boots and sit down to a bowl of steaming pasta fazoule. Sprinkled with Romano cheese, it tasted better than the spaghetti dinnner the night before, even though it was made with the same homemade sauce.
     I relish every spoonful of my soup and each bite of buttered crusty bread. Then I start my evening chores, eager to finish so I can cosy up with my dog and cat, read a little, watch TV. Tonight I wonder if I will be wasting my time, doing what I usually do on a cold night. But there is nothing else I feel like doing, so I vow I will be more observant during my nightly routine.
     I am not very successful. As I wash the dishes I note how delicious it feels to sink my hands into the warm soapy water, but when I hang up the laundry my actions are mindless and automatic. I plan to relish each step when I walk the dog, but a neighbour appears and talks non-stop about himself, drawing me away from the sky, the stars, the snow. I listen politely as we do a quick circle around the block, then hurry home to escape the bombardment of endless irrelevant details. I feel he has cheated me of my precious time with nature. Uncharitable of me, but true. If he had been more aware of the night around us, my pleasure would have been doubled. Instead he used me to relieve his boredom while he racked up more steps on his fitbit.
     I arrive back, deflated. I tidy up the house, then sit down to watch television and promptly fall asleep. When I wake up it is midnight, and the solstice is over. I turn off the Christmas lights and go to bed.
     I am annoyed with myself. I had hoped to plunge into the dark side of the solstice, have earth-shattering epiphanies, blinding revelations. Did I not try hard enough?
     I am pulled back into sleep, and when I wake again at 5:00 am I do not remember my dreams. It is still dark, but I cannot fall asleep again. I get up and think about the little I have gleaned from the longest night—or rather what I have not gleaned. I have been unconscious since the sunset. Even when I was awake, I was asleep.

It is starting to get light. A blur of mauve and blue has appeared along the horizon, and the waves are illuminated. There is not a single swan or goose in sight. I fantasize that they have finished what they came to do and have gone to alert someone else to the wonders of the sky and water, the beauty of the sunrise and sunset. Somewhere else another person is revelling in this glorious earth we have been given.
     I realize that this may be the revelation I sought in the dark but could not find. Perhaps my unconscious gave it to me while I slept, during those dreams I cannot remember. All that loud honking was meant to force me to pay attention, to wake up and rejoice! The year has turned, and the light is coming back.

Lynne Grist is renting a cottage on Lake Ontario in Wellington, Prince Edward County. Her house burned down two months ago, and while she waits for it to be rebuilt, she is making lists of everything she owned and spending a lot of time staring at the lake. She may never move back to her house.


Solstice Saturday 12/21 
Seeing Double, But Not Really… 
The Same But Different?

Early in the morning of the Winter Solstice, 12/21, I dropped an “Everything” bagel into the left side of the double toaster and told my boss Sandy, “I’m participating in an on-line essay writing activity.”
We faced each other through a small window (about the size of a mirror) which divided the kitchen from the soup and bread counter in Sandy’s Seasoned Books and Bakery.
     An avid reader, her eyes it up. “What’s the prompt?”
     “I have to document what happens today in an essay.”
     “Because it’s the darkest day of the year?”
     I chuckled. Sandy has always celebrated the Solstice more than any other day of the year, greeting people with a hug and an enthusiastic “Happy Solstice!” She loved the fact that the amount of light and dark equaled one another.
     “I think so,” I said. “But nothing about today stands out yet.”
     “Well, the day isn’t over yet,” she said. She smiled knowingly, turned the mixer on, and walked toward the industrial sized oven to check her cookies.
     Sandy is a magical person and Sandy’s is a magical place, and every day I work there I come home with a story… or two… or three…  I looked down at the Everything bagel and realized it was a metaphor for the Solstice. One half dark (the top of the bagel covered with salt, pepper, seeds, and more spices) and the bottom half, light (with no spices at all).
     The Solstice brings a balance between light and dark. Sometimes it brings chaos as we all dread the dark. Or Sometimes it brings peace as we accept it.
     Sandy’s is wonderful because of the people who work there and the people who frequent the place. Locals. Tourists. The location: it is housed in a tiny gingerbread-style cottage on rural route 100, in Rochester, Vermont (a picturesque village most Vermonters don’t even know about), and sells merchandise such as socks and potholders with obnoxious sayings on them, baked goods made with organic flour, the best coffee within a fifty mile radius, and is crammed with books (fiction on the second floor and non-fiction on the ground floor). Sandy’s has recently been on the cover of Yankee Magazine as the Best Little Bookstore in New Engand.
     And I have the privilege of working there. How can anyone have a bad day in a coffee shop/ bookstore where the bagel sandwiches are bigger than the average toddler’s head?
     The “Everything” bagel popped with a luscious warm grandma-made-it smell, but the right half of the bagel wouldn’t emerge from the left side of the machine. I unplugged the toaster and dug it out with a knife, added veggie cream cheese to the top of it, and slipped it into a waxed-paper bag, plugged the toaster back in, and handed the bagel to a woman who had been waiting for it.
     “Have a good day,” I said.
     Aside from a faulty toaster throwing the occasional wrench into the gears by slowing things down, being a barista at Sandy’s is easier than my full-time teaching gig in so many ways, the main one being that customers enter the building needing caffeine and/or a good book and leave happy without me needing to bend over to tie anyone’s shoes.
     I wiped the coffee grinder with a blue cloth and turned around as the door opened. Event posters flapped on the back of the door as the woman left and a set of twin girls, and their mother and their grandmother, entered.
     I observed them without being obvious. The twins were not dressed exactly alike, but close: same hat- different color, same coat- different color, same boots- different color. They moved in tandem to the front of the glass case, eye level with the cookies; each twin stood on one of the rubber mats and their mother and grandmother stood behind them.
     Rochester is a small town so I remember when the girls were born. Their birth helped us reach our “set of twins quota” for the decade.
     “I want a peanut butter cookie,” they said as if singing a duet they had practiced.
     It was a little creepy. My own private “The Shining” moment, but Mother and Grandmother seemed unaffected by the fact that they said the same thing at the same time.
     I reached into the case and grabbed a wooden tray which held only two remaining peanut butter cookies —one cookie slightly thicker than the other— and held the tray across the counter. I wondered if the girls would argue over who would get the bigger cookie.
     But there was no battle. They had some sort of silent understanding. They moved as if part of a strange dance, each girl grabbed a cookie and took a bite. The girl with the white coat held the cookie in her left hand. The girl with the black coat held it in her right hand. I stared in amazement.
     “We haven’t paid for those yet,” Mother and Grandmother said. Yes. At the same time.
     Sandy was right. The day wasn’t over yet. It had just gotten weird.

A few hours passed. It began to get dark. Sandy’s closes at 6:00 p.m.. My husband and I were due to attend a Holiday party at 6:08 (yes, that is what the invitation said), so I tried to stay ahead of my work so I could get out as early as possible. There’s a to do list before closing: bag the remaining baked goods, wipe the tables, sweep the floor, wipe all machines down, clean the bathroom, and so on. We weren’t busy and I was ahead of schedule.
     A little after 5:00, I stood at the kitchen window opposite Sandy again, cleaning the toaster. I had unplugged it, pulled the two crumb trays out, turned the toaster over, and shook it. Sandy smacked butter into croissant dough with her rolling pin. Blue Grass music, a conversation about CATS the movie, and the hum of the dishwasher became our soundtrack until…
     The room went dark.
     Very, very dark. The quiet was so quiet it almost felt loud.
     “Did we blow a fuse?” I couldn’t imagine how we would’ve, but that was my first thought. No fuse had ever blown before in my coffee shop tenure at Sandy’s.
     The next few minutes were a frenzy. Grabbing for cell phones. Illuminating cell phone flashlights. Regular flashlights. Matches. Candles. More candles.
     She checked the fuse box in the cellar. Not a fuse.
     We tried to function, but there was no need to stay open since nothing electrical would work.
     No lattes? No point.
     From the street, no one could see the building. When I stepped outside to retrieve the OPEN sign, I looked around. Oddly, all the businesses in town were brightly lit. Perplexed, I locked the front door.
     Sandy called the power company. They said a nearby surge protector had blown, creating a centralized blackout: just Sandy’s and the two buildings directly behind it, stretching only one block from Route 100 to School Street. Three buildings.
     Counting money in the dark was difficult, but I managed. “The darkest day of the year. What a day to lose power,” I said from my tiny light bubble to hers. I added bills and filled out my closing sheet. “I’m just glad I already cleaned the bathroom.”
     She laughed.
     I wiped the coffee grinder in the dark, running the cloth up and down the sides of the machine. I heard the ON button flip, but of course nothing happened with the grinder because the power was off. I flipped it back the way I thought it should go and then I began to second guess myself. Does the machine turn on when the button is pushed away from the barista or toward the barista? Muscle memory is strong, but without visual cues, I couldn’t see to remember which way the ON button needed to be. When the power went back on, the grinder might be running.
     I told Sandy about it and apologized in advance if I had turned the grinder on. She touched the button on the machine and admitted she wasn’t sure about which way it should go either.
     “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’ll be here for a little while anyway. Hopefully the power will come on soon.”
     Sandy said she had planned on buying a new toaster later and she would be leaving to go to Rutland, but the dishwasher, Tristan, would be there too.

I exited the back door. Sandy’s and the other two dark buildings in a row reminded me of an incomplete set of bulbs on a strand of Christmas lights. On my walk across the park, I passed the bandstand and its perfect tree. I slipped my hands into my coat pockets and felt grateful for my Currier and Ives view.
     At the party, we participated in a “Yankee Swap” (known in other places as a “White Elephant” or gift exchange), ate delicious food and enjoyed stimulating conversation. I drank enough of the spiked punch to feel “punchy.”

Back at Sandy’s, they finished what they could in the dark. With no oven, there could be no baking. There was very little Sandy could do, so she started her car and sat inside it while it warmed up. Before she left the driveway, the three dark buildings burst to life.
     Seconds later, the door burst open. A white shape waving gangly arms, crossed the space, appearing at Sandy’s window in what seemed like no time at all. It tapped frantically. “There’s a terrible grinding noise! I don’t know what it is!” He shouted.
     Tristan happened to be walking by the coffee grinder when the power came back on.
     He dove to the floor.
     Sandy went back inside, and turned the grinder off. The day was not quite over yet, so she went shopping for a new toaster.

A few hours later, the Christmas party was dying down.
     At around 10:15, my friend Alicia grabbed a black L.L Bean coat from the pile of coats and slipped it on, raising the fur-lined hood to demonstrate to her husband how eager she was to go home. She stood next to him where he stood next to my husband and casually slipped her hand into her pocket.
     “Why is there a hair clip in my pocket?” She shouted. “And why isn’t my cell phone in my other pocket?”
     Our friend Jen entered the kitchen wearing a black L.L. Bean coat with the hood up. She stood across from Alicia.
     It was like I was seeing double, and not because of the spiked punch.
     I thought of the peanut butter cookie twins from earlier in the day and declared, “You look like twins! You’re wearing each other’s coats!”
     “We must be,” Jen said as she reached into her pocket. “I found your cell phone, Alicia.”
     Jen and Alicia traded coats and a gaggle of tipsy people had a good laugh over the mix-up.

Meanwhile, Sandy stood in a huge line at BED BATH AND BEYOND buying a new toaster to replace the other one.
     She described to me later that she was almost to the register when she noticed that the woman in front of her also held a toaster in her arms. They exchanged a smile.
     Then another woman got in line behind them She too held a toaster. The same toaster.
     “At 10:30 at night!” Sandy reiterated the next day at our Solstice party. “What are the odds?”

Maybe they all run coffee shops in small Vermont towns. Or perhaps those two women live in the other two houses that had a blackout.

Every day is two halves of an Everything bagel. Part of it may be a little spicier than the other. Just toast it up, add some cream cheese, smile, and wish a stranger a good day.

Amy is a wife, mother of three teenagers, a teacher and a barista in a tiny rural Vermont town. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from Northern Arizona University. She has written many short stories, plays, essays, a novel, and is working on a memoir, working title "From Mennonite to Menopause.' Most recently, she won the grand prize in The Herald of Randoplh for an essay about the recent death of her stepfather.



On the morning before the longest night of the year, I drink coffee in bed, scroll thorugh a news app, read about the president’s furious tweets regarding Christianity Today’s impeachment endorsement, and remember a recent photo I’d seen of Trump signing a bible. I wonder to myself if maybe there are any folks alive who might be preaching that Trump is the Antichrist, tell myself to Google it later, and think about former students who now are married to each other and how they have yet to come out to the girl’s parents as anti-Trump. Eventually, I jog outside to start car, to warm its interior and melt frost from windshield, in preparation for trip to donut store.  Jog back in. Say to wife that William from Australia—who we’d talked to at our next door neightbor’s Christmas dinner party—was funny. Wife agrees. Try to remember, through wine-and-port fog, the dumb joke I’d made about baby kangaroos and how when man mentioned raisins I’d said, “You Australians call those kangaroo babies, right?” How, at the time, this had seemed hilarious. How wife had cracked up. Remember this fondly, and how pretty and alluring wife looks when laughing uncontrollably. Drink coffee. Return to car, drive through mostly empty town to Carol Lee Donuts. Pay $12.65 for box of dozen, which include cinnamon buns, chocolate iced, maple glaed, glazed, and Bavarian cream filled. Return home, listening on radio to Scott Simon talking about how there seems to be a glut of Christmas stories on streaming networks, after which he unleashes his own version about a female New York fashion magazine editor who returns with her wife—and I wonder here how many conservative Christian-minded listeners might take umbrage to a radio host’s subtle endorsement of gay marriage—to a generic small town called Chesnut Corners to be with her family and how, once she arrives, she wonders what has happened to the drugstore, and where was “the gift shop, where Mr. Papageorge, with his handle-bar mustache, always strung lights in the windows?,” as if such things hadn’t been gone since the 1980s, when Walmart began to suck up capital from mom and pop stores across the country. A woman “in the square” tells her to “just click it and have it delivered.” The town’s kids, who are watching TikTok on their phones, ignore her. And once she arrives home, her family argues over politics and TV shows, and the so-called “story” ends with the fashion magazine editor’s wife saying, “At least that’s over,” which seems a fitting end to a smugly-constructed, cliché-ridden tale by a reporter whose voice I’ve never liked and whose delivery has always seemed overly self-satisfied. At home, I eat a cinnamon bun with half another cup of coffee and watch Giannis hit five threes on a highlight reel. My wife brings me a bowl which yesterday I’d used for salsa and asks me if it looks like it might be something the dishwasher can clean. It’s a conversation we’ve had many times over the years—whether or not dishes should be rinsed before placed into the dishwasher—and one that today, as usual, goes unresolved. I begin transcribing a notebook, every once in a while looking up to the lights in the Christmas tree, whose lower-hanging ornaments the cats have swatted to the floor. It appears that one of the tree’s tiers of branches is missing but only because no branches have ever grown there; it’s a dwarfish mutant, unlike the big fir tree growing tall and stately in that sad old Hans Christian Anderson tale. I watch my wife stretch, or rather I continue to glance periodically at her while I type, to let her know she’s distracting me. Wife leaves for run. I continue transcription. Once I’ve copied enough of notebook to feel like I’ve accomplished something, I fire up Grand Theft Auto V, and resume watching a YouTube video to figure out how to successfully execute a side mission, inadvertently run over a pedestrian with my car, thus summoning the police, who gun me down from behind a convenience store counter. The doorbell rings. I put game on hold. At the door, a man and his daughter, the latter of whom we are paying to feed and water our cats during Christmas; I invite them inside, help them identify which cat is the nice cuddly one and which one is skittish, show them where we keep the cat food and treats and litter boxes and the cats’ water fountain, which we bought to wean older cat from drinking from sink. Bid girl and her father adieu. Open fridge, take swig of custard from glass bottle. Heat up leftover filet mignon and mashed potatoes. Watch preview of Patriots vs. Bills on Sportscenter, annoyed by incessant football coverage. Resume transcription. Get up from typing this to turn off Bluetooth speaker that keeps saying, “Ready to Connect.” Make a soup I’d seen on the internet: stock and chicken and rice and ginger and garlic and shallots and coconut milk and spinach and cilantro. At 3:30 my friend Robert and his son Felix arrive, to escort me to the Virginia Tech men’s basketball game against Virginia Military Institute, the tickets for which I purchased and printed out via Stubhub. On the way to the game, Robert and I talk about the NBA. I congratulate Felix on having participated in a play performed last week by a local group of theater kids—a series of vignettes about various colors that the group had collaboratively written, and which included many puns and jokes, like: “Purple is my least favorite color; I hate it more than red and blue combined.” In the coliseum, a young Asian man named Kevin Wilson plays a polite and subdued version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Hokies don’t score for the first five minutes. I overhear a conversation between Felix and his father, in which Felix reflects on the fact that today is the seventh anniversary of the end of the world, and that we may now in fact be living in a simulation, which may explain why everything seems so fucked up. At home, I eat soup with my family. Drink cocktails. Watch highlights of UNC game. Decide to go for night walk. Take photo of house that lives a block away and whose owners, who may or may not be from the Middle East, have gone to great lengths to make it the most brightly lit house in the neighborhood. I remind myself that this is the longest night of the year. I take the path to the golf course, the one that winds behind homes whose back windows are usually lit at this time, but most people aren’t home and, I assume traveling for the holidays. I search Spotify for “Dark Christmas music,” find a playlist, hit shuffle. A woman in an acapella group sings, “Mary did you know your baby boy would someday rule the nation?” Above, clouds blot out half the sky’s stars. Still, I can identify Orion, and remember how, as I almost always do, the evangelist who once claimed that the middle star was the direction of heaven. I hold down the power button on my phone and say, “Call Dad.” A voice in my earbuds says, “Calling dad.” Dad answers. We exchange pleasantries. Dad says, “I’ve been meaning to call you. Some weird stuff has been happening.” I ask him what. I think that I hear my mom’s cackle in the background, but that can’t be since she’s been dead for over three months, and realize it’s my own voice echoing on speaker phone. Dad says that for last two nights, lights have been appearing in the woods below the house, across from the pond. That a light will appear and then disappear and then reappear somewhere else. That the lights never moved, that you could never watch them as they moved, only that they reappeared in different places, thus giving the impression that they were either many lights or one single light source that reignited only after it had moved. I ask him what was going through his mind as he watched. He says, “I was about to tell you.” He then says that he’d supposed it might be coon hunters, but he hadn’t heard any dogs and these lights didn’t look like—weren’t acting like—flashlights. They hadn’t swung through the dark. They’d only appeared, then disappeared. My father says that he’d thought of driving down there, and firing a shotgun into the air. A shotgun, he explains, fired straight up, wouldn’t hurt anybody. “I could be standing on the porch,” he says, “and you could be down at the edge of the pond, and I could shoot you and probably nothing would happen.” I say maybe we should try it. “Maybe on one of the kids first,” my dad says, meaning his grandchildren. “Ha,” I say, and then, “So what are you gonna do?” He doesn’t know. He says that the night before he’d gotten himself to sleep by telling himself the lights were just branches touching the power lines and somehow causing sparks, but when he woke up, he thought no, that’s dumb. So this morning he’d gone down to the place where the lights had appeared, and walked the trail, and hadn’t found anything, and moreover noted that the woods were too dense for anyone to move through with the speed at which the lights had appeared to move. And so, though he could not say anything for certain about the lights, he was able to come to an important conclusion: the lights could not have been human in origin. Maybe it’s mom trying to get in touch with us, I say. My dad ignores this. He knows I don’t believe that. Neither does he. We only both know that there is nothing more to be done, and that he has no other choice, on this longest night of the year, but to keep watch and to wait, and so we bid each other goodnight, and I walk through the dark towards home.

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as two collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones and Permanent Exhibit. He is the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over 60 acclaimed and emerging authors, and is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. He teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is an Associate Professor.

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

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