Black Ribbon Award

Month: March, 2019

A UNIQUE VOICE

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The Frozen Windchime is the kind of debut novel that ushers in, like the bells of a bright blue morning, a unique new voice in American literature—or any literature for that matter. ‘Meryl Moser’ is a name we shall not soon forget if her masterful, rhapsodic prose is any indication. Its humor is too dignified to laugh at; its pathos is too shocking to cry with.” –Donatella Spalding, author of The Cheesemaker in Belfast

“Meryl Moser has offered us a splendid novel, whose subtle insights into the longings and hopes of a new generation explode across every page like claymores in a doorway.” Chase Ray McMullen, author of The Moose and My Mom: Essays and Allusions

“In The Frozen Windchime you will find sentences that stun, sentences that slash, sentences that choke, sentences that throttle, sentences that tease, sentences that poke, sentences that cross-examine, sentences that caress coldly against that very sensitive part where your waist meets your abdomen, sentences that lick it up, sentences that gulp it down, sentences with one word, sentences with a couple of words, sentences that reflect back at you your innermost violence and not always controllable gas, sentences I find myself rewriting in a way I’d prefer to have them written, sentences that will be on posters but not on people’s wrists, sentences you can take home to bed and come to ‘an understanding’ the next morning, sentences you can sauté with a decent wine. It has a lot of sentences, basically.” –Jason Cipriani, author of Retaking the Hive: Why Bee Extinction is Good for Us

“What Meryl Moser hasn’t written in The Frozen Windchime speaks volumes.” –Mary Ortmann, author of Graham Greene: A Cut-up Biography

“Necrophilia is very illegal and disgusting. It’s wrong. I’m not saying that necrophilia is right even if it doesn’t really hurt anyone at the end of the day. But you know what also doesn’t really hurt anyone at the end of the day? Reading The Frozen Windchime by Marilyn Moser. Something to think about.” –Shep K.B. Worthington, author of The Shank Man

The Porcelain Windchime is a daring novel. It dares to ask us, to demand to ask us, even, ‘What if Dunston Checks In was a gut-wrenching epic of the human need to search for truth? An indictment of society’s moral lapses and banal evils? A celebration of the radical imperative of the heart? And also, what if it was a book?’” –Oceania Dawson, author of Nothing Happens: A Diary of 2002

“I have been following AUTHORTK with interest. I saw his/her/other potential early on as my student in the MFA program at UNIVERSITYTK where doubtless this MEDIUMTK took root. TITLETK is a haunting, eloquent, and utterly parallax contribution to modern GENRETK. The struggles and resilience of PROTAGONIST(S)TK are sure to resonate with this generation and possibly many generations hereafter.” –George Saunders, author of The Virgin Suicides

“Meryl Moss’s debut is the Valentine’s Day card I’ve been waiting for since the fifth grade, made just for me by an ethereal stranger who wore the same floral kaftan no matter what season it was and who was always watering a mound of dirt in the middle of our apartment courtyard where nothing grew.” –Sheila Beasley, author of The Lazy Matriarch and Other Stories

“Mary Mosley is an exceptionally courageous new voice. Well, she’s a courageous new voice. She’s a new voice. She has a voice of some kind. Can you come back to me?” –Michelle Rose Kim, author of Circling Back to Me: Essays

“I lent the copy you sent me out and I haven’t gotten it back, so that’s probably good, right?” Kevin Cortes, author of Teaching My Dad to Code: A Memoir

The Frozen Windchill is a reminder that some people can process emotions better than others. Not that I can’t. I’m good at that like everyone else. So the novel is very relatable and graspable. Thanks.” –Jennifer Egan, author of Less Than Zero

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INFORMATION REQUEST

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Dear Sir,

You have written inquiring as to certain details related to the Great Horror, the purview of which falls under this department. Such requests, as you’ve probably guessed, are frequent and overwhelming. As such, we have developed a procedure to process these requests more efficiently.

Our assessment procedure allows us to distinguish those requests we consider substantial from those less substantial; the serious, in other words, from the frivolous. This letter is to inform you that your request has been deemed sufficiently substantial and serious.

There are matters relating to the Great Horror that remain highly sensitive. Full clearance is a rarity even among the department staff. Clearance is color-coded, from white (no clearance) to aqua (absolute clearance). Your clearance level is yellow (incomplete but not inconsequential clearance).

Before we proceed to your specific inquiries, an important note about style. When referring to the Great Horror in writing—and in speech as best as you are able—the definite article (“the”) must always precede the noun and must not be capitalized. The following renderings are not acceptable: “Great Horror,” “great horror,” “The Great Horror,” THE GREAT HORROR” (with selective, pre-approved exceptions), “The great horror,” and “the great horror.” As to hashtag use, #greathorror is not acceptable; #thegreathorror is acceptable but #theGreatHorror is preferable. The official standard was arrived at after extensive, sometimes heated internal debate. It is not strictly enforceable in any legal sense, but it is maintained as a courtesy, out of respect for those most affected by the Great Horror.

We at the department cannot emphasize enough how mindful we are to the plight of those directly affected by the Great Horror. The department carefully considers as many points of view and perspectives as are available. The points of view with regard to the Great Horror does tend to be less polarizing compared to other events. On the whole, we’ve found, it is in the negative. Specifically, the sentiments associated with the Great Horror include cataclysmic, devastatingtraumatic, infernal, paralyzing, pulverizing, sickening, repulsive, arousing (in a bad way), and indescribably repulsive. These are important views, but they are by no means the only views of the Great Horror. Some have views to offer that are somewhat or entirely different from that of the majority, and it is a disservice of the department to the people it serves, whether in the majority or not, to overlook them.

The department has records of some accounts that have deemed the Great Horror interesting. This does not mean that it is thought good, let’s be clear; interesting can mean a lot of things. In such accounts, however, the Great Horror had elements that, again good or bad, stuck out. It had certain quirks that the people submitting the accounts could not, possibly despite their best efforts (we didn’t pry), get out of their heads. For instance, one account found it very interesting at how efficient the Great Horror was. It came quite abruptly and unexpectedly, yes, we all agree on that, but left just as abruptly. To some it was impressive. Allow me to quote from one.

I think of The Great Horror [sic] like a wedding. You know? Like not a very good wedding, where you don’t really know the bride or the groom but you kind of end up there. You don’t know really what’s on order so it’s going to be a little weird. Then things get really really weird in ways you did not at all expect. But at the same time, things are kind of organized. It’s machinelike and coordinated. It works somehow. It was kind of like that. There was all this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] flying around me, all these people running away or piling up, but god[EXPLETIVE DELETED] did it seem to know what it was doing. It had this kind of old school mentality. Nothing is like that around here anymore.

But let us not limit ourselves to just this one response. To others, interesting does not even begin to describe their comprehension of the Great Horror. Some accounts went one (or two) further and said that the Great Horror was challenging. This, again, does not mean that the Great Horror was good. Some challenging things can be good and some challenging things can be bad. Whatever the case, though, the event left a “unique” impact that forced a change in some people that seems, on the whole, for the positive. Again, don’t take my word for it. Allow me to quote from another submitted report.

When I think about my life in relation to the Great Horror, I always go into this pre/post kind of thinking. My life before the Great Horror was way different from how it is after. It wasn’t going great if I’m honest. I was kind of trapped. In a bad place. I was hanging out not with bad people exactly, but not great people. They didn’t have my best interest at heart in hindsight. I was not living well: eating poorly, transient in my relationships, took for granted a lot of stuff, and almost constantly on edge. Then one day, all this happens. All the bad stuff in my life gets caught up in it and sort of left me there. It was scary, really. It felt like being on my own for the first time. So I used this opportunity to right myself. I started treating myself better: eating better, working out, pursuing serious, sustained personal connections, and coming to work with a positive attitude no matter what. I learned to love myself again. I learned to breathe. I learned to forgive. I eventually forgave the Great Horror for what it did. But I thank the Great Horror every day. Every day I look up at the sky, point and nod my head like “You know what I’m talkin’ about!” I’m so blessed.

Inspiring! But don’t think I’m willfully misdirecting you away from the grimmer accounts. There were some people who came to us in a greater state of woe. They thought that the Great Horror was disappointing. I’ll just get right to the quote.

I guess like everyone else I was stunned when the Great Horror came. Not in a million years did I ever think I would see something like that. I don’t think I’ve fully processed it. I don’t think I ever will. In fact I can’t stop thinking about it.

Before it happened I had a pretty standard view of life. I had no problem with the status quo. Sure, things could be better, but are they ever perfect? I was pretty content to go the rest of my life with this mindset. Then this happens and throws everything into relief. I was nowhere near it when it happened, I saw it on screens mostly. I visited the site of its appearance after the fact. I feel bad for the people who came out on the wrong end of it, but in a way, I came out on the wrong end of it, too.

I don’t actually think that the Great Horror actually meant us harm. I think we harmed it … in a way. I think it had a message for us, but found us unwilling to listen. I think we missed something pretty great, like legitimately. I’m not an entrepreneur or anything. Like, I know how to borrow money but not how to make something out of it, but if I was one, I’d put all I had and all I could get at trying to reach it, to say, “Hey, I’m listening.”

With these accounts we are able to look not beyond the tragic nature of the Great Horror, but perhaps beside it. Beside the established quantitative findings: all the data of casualties and compromised infrastructure. Next to the numbers, tables, and whatever else we’ve been able to gather, we find a more nuanced, even subtle way of looking at this event. It’s very easy for us to understand the Great Horror as something that happened to us; as a disruptive occurrence that hard facts can readily contextualize for us. Easy, yes, but limited. With time and sensitivity our awareness can only expand to see it as something that was always within us. Some of us like to see the Great Horror as sort of like an attitude, or maybe a paradigm.

I hope that this letter was able to satisfy the nature of your inquiries. If you have additional inquiries, do not hesitate to resubmit your request no sooner than six months from the receipt of this letter with no less than three additional recommendations and the clearance renewal fee of $49.95-plus-tax.

Thank you so much for your continued interest in our work!

Sincerely,

DATING IN HELL

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The most shocking part about Hell is that Hell is actually pretty nice. Something about this seems kind of intentional. We go into Hell with certain preconceptions handed down over the centuries from people to whom we bestowed untold trust. Imagine disbelieving in Hell and being underwhelmed by it. Imagine believing in Hell and wondering what you’re missing out on elsewhere. It’s almost like eternal damnation does its job for us.

Make no mistake: Hell is serious business. Hell has hellish aspects aplenty. Like reversal of fortune. If, for instance, you lived with expansive views, you will be damned to look out at adjacent walls on either side. If, however, you lived in a more cramped situation, you will have all the space you need but nothing with which to fill it. A workaholic will have endless leisure time and access to every—literally every single—streaming service. A lazy person will have to fill out unending and absurd paperwork for permission to use the bathroom, by a certain deadline. If he or she doesn’t meet the deadline, they will be punished and have to start over. A distracted person will have nothing but a Rubik’s Cube. A focused person will moderate Facebook. And so on.

All this seems pretty daunting, but an important, and again very surprising, part about Hell is that it is flexible. You are damned in Hell, not imprisoned. The managers of Hell understand that the logistics of deathless toil are a little loopy. It turns out it is as challenging for them to oversee it effectively as it is for you to endure it consistently. So there are some outs, temporary ones, to be sure, that are not given willy-nilly. They have to be worked for or, even better, discovered when you’re not even looking for them. This is no less true when it comes to dating in Hell.

***

Couple no. 1 

Ex: What a lovely scarf.
Oh: Thank you! That is a gorgeous sweater. Is it cashmere?
Ex: Thank you. And yes.
Oh: It suits you.
Ex: Your scarf suits you.
Oh: Never in my life did I think I’d wear such fine clothes.
Ex: Yes, I never managed that myself.
Oh: How does it feel?
Ex: Dismal.
Oh: I agree with you that it feels dismal.
Ex: Very dismal.

They touch hands.

***

So far as anyone can tell, dating was not built into Hell’s original scheme. It was a safe assumption that romantic entanglements made in Hell were directly related to the earthly circumstances that got you there in the first place. For anyone else to engage in them seemed like a glaring enough glitch that, if it wasn’t reported, was certainly noticed. That it continues likely means that Hell’s managers allow it to continue for an end they don’t care to disclose.

Hell’s managers probably understand the human view of dating in the broad strokes. They understand its base difficulty; that it is consistently humiliating, contingently pleasant, and very easy to become wrapped up in its pursuit. There are probably just enough relationship experts under their observation to tell them that. But Hell’s managers are a lot like most other managers. They have their blind spots; they understand things mostly insofar as they are useful. I don’t think Hell’s managers actually know that much about life on Earth. I don’t think they’ve wrapped their head around the miasma of survival, need for security, biological imperative, and personal aspiration in which we bathed ourselves in finding a partner. And in fairness, it probably took the damned a while to realize the extent of their own liberation.

Something you realize not long after coming into Hell: you are a bad person. That hope of redemption inherent in us all did not come for you. Why? I have no idea, what did your caseworker say? That you didn’t believe it? That you believed it but didn’t take it seriously enough? That you thought it’d be easier to get? There’s not much you can do about it now. But once you accept that you are, until the last star burns out at the earliest, a bad person, you find that you are not alone. You are among an endless supply of bad people, a great variety of them, in fact. Bad people from all walks of life and degrees of severity, from the morally oblivious to outright sociopaths. You are now on a resolute spectrum of badness. Being human, you will want to find your place on it, to compare yourself against others, and, seemingly without even trying, meet new people.

***

Couple no. 2

Ex: This is my lake.
Oh: This whole lake is yours?
Ex: Every inch of it.
Oh: That’s amazing.
Ex: Every day I sit on this bench and look out at the lake.
Oh: The bench is yours, too?
Ex: Yes. My son’s name is on it.
Oh: How sweet.
Ex: If you look closely enough you can see my son drowning in the lake.
Oh: Is that so?
Ex: Dead center of it.
Oh: I’ll be. That’s sort of impressive.
Ex: Sometimes I’m not even mad.

They softly embrace.

***

Dating on Earth, as in politics or really anything in human life, is a language game. It is a process of pitches, propaganda, evasions, quality tests, and countless unsaid sayings to determine the worth of prospective mates and to obscure or dress over anything you felt made you unworthy. It seems all very nefarious when laid out in this way, but it was a natural outcome, about which most of us were greatly ambivalent at best. If you were lucky, you’d find someone who would make all the inevitable sacrifices and compromised you’d never have made on your own somehow worth it. Hell is a different matter. The terrible secrets you’ve long kept in the dark are fully disclosed, and all the pettier embarrassments you worked up your blood pressure to conceal are laughably trivial. Better yet, language is significantly streamlined in Hell. It is a place of few words; in my cases no words at all. Everything you relied on to not be lonely on Earth is entirely superfluous. In Hell, loneliness is the least of your worries.

Some other things mitigated in Hell:

  • There is no actual money. As needed, there may be experiences based on money. One person might be panicked at the lack of it, another paralyzed by its abundance. Hell has no goods you can consume or services you can render. There is certainly nothing to do; there is no amusement or recreation, no ultimate frisbee.
  • There is no need for employment; none in the traditional sense anyway, that facilitates a business and acquires profit. Your business is what’s given to you, it defines you, it’s yours in perpetuity. There are no pink slips, there is no severance, and no retirement.
  • There are no ailments, no health scares, no surprise crises; no debacles over insurance premiums, deductibles, or preexisting conditions. There is no pain in addition to the pain you are already in.
  • There are no children in Hell, which is a plus.

Still, dating in Hell is a difficult thing to get into. There are issues of compatibility and of long-term cohabitation. Can one damned persona and another damned person be vulnerable in a dire situation and then sustain it over eons? These are fair questions, to be answered in the absolute affirmative. I can’t think of a better place to develop relationships—again, quite by accident in its design. Hell is a place where no one grows, where no one changes or adjusts. No hugging, no learning, as they say. It removes every incentive or obstacle to growth but one, perhaps the most important as it is the most equalizing: our penchant for suffering. If there was one language fitting for this world it is “mutual suffering,” the bond of which is stronger than any walk-up apartment lease or dual checking account.

***

Couple no. 3

Oh: Excuse me. I’m so sorry. But I must use the restroom.
Ex: But you just got back from the restroom.
Oh: I know.

They rupture into maggots.

***

You’ve probably heard the idea that “Hell is other people.” It’s a compelling idea, but pernicious in how badly it misleads, as I have demonstrated. It was put into circulation by a man who knew nothing of Hell and everything about pursuing people. Not lately, anyway. He’s around here somewhere, in serious need of companionship.

SOME NOCTURNES

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I’m ziplining with Chad. It was actually Chad’s idea. Chad usually generates the ideas. Chad foots the bill. People see me and Chad. They see Chad on his longboard, weaving with poise and confidence through foot traffic or actual traffic. I trail behind on a Razor scooter. I ride it better here than I do while awake, but I only know one trick—a kind of 180 kickflip—that I do adequately but not enough to impress people, let alone overshadow Chad.

From the looks of it I make up Chad’s entourage. People recognize Chad in some vague way and nod at him respectfully.

Chad likes to speak in buzzwords. He talks like he’s my life coach. He seems interested in getting me closer to personal transcendence. “There’s more than one way to transcend,” he tells me with a sincere, if overeager, grin. “That’s a trade secret.” Today I am transcending through the zipline.

I am more experienced here than I am in real life, but I still haven’t gone ziplining. Chad prizes ziplining above all else. It is not just a means to an end for him. When he goes down it looks like he’s flying; like he’s fucking Superman or something. He unhooks himself and starts waving his arms from the other end like he’s directing a jet on a runway. “Don’t look down!” he yells back at me. Of course I fucking look down. There are six red cougars or panthers pacing the ground and growling up at me. “Pretty sick, right?”

Remember, I’m a normal person so I do the zipline with little obstruction. But I close my eyes tightly as I do so. It’s a rush. Chad catches me at the other end and unhooks me. I start telling him a shameful secret that I’ve never told anyone. Chad nods rhythmically, smiling. “Can you repeat that, dude? I didn’t really get the last part.” This is his catchphrase, it has an autotuned cadence. His grin is perfect paper-white, but only white, no teeth. I tell him my secret with a few details omitted.

I actually just think Chad is really assertive in an exhausting way and I’m the last person who tolerates it.

***

There’s this hospital. It’s closed now, has been for a few decades. I’m in the hospital but it’s as it was before it was closed. The floor tiles have an ivory sheen. The walls are mint green-colored. I walk freely in the hallways. Nurses in white uniforms and hats with red crosses smile and call me “Your excellency.” Orderlies in light blue scrubs and tattoos nod and call me “Right Honourable.” I am wearing a brown suit with a rose in my lapel. My room has a wooden desk and a small flag at the corner of it. I don’t recognize the flag and knock it to the floor.

An orderly knocks on my door and tells me it’s time. He takes me gently by the arm and leads me down to an auditorium where people in yellow gowns tied up the back sit in folding chairs before a projector screen. Their hair is buzzed down to the same length; they sit in the same downfacing hunch. There is an empty chair in the section to the right of the projector screen where the orderly places me then stands behind the slide projector with his arms crossed. A thin man in a grey suit walks into the room and stands beside the projector screen. He wears a pink mouth mask. He points to the orderly who turns on the slide projector. At the man’s direction, the orderly clicks the button that changes the slides. Each slide is some variation of children playing in a yard, or a family sitting down to dinner. The man says nothing. He just signals and the orderly changes the slide.

The orderly clicks to a slide reading “THE END” and is directed to stop. The man silently opens the floor to questions. No one says anything for several seconds. So I stand up and say “Fuddle duddle.” And sit down. The man nods and exits.

I sit at the head of the table at lunch. My tray is grey. The food—scrambled eggs, toast, rice pudding, whole milk—is also grey. People in the same yellow gowns look at me from their seats. The two seated nearest to me is get up to whisper things in my ear. I can’t distinguish what they tell me, but I nod to them as if I do.

I return to my room with a different small flag and a pile of papers. I shuffle and straighten the papers and knock the new, still incorrect flag to the floor.

An orderly comes into my room again and takes me back to the cafeteria. The tables and chairs have been pushed to the walls. Yellow-gowned people stand in a circle in the center of the room clapping in a slow rhythm. A nurse stands in the circle pointing to random yellow-gowned people and directing them to go in. The clapping rhythm speeds up. One yellow-gowned woman goes in and stands still for a few seconds before jolting into a flamenco. A yellow-gowned man goes in and does an Irish jig. Another does a Russian folk dance. The nurse points to me and I go in. I can’t think of what to do, the clapping rhythm seems very slow, almost plodding. My mind is blank. The nurse is getting impatient. The clapping seems to have stopped. Then, seemingly without a thought, I put my fingers on top of my head, raise my right leg to my left calf and twirl into a pirouette. I twirl and twirl and twirl, not mindful of the speed of the clapping or the possible censure of the nurse.

I am back in my room, seated at my desk. It is night. There are more papers in front of me. They will have to be dealt with in the morning. I look at the corner of my desk to find the correct flag. I hold it over my chest in the mirror and take it to bed with me.

***

It’s Dot Day, and I am a boy again. I’m walking to school. My mom set aside the appropriate Dot Day attire. I walk along houses adorned with all manner of dots. Small dots, large dots, medium dots, plastic dots, paper dots, aluminum dots, dots painted on walls, dots hanging by threads, dots spinning on wheels.

Michelle stands behind me in line on the blacktop. She kicks me in the ankles. I turn around. She laughs and smiles. I wave and smile back. She has on more dots than anyone.

The teacher stands before the class in a shin-length denim dress, loafers, and a brown blazer with no immediate evidence of dots. Michelle sits a few desks up from me at the row to my right. She turns to me with a cold look. She raises her hand, and when called upon asks the teacher—whose name I don’t know—where her dots are. “Oh dear!” the teacher says, and goes into her purse and takes out a yellow button and pins it to the lapel of her blazer. The children clap.

Everyone gets up from their desks and goes into their backpacks. Michelle appears in front of my desk holding with both hands a card with my name written over a big blue dot. She places it on my desk and waits. I freeze realizing that I left my Dot Day cards on the kitchen counter. They are generic store-bought Dot Day cards for the entire class. Michelle returns to her desk in tears. The teacher ignores this.

At lunch, the dots multiply. The menu is dot-themed: dot-shaped waffles, dot-shaped Jell-O, dot-shaped mashed potatoes, dot-shaped tuna salad, dot-shaped pizza with dot-shaped toppings. I eat a dot-shaped cheeseburger. Michelle’s feelings are bitter, directed at me in sharp but doubtless dot-shaped glances. The principle walks up and down the cafeteria presenting his wide dot-patterned tie. The custodian has a hat with a dot. They pose for a photo. The children clap.

Back at class, the teacher passes out cupcakes with chocolate dots placed over the frosting. Michelle sits cross-armed looking down at her cupcake as if she was trying to make it combust. There is a knock at the door. It is my mom carrying the grocery bag containing my Dot Day cards. The teacher lets her in and I go to meet her. As she hands me the bag, I hear Michelle yell “No dot” indignantly. I look at my mom and see under her raincoat the top of her dog-patterned pajamas. “No dot” says another student, then another, and then the whole class chants it in unison. Michelle picks up her cupcake and hurls it at my mom, hitting her in the arm. The other children pelt her with their holiday-themed baked goods. I stand in front of my mom but it is futile. Two of my classmates push me aside as the rest arise and throng upon my mom until she is subsumed under a pile of children. The teacher is at her desk reading a Redbook. Michelle giggles and jumps in place as the pile flattens to a crowd. She turns to me smiling, her eyes like bulging black marbles. The children clap.

YOUR THERAPIST’S THERAPIST

Psychologist couch isolated. Psychotherapist furniture for patients

Your therapist and I have this arrangement. Call it a “relationship.” Your therapist tells me she uses that word even if, to her, it seems inappropriate. At best it’s a kind of “grey area,” a term she also uses. Your therapist says a lot of words she doesn’t like herself, would never apply in her life, but which her patients (you) hang on. Cling to. “Cling” is a word she uses so much it alarms her, kind of. That’s why we have a “relationship.”

Your therapist likes to call me sometimes. I guess it’s like being a therapist for the therapist. They need that. Imagine being your own therapist, narrating the nature of your own anxiety in real time. Not pretty, I gather.

What I do is slightly different from what she does. Your therapist—a professional—establishes hard boundaries. There are certain parts of her life that are off-limits to you, any time before 10:00 AM and after 7:00 PM. She does not compromise on these boundaries. People who break these boundaries are rebuked and warned once, charged extra a second time, and charged and expelled from treatment a third time. I—an amateur—have no such boundaries. Your therapist calls me at all hours. Sometimes in-between appointments; sometimes very late at night. I have to keep my phone close by. In hindsight, some boundaries of my own would have been helpful. But your therapist knows all the tricks, so here we are.

You appreciate your therapist because she spends most of her time listening to you. For an hourlong session, she speaks maybe for 10 minutes, no more than 15. When she does it’s in a silky cadence that radiates kindness, empathy, and wisdom. Your therapist is your Terry Gross. A Terry Gross whose conclusions about your condition very much echo your own in substance, if not in style. What you don’t realize—or have long suspected but not confirmed yourself—is that your therapist talks. She loves to talk. She longs to talk. She talks so, so, so much. She’s not as eloquent by the time she gets to me. “This is my realest voice,” she says.

Your therapist—again, a professional—is bound by the code of patient confidentiality. “It’s more of a guideline, really,” she tells me at a quarter to two in the morning. “Like being quiet in the quiet car.” Your therapist will never divulge the intimate details of what you tell her. She will, however, use your name, your tics, your hang-ups (as opposed to your traumas), etc. for what I will call her fan fiction of your life. “It’s not as interesting as I’m telling it, I swear,” she always tells me. She has a great imaginative faculty and a very direct, almost pointed, cracker-barrel gift of gab.

Your therapist points to a yellow, crusty stain on the arm of her cardigan. “This is how I got this stain,” she starts. Every stain on her cardigan tells its own tale. Every tear is its own confession or admission of error that she carries with her until her dying day—or until she gets rid of the cardigan. Her cardigan is grey, oversized, and made of wool. It’s very much unlike the cardigan she shows you—black, form-fitted, rayon. It tells you nothing and absorbs everything you tell it, like a defensive fortification. Your therapist talks lovingly about a shawl, crocheted by a beautiful stranger on the side of a mountain in a very rainy, tropical climate, that she holds off until a special occasion that seems further off the more she insists it is happening any minute. She bought it at a flea market for six dollars.

Your therapist has a sharp sense of humor; though I wouldn’t say she’s very funny. Her jokes are corny. Her idea of fun is that she sometimes intentionally forgets to turn on the white noise machine in the waiting room. “You can hear most of it but not too much. My next appointment will come in like they saw someone get mugged. They feel bad, but they feel good it’s not them. Yet.” Sometimes your therapist stops bathing three or four days before your next appointment just to see if you’ll notice.

Your therapist feels things. She has desires. She likes the man at her bodega. She does not know his name, precisely how old he is, if he is married or otherwise taken, or if he dreams of a future beyond where he currently is. She wants to take him with her to Louisville. Also, she wants to go to Louisville to work on the sculpture she’s had in her head for years, that she describes in swooping hand gestures. “It’s mildly sexual,” she says. “But given my line of work, it will always be construed as being very sexual. When I finish it, I will take one photograph, with real film, and then I will destroy it with a hammer.”

I’m enchanted by, but not infatuated, enamored, or besotted with, your therapist.

Your therapist is sort of salty and meanspirited. She regrets this, and I encourage her to seek change and to be her best possible self; even, perhaps especially, if her best possible self might have less patience for you no matter what.

I—again, an amateur—am not bound by any code of confidentiality. I just prefer to tell you half the story. I find full stories disappointing. I’d explain more, but this is not about me, this is about your therapist.

Your therapist gets funnier by the day.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS FOR PAYING MY TAXES

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What is your morning routine like?
Wake up. Brush my teeth. Pay taxes. Make coffee. Read the “Sports” section. Pay taxes. Watch Morning Joe. Nod to everything Mika says. Shave. Pay taxes. Feed the dog. Walk the dog. Clean up after the dog. Pay taxes. Take a shit. Pay taxes.

Do you like paying taxes?
The success of an American life is measured in the time the liver of that life gives to leisure. Time and time only. The quality of the leisure that is spent is at the fullest discretion of the people with the time to spend it. The more time you have, the more discretion you get in spending it. It’s simple math. Some people are more adventurous than others in spending their leisure time. Down the street from me, a couple go parasailing in a different body of water every summer. They are retired. A family on the same block has less time and haven’t gone very far beyond the bounds of the occasional amusement park visit out of state. They seem to enjoy it all the same. A couple but a few houses down, who work and are childless, host swinger parties the last Saturday of every month—I believe the retired couple and the couple with children attend these parties. My leisure time is spent paying my taxes. So, in a word, yes.

How did you start paying taxes for fun?
For much of the time I’ve spent paying taxes, I approached it no differently than most others: as something to do once a year during a designated time. Unlike most people, though, I never looked at “tax season” with the frustration and dread most others attach to it. Frankly, I found the whole process of assessing my earnings, marking down deductions, determining whether I owed or was owed, and the filing of paperwork sort of relaxing. I am not an accountant, but I have always had a flare for arithmetic. Also, I think because I am generally in a good place financially, have few debts, and live more or less within my means, taxes are not so much of a gauntlet for me; on the contrary, they are very self-affirming. I guess it got to the point that my other activities—bowling, football, Netflix, happy hour, holiday barbecues with Kan Jam, date night, etc.—seemed to offer less satisfaction than doing taxes. So I think it was around the August or September after Tax Day that I decided to “prepare” ahead of time, which led to just filing in October. Then next year I did the same, only in June. Then again in November. Did I have misgivings? Did I feel self-conscious? Sure. Don’t we all? But then one day, and for reasons I don’t recall, I was given a copy of this book called The Game and upon skimming its finer points, again for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I began to feel better about my situation.

How often do you pay taxes?
At this point … uhm … maybe a few times a day. But not always every day. Maybe I do it once a day, or every couple of days. It depends.

Is paying taxes habit-forming?
That might depend on whom you ask. Since you’re asking me, I’m going to say no. Have my tax-paying activities increased steadily since I took it up as a leisure activity? Sure. But I’d say I do it no more frequently or avidly than a skier who lives within reasonable driving distance of a slope. If you were to ask an addiction specialist, however, he or she might see it differently. He or she might see my steady increase as rapid and my skier analogy as rationalizing false equivalency. But I don’t. I am more or less in control of my tax-paying. My wife doesn’t complain. My accountant doesn’t complain. The IRS doesn’t complain.

Does doing your taxes for pleasure impact your romantic pursuits?
I get no carnal or amorous response from doing my taxes. Though I never rule out the possibility of people out there who fuck, fondle, make love to, or pleasure themselves at the thought of their taxes. The modern world is crazy with all types of kinks. The IRS very likely has contingency measures when a tax return arrives at their offices having been very obviously fucked, just as they have contingency measures for fraudulent or truant taxes. But not me, my taxes arrive having been treated with respect. I have a wife, to whom I have been married for 12 years and with whom I frequently make love. She is away in Geneva right now on business-related matters. Wait. Hold on. My mistake. That was last week. She is in Turks and Caicos on a girls’ trip this week, then next week she is in Lansing, MI to visit her father, a handsome and witty man who is confined to an iron lung.

Where do you work?
Remotely.

Do you also pay sales taxes for fun?
I understand the appeal of sales taxes but I try not to indulge. Sales taxes are a quick, easy-access rush when no other source will suffice. It’s the equivalent of the whippit or the porn .GIF. I will say that what’s more offensive to me is avoiding the sales tax. Such as when New Yorkers swarm over into New Jersey like locusts to take advantage of tax-free clothes shopping. It’s probably a nice boon to the local economy, but I find it disgusting and weird.

Are there others?
I have not checked, but probably. I go back and forth on whether it would be better or worse to know that I am not alone. On the one hand, it would be nice to form a community of leisure taxpayers so that we can compare experiences and methods, talk about our feelings, our anxieties, our joys. I would probably feel less alone than I do now, though I should say that I don’t feel that alone. On the other hand, meeting others means also subjecting yourself to harsher judgment than the wider community might give. Most normal people don’t care what you do with your time unless it threatens property values or disgusts them in some deep, personal way that is disappointing but ultimately not enforceable. I get the feeling that a community of leisure taxpayers, even just a message board, can devolve into petty spats, envy,  flame wars, attempts at extortion or fraud, and other hazards and anxieties related to closed circles. I’m not that desperate.

Do you feel accepted by society?
No more or less than before. Despite the fact that I pay my taxes at an incredible frequency, I don’t think that makes me better than people who pay their taxes at the standard interval. Nor does it make me worse. I am a good person. I open doors for people. I take my dog to the dog park. He plays with the other dogs equitably and with restraint. I love my wife. My wife appreciates the meticulousness of how I approach my finances. Sometimes she asks me for help, and I oblige as per our vows. I am open and transparent about my urges. Yes, there is some tension and confusion, but we respect each other’s boundaries. On the occasions we make love, I make sure never to have a 1040 in the room. She knows never to go into my office. Ever. I work diligently, I do not cultivate relationships with clients, interns, or peers beyond what is appropriate. I have only paid my taxes during work hours a few times but only when I was certain it would not interfere with my tasks for the day. I prioritize my tasks and my pleasures with patience and maturity. Society may find my leisure activity unusual or confounding. If I showed up to one of the neighborhood swinger parties—which I have been invited to before—with my receipts, there would probably be grounds for censure. But under the present circumstances, waking up at four in the morning to assess my withholding is outside their purview of shame.

Do you feel shame?
I am human like everyone else. I feel the same things that humans usually feel. I sometimes feel less than I should be. I feel like I am denying myself something better that my habits won’t permit me. I feel like I have constructed a box for myself. A psychological box that just happens to look like my private office. In that box I am free from whatever feelings arise from the outside world, good or bad, but not free from my own feelings, good or bad. The bad feelings always fall on whether I’m doing right by myself. Whether I’m doing enough. Whether I am earning the esteem of the IRS or whether earning the esteem of the IRS is the wrong thing to look for in this whole arrangement. Sometimes when I’m doing my morning routine I’m stopped in my tracks (in shaving, anyway), looking at myself in the mirror. Am I where I want to be? Am I going as far as I want to go, at the speed in which I want to get there? That’s more like inadequacy, though, not shame. So, no.

A DESCRIPTION

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I just got back from hearing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. I will now attempt to describe it.

It is important that THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN should be described in the most objective possible terms. Surely sound scientists, whatever they are called, will not question my authority in doing so. I am a man; I was supremely bored while I heard the sound. From there, one might safely generalize to the greater public.

To be sure, one must take pains not to err in describing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN in such terms as to make THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN “all about you.” Though I experienced THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN directly and with acute agony, I am not special. It was fortune, not destiny, that brought me into contact with THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Truly any person could have encountered it before me. I, frankly, am worthless. I am unemployed, I have no achievements of which to be justly proud, I floss negligently, I am very unappealing to women as a long-term or short-term partner. It would be foolish to expect any of that to change just because I encountered THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN at uncomfortably close range.

Not that it wouldn’t hurt to take something transformative from the encounter. I know I’m not entitled to transformation; but it would be nice. Everyone wants to feel integral to events, not tangential. Even if it is THE MOST BORING EVENT KNOWN TO MAN. (Side note: I’m not sure about the correlation between THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN and THE MOST BORING EVENT KNOWN TO MAN. It is possible that THE MOST BORING TASTE or MOST BORING SMELL KNOWN TO MAN is vastly more boring in scope than THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Not that I can fathom that, THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN is pretty boring, as you shall see.) I would also like to be held warmly for a brief but consequential period.

It might help for me to set the mood in which I heard THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN: a bad one.

I wish only to instill awareness with my forthcoming description of THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Having made itself known to me, and doubtless registering its impact upon me, THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN will be eager to relive the encounter with others and maximize its exposure. THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN is predatory and insatiable. Even so, as more people inevitably come out of the woodwork to describe their own experiences, I will be very depressed.

Have I mentioned that I want to be touched longingly by slow, sensitive hands? I can make arrangements after I have described THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN.

Some might find it improper at how I am gendering THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. I ask them to please bear with me. I am a man rather than a woman. No one else, of any gender, was present in that moment but me and THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Had there been a woman, and had she been able to hear it, I would have had to call it THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO ALL HUMANITY. It is possible, likely even, that THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN has an equal-opportunity agenda. I am in no way suggesting that women lack the merit or potential to hear THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN; it would, however, be fortunate if they couldn’t, because THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN, as I will soon describe, is terrible.

As a way of counterexample, here are sounds I would have preferred to hear in place of THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN:

  • a babbling brook
  • swans in flight
  • someone driving a Toyota Corolla on the turnpike with the parking brake up
  • the crackling of pancake batter on a griddle
  • a child having a tantrum in FAO Schwartz circa 1993
  • Gregorian chant
  • 1,000 bees ejaculating in unison
  • paint drying
  • “November Rain” in its entirety
  • the final exchange of fire in World War I
  • Sarah Vowell reading the Book of Deuteronomy in ASMR voice

Important amendment: I no longer limit myself to being touched longingly. I will open up the floor to offers of being touched coldly, brusquely, painfully, indirectly (with long poles or prods), sheepishly, fumblingly, accidentally, and quizzically.

In 20- or 30-years’ time, old men and women will sit their grandchildren in their laps and tell them where they were when I heard THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. This depends, naturally, on how well I describe THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN.

I cannot wait to hear what I will say about THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN! I am reordering my whole life in preparation. I hope when I am finished it will allow me to replace old habits with newer, more interesting habits. My rote and dreary baggage will become mysterious and complex. My skin will shed. The hair on my abdomen will retract and thicken elsewhere. A woman will smile at me.

When I am done describing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN, I would appreciate it if someone can stay behind to simulate drowning and sing words of affirmation into my ear in as close a cadence to Pat Boone as you can manage.

AN ADDRESS TO YOUTH

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There was once this website where you could go and look at autopsy photos. The selection on this website was modest but notable, centered on famous people who died tragically. People like Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Kurt Cobain, Sharon Tate, the Heaven’s Gate guy, River Phoenix, Mama Cass probably, and the like. I have visited this website more than once.

Going on that alone, it looks as if I lived a free and easy life full of privilege: the privilege of looking at autopsy photos whenever I pleased. Not everything is as it seems, of course, and this is no exception. Sure, autopsy photos were floating around the internet, how you found out that they were was another matter.

First you had to have a tendency that made the prospect of looking at autopsy photos either very appealing or not a big deal. Then you had to present that tendency to others so that they might share their knowledge with you of where to find autopsy photos. I heard it from a friend, appropriately enough, during third period bio. He heard it from his older sister, who dyed her hair red with Kool Aid and wore Sketchers under over-sized black jeans with patches all over them. She would walk the halls with her friends who also wore Sketchers (or Adidas shell-toes) under over-sized black jeans with patches all over them, with the confidence that they could, within ideal conditions, look at autopsy photos on the internet. And that is how they liked it.

This is probably hard for you to understand; you’re too young, it was a different world. Autopsy photos are abundant today. You can see them without ever having to ask first or to search them out. Some of you probably gestated in the womb looking at autopsy photos. Not just of famous people, but of any random person. A grandma who died of plain old heart failure for instance. And not just autopsy photos, though, right? There are also crime scene photos, mugshots, grave but comical injuries, videos of crimes in progress. You’re living a life of which I could never have conceived. You’re living a dream.

But I have to ask myself sometimes: is the dream worth it? What are you losing by living this dream? Quite a lot, I think.

Now ask yourselves: when you’re looking at an autopsy photo on your device, at the dinner table or wherever, do you feel the satisfaction of a conscious pursuit eliciting ideal results? Is there risk involved? Not physical risk, perhaps, but social risk—is there a stigma attached to what you’re doing?—and technical risk—is the source a bit shady? Have you, in other words, worked for it?

I would think you’d have to answer to yourselves: No. I want you to think about that, and to think about what this says about you. It might say that you lack a certain degree of class, of dignity, of respect for yourself or others. Which, of course, so did we, but we at least had standards. Never did we look at autopsy photos without first asking “What is this going to do for us?” Will they offer glamor? Mystery? Thrills? Would they fill a hole that polite society left open? Say, by the love of our parents? The truth of God? The humor of post-Phil Hartman NewsRadio? If the answer was no, then we dispensed with them without a second thought and never looked back.

Do any of you retain the capacity to feel? Just wondering really; I don’t. Not anymore. Not in the way that I used to. When I was your age, I spent hours doing nothing but feeling things. I’d feel everything. Sometimes I’d feel everything in a very careful sequence: one and then another and then another and then another, and so on. Other times I’d feel everything all at once. You know, I’m not sure why I ever listened to my friend’s sister. She wasn’t very nice. I remember this one time I got this L7 Screeching Weasel Operation Ivy Five Iron Frenzy t-shirt—in the city—and I wore it to school the following Monday. I was very stoked. Then when I was getting ready for class, shutting my locker, there she was, waiting for me with her friends flanked behind her. She held up the straw and launched a spitball right at my forehead. It was the size of a jelly bean. I never wore the shirt again.

But life is kind of complicated like that. I, like you are now, was young. I was starving for authority in a world almost totally bereft of it. It was a world where you had to wait a week at least for online orders to be delivered. It was a world where writing poetry about spectral cats with eyes of ruby was “not optimal time management” and when writing poetry about spangled sabers that flew on their own accord meant a trip to the school shrink. Then just the nurse. I kind of liked that, now that I look back on it. But it was a different world.

One of the most common mistakes that generations collectively make is that they are to be the final generation. Not the final biological lineage, but the final word on cultural expanse. Everyone who comes after it are like shadow people: malformed approximations of humanity with no consciousness or reference points of their own. They are a backward-looking breed, to whose forebears they give untold awe. If only! They do look back, this much is true, but they also talk back, with such whimsical sayings like, “What was with all the autopsy photos?” I’m not sure why that will be. Maybe autopsies will be outlawed or innovated out of recognizable existence or there will be no internet somehow. Maybe the future generations will have regained respect for themselves and others. Whatever the case, they are probably not ones to lean on rhetoric. This will be a conversation, an inquiry for which answers of some sort are expected. You could give a bad answer and that will be fine, but that is our answer, and they’re not going to ask us. We will be too busy doing whatever dead people do when they are not on the internet.

These are things worth considering as soon as possible. Pretty soon it’s going to be a different world.

A BRILLIANT, VITAL THOUGHT

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The espresso machine revs, then it whirs, then it sputters and kind of coughs the way an espresso machine might cough if it achieved singularity. Silence. The machine repeats the pattern.

I sit at the other end of the café, by the entrance, where the light is brightest from the big front windows. The espresso machine’s coughing subsides under the clacking and talking and slurping happening around me. I think about how I’ve never had an espresso. I think, also, about disintegration.

She sits across from me smiling. Her cup is blue and bowl-shaped. I also smile, even though my cup, which is smaller and orange, gives me less occasion to.

The coffee here is good, she says.

It was my idea to come here, but not my idea to meet. I agree, in any case. My coffee lost its steam five minutes ago.

Did you hear? she asks, sipping her coffee. Her sip is distinctive. It’s soft and slow but focused, like a high note on a violin or the fading ring of a small bell.

I don’t know, is my response.

I guess you probably heard. People talk, I guess. Even if you tell them not to, they talk.

Maybe I forgot, I tell her.

It’s about 3:30 and a Tuesday. The café is crowded. The patrons are young and well-dressed, at least in the sense that having jeans torn in strategic ways counts as well-dressed. Well-dressed, anyway, for people who have fewer and fewer better places to be.

I don’t think you’d forget this, she assures me. But anyway, I converted to Catholicism.

I hadn’t heard this, I say. Congratulations.

Thanks.

When did this happen?

A few weeks ago. On Pentecost.

Disintegration. How do you disintegrate? Is it an acquired condition—like a virus? like tetanus? Is it reacting to something else? Like when you pour salt on a slug? I think about the time I poured salt on a slug. I’d heard about people pouring salt on slugs and watching them writhe and burn in agony. Once there was a slug on the sidewalk. Seeing my opportunity, I went inside and put a very minor amount of salt in my hand. I crouched down over the slug, going about its business, and dappled its back with the salt. Its skin started to forth, it did not enjoy what was happening to it. I ran back inside to get water and poured it over the slug. I don’t remember it dying, but I don’t remember it doing any good. How I must have looked from a slug’s point of view.

I know in the past that I’ve said some things. Some opinions. About the Catholic Church. Needless to say, I recant those things. I was in a sort of darkness when I said them. But now things are much clearer. She pauses and sips her coffee. They’re … they’re brighter.

Can you disintegrate by choice? Maybe it’s a kind of power. Could there be a superhero whose power is disintegrating? What purpose would that serve? Defense? Diversion? Can the superhero regenerate? They must regenerate. Otherwise it’d be a single-issue comic, a movie with no franchise potential. Is the power inborn? Like a genetic aberration? Is it a skill to be taught? Like telepathy in The Shadow?

I’m in a prayer group now. We meet on Wednesday nights.

Cool.

It’s mostly women, but some men show up who don’t really do anything. It’s fine, though. I hope they see what we do then go do it at home. Maybe they’re doing it better. I don’t pray enough when no one is around.

Around the world, millions of people are probably at prayer. Some of them must be in solitude.

Yeah, you’re right.

Maybe at their desks at work, thinking it to themselves. Or somewhere where it is night—someone’s awake, troubled, while their partner is sleeping.

Probably in New Zealand that’s happening.

It’s about 9:30 in New Zealand. So theyre doing it in traffic probably.

Anyway, I hope you’re right.

Tomorrow is Wednesday.

I can’t wait! It carries over from our confirmation class. We try to bring new people who we think would be interested. Some people really like recruiting. I like it fine as an idea. Actually doing it is hard for me. It basically amounts to going out and looking for people who are a lot like me, who live in the same kind of darkness I used to live in.

There is a man at the table to the right of me, and the left of her, clacking on and staring at his laptop. His face is that stony, resolute expression used for giving and receiving bad news. We are blocking the light from hitting him. The glow of the laptop on his face makes it appear 10 years older than I suspect it is. I was 26 years old when I tortured the slug.

But how do you explain the darkness to someone going through it? Talking about the brightness isn’t so great either. I know what the brightness looks like and how it feels, but it never measures up to how I say it is to them. And they just wave it away. And if they do come, they sometimes do, they don’t really stay. And what does that say about me?

Some other things I did when I was 26: baked a cake for a romantic interest, got laid off, lost my cat, had two cancer scares, fell for a scam, worked remotely for a shale oil shill, watched a lot of old gameshows, broke up with the romantic interest, planned a spontaneous trip, made out with a standup, considered—somewhat seriously—moving to North Dakota, wrote an angry email to the least-deserving recipient, got laid off again.

I told my mom I was converting just before Easter.

How’d that go?

It went okay. Well, I had a better scenario I wanted to have happen in my head. She didn’t yell. She didn’t cry. She didn’t curse. She didn’t condemn. She just kind of sat there and laughed.

Do you pray before you eat?

Not as much as I should. Never in front of her. We had an argument about the Pope. We have a lot of arguments about the Pope. They begin the same way and end the same way. The only difference is when they start. I never know when an argument about the Pope is going to strike. We could be at the mall arguing about the Pope. We could be at the gym arguing about the Pope. I could be taking her to the doctor arguing about the Pope. I’d be at prayer group arguing about the Pope.

In what sequence can you disintegrate? First I thought from the inside out. I think—assuming you can choose to disintegrate—that is the preferred choice. It is the less immediately alarming, because it is reminiscent of a lot of disease and the basics of decomposition. I think about a fast-motion video of a dead fox or coyote, swelling up and bursting open before disappearing. What is the attraction of disintegrating from outside in? More impact maybe. It makes other people feel complicit if they see it. I think about a snowflake melting; a photograph burning.

I have no strong opinions about the Pope, I tell her.

That’s refreshing even though I wish you hadn’t.

I see the Pope and I see every other Pope. I see the President and I see every other President.

Sometimes you just want someone to be special though, right?

They never seem special, do they? Only until later.

The espresso machine revs up again but immediately sputters. I can hear the tapping of the customer’s finger on the counter. The barista grins nervously as she restarts the machine to the same sad result. I’ve never had an espresso. I know almost nothing about it. I’ve never gone out of my way to order one. Maybe my mom let me have a sip of hers and it just didn’t take. I’ve never gone out of my way to see a therapist either. It’s clear that the espresso machine is done for. If I wanted an espresso on this day, and came here in hope of getting one, I would be very unlucky.

Yeah, maybe you’re right. My mom, though. I don’t know what to do.

Pray for her?

Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m ready.

How does that work?

When I find out, I’ll let you know.

Without context it feels like you’re talking about a maze.

She laughs and sips loudly.

Have you confessed?

Since converting? Not yet. I’m still practicing.

Disintegration, I thought, feels like a slow dissolve. Like you are a fizzy drink and you are getting flatter. Or you’re fading out. I think differently now, with the expectant clarifications wrought by maturity and by lived experience. Disintegration is more profound than that. I can’t really describe it. It doesn’t really hurt in the way that most deterioration hurts. It doesn’t look how you’d expect it to look. No dramatics, no fireworks. It’s anticlimax at its finest.

Which I mean to say, I’m still working up the courage.

I want to mention this to her, about what I thought disintegration felt like versus how it actually feels. It’s a brilliant, vital thought with many meanings.

Meanwhile, I try to manage my sins as best I can.

I decline.

This coffee is good.

You didn’t need to tell me all that.

Maybe. I’m glad I did.

… yeah … still …

So how are you?

The espresso machine is beyond hope.

BELIEF

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Ms. Lawson sits in the center of her front lawn sewing a quilt.

Other people in the neighborhood go out on their walks and pass her house, a one-story ranch home. Some wave, some don’t wave and just glance, some don’t do anything at all. To those who wave, Ms. Lawson smiles and waves back. I choose not to wave when I pass her that day. It feels rude to divert her concentration, even for a second. But our eyes meet briefly, and she waves at me anyway. She wears sunglasses, a pink cap, and a shirt that says “IDAHO” across her chest.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I believe in Ms. Lawson’s quilt.

***

Quilts, as I understand them, are gradual things, requiring great care, skill, and concentration. From my distance, between the yard and the curb, it also looked meditative. By contrast, my discovery of the quilt was abrupt. She had clearly been at work on it behind closed doors for a long time before she decided to show the world. I sometimes think if things would have been different if I’d seen the quilt in its more foundational, rudimentary form long ago. I would have to be a different person; brought into the world with slightly different fortune. I try not to think about it for too long.

***

“Lawson” is almost certainly not Ms. Lawson’s name. It’s a name I gave her. It’s the first name that came into my had, at least in part. I also believe I heard another neighbor call her something similar. “Hello, Ms. Lawler” or “Lovely weather isn’t it, Ms. Lawley” or “Happy Easter, Ms. Rollins.” Close enough. My name for her gives Ms. Lawson distinction, placing my knowledge and memory of her on a higher stratum than any regular memory. Not because it’s higher or more important, but out of greater need.

***

The quilt is looking to be very big. I don’t really know dimensions but … maybe, it’s the size of a large table. Or maybe a king-size bed, which makes more sense, I guess. But I feel it may yet be bigger. It could be bigger. There are some big quilts out there. Even if this quilt is not physically the biggest, it seems big in a thematic, conceptual way. It’s bigger than any American flag, and hence more authoritative. It would not be out of place to see soldiers practicing drills as it flies overhead. It would bring a tear to a President’s eyes to see the quilt draped over a parade procession of missiles.

***

A man lives with Ms. Lawson. Or so I suspect. Like Ms. Lawson I’ve only ever seen him out of doors, doing work in the yard: cutting grass, pulling weeds, trimming hedges, shoveling snow. He is a good deal younger than Ms. Lawson, but probably a little older than I am. I guess he could be her son, but I’ve never seen Ms. Lawson with a man her age. I’m afraid to make hasty assumptions about someone’s lifestyle choices, let alone about this woman’s.

He seems dutiful like a son. He never smiles—we have that in common—and waves limply. I call him “Young Lawson” or “Ms. Lawson, Jr.”

***

I have never seen the quilt up close. I could see that the pattern of the quilt was of a floral nature. Each square on the quilt, looking about the size of a small plate, the kind used for finger foods, bore the image of a flower. Each flower was unique with its own color and shape. I don’t know flowers. I don’t know if the flowers are from real life or rough approximations from Ms. Lawson’s casual knowledge, or flowers that exist exclusively in Ms. Lawson’s imagination. For various reasons I’m afraid to look at the quilt up close or for too long from afar: (1) I feel unworthy; (2) I’m afraid what I see in reality will pale in comparison to what I see in my imagination; (3) it seems weird and impolite just generally. I think I saw what looked like a rose, though.

***

There is tension in the neighborhood thanks to Stanley. Stanley is a reliable source of tension. There are probably worse things to plague a neighborhood but even a dweller of any of the most beleaguered blocks in America can agree that Stanley fills our street with unnecessary disquiet.

Stanley’s idea of lawn care consists of strapping on kneepads to inspect every blade of grass with a small pair of clippers and petting them as if the grass was a sick cat. His gut protrudes smoothly from under his tucked t-shirt  like an upside down dome.

Stanley likes to stand on his front porch of his newer, larger house with his arms crossed. When someone walks in front of his house with their dog, he moves slowly toward the center of his yard and turns his neck in tandem with the walking neighbors, who can’t walk on quickly enough. He does the same with children.

Stanley likes to put his house on the market for a few months and then take it off. I think he gets a thrill from sizing people up. Of course Stanley will never leave.

Stanley will have an opinion about your own habits and methods of home ownership, and he will tell you them even if you wish him not to. He does this with the politeness of an animal tester.

Stanley is divorced; bitterly, I assume.

My problems with Stanley didn’t extend beyond the usual annoyance until a week or so after seeing the quilt.

I decide to walk over to Ms. Lawson’s house. It’s spur-of-the-moment, poorly reasoned, and at too late an hour; but I grow more committed the closer I get to the house. I pace up and down the length of Ms. Lawson’s front curb to determine the most possible excuse. “Can I borrow a cup of sugar—and maybe eat all of it in front of you?” No. “There have been rumors of break-ins around town, the elderly are especially vulnerable and I’m doing a safety check.” No. “Do you want to watch MacGyver?” What?

“What are you doing?” a voice harshly whispers. Stanley comes at me from the blackness, and stands close enough to me that I can smell the barbecue on his breath and see it between his teeth. “What are you doing?”

“I’m … I’m walking. Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me.” He puts on hand on his hip and uses the other to point at me and at Ms. Lawson’s house. “You’ve been pacing up along this house for 10 minutes.”

“No I haven’t. Have I?”

“Do you live around here?”

“I live across the street from you.”

“Good, I can keep an eye on you. Consider this a warning,” he says before the blackness subsumes him again. He never takes off his kneepads.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

Stanley believes in being a righteous asshole.

***

I haven’t seen the quilt in several weeks. Nor have I seen Ms. Lawson out working on it. I’m apprehensive about being too far away from the quilt.

I believe the quilt is infused with a moral purpose. I believe it presents a very clear sense of how the moral order should be formed and what does and doesn’t transgress against it. I believe that breaking a promise is a transgression. I would obey its dictates even if it means going far away from the quilt itself.

***

I made a promise to meet my friend Sonya in the city to look at art. Sonya is what you’d call an “art lover,” who talks mostly about art or finds ways to work art into unrelated conversations. “That seems like something Van Gogh (or Goya or Diane Arbus or whoever) would agree with,” she might interject about a conversation comparing Pringles flavors or the foreign policies of Democratic presidential candidates. In her element, Sonya achieves a tone of manifesto, in long abstract statements that she has very likely been fashioning in her head while on the subway, or at Pret a Manger on her lunch break at work. Last week she was a “managing associate”; this week she is a “director of operations.”

Sonya waits for me in front of the Whitney. She is wearing a red track suit, white Keds, a lipstick shade likely called “cyanosis,” and smoking a vape pen.

All museums must seem like tombs to most people. They are tombs of human greatness or ingenuity or emotional intelligence. The Whitney takes on the form of a tomb of futility. Sonya leads me down the wings from bottom to top, yet each work dissolves into the walls until they are completely blank.

“This one has such resonance,” Sonya says gazing worshipfully at Robert Ryman’s Untitled (1969). “I first saw this in a book. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was dumb, actually. I thought anyone can do this shit. It wasn’t until I saw this in person that I realized I just wasn’t ready. I don’t think anyone is.”

“I think people are wrong about Dash Snow,” she says as we look out over Manhattan on the roof. “I think in a few decades people are going to come around to his genius. In a few decades art will be alive again. In a few decades there probably won’t be museums anymore because art will belong to the people. And a beautiful artwork will come with every home.”

“Will the homes, be beautiful?” I ask.

“Maybe. I wish I’d go back to school—get a degree in interior design. I’ll probably just be a consultant, I guess.” She blows a thick but low-key plume of vape smoke. “I got some pills. You wanna do some?”

On a bench at the park she takes out a small bag of what look, to the vulgar eye anyway, like SweeTarts. We each take one. The effect of the pill raises my sense of well-being to a height I’m not familiar with, but not so high that it upends my opinions or worldview. Sonya goes into her purse and takes out a set of Tarot cards.

“I got these in Baton Rouge last month,” she says.

“I didn’t know you were into the occult.”

“I’m not, I just like how these look.” She holds them all out in a fan, takes one out and shows it to me. “I really liked this one, it’s the Hanged Man.”

“Why?”

“It’s just really intense.”

On the train ride home I realize that one of the Tarot cards is in my shirt pocket. It’s the Sun. I’m don’t remember if I’d taken it or if she’d given it to me. It features a golden-haired boy in a field of sunflowers, under an anthropomorphized sun, and holding onto a red flag.

***

I wonder when the quilt will be finished. Then I wonder if it’s better if the quilt is never finished. Not incomplete, but continuous. Spanning without clear, containable dimensions. A quilt that is almost fluid. A sea unto itself. In defiance of everything.

***

I knock on Ms. Lawson’s door. The door is heavy and my knuckles hit it in a low thud. With each thud my senses become sharper, it’s like I’m coming out of a fugue state or a black out. I feel like a murderer getting my defense ready beforehand. I had a breakdownlost control of my facultiesfelt like someone else was driving me from the inside, a small, angry puppeteerforgive me.

I knock four times. No answer. I turn and look out into the neighborhood. It’s afternoon, a little after lunch, and pleasant in its near-emptiness. I walk over to the spot where I think she places her lawn chair to display her craft. I don’t know what I want to feel. A sense of power? Empathy of someone in power?

The lawn chair is folded up next to the garage. It is the kind that makes the peeling sound against bare skin.

“Can I help you,” calls a voice from behind me. Ms. Lawson, Jr. is pushing a wheelbarrow. “I’m not interested in what you’re selling. Sorry.”

Never in great composure, I’m even more off-guard than ever. “No … I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to bother. I live down the street, and I was wondering if … if … she was home?”

We stand stiffly before one another and say nothing. Ms. Lawson, Jr.’s expression is puzzling. I can’t tell if it’s meant to elicit confusion or scan for danger.

“She’s not available at the moment,” he says methodically.

“Thank you. I won’t bother you.”

“It’s okay.” He resumes pushing his wheelbarrow.

“Mulching?” I ask as if that will cut the obvious tension. He stops again.

“Yeah,” he says more keenly. “You got a mulch guy? Mine’s pretty good. I can give you his number.”

“I just like the smell.”

“So do I.” He resumes pushing and goes around the other side of the house.

***

I lie in bed hoping that I will dream about the quilt. I want to dream that my skin is a plush fabric with floral patterns. l lie in bed hoping that this is the last thing I’m thinking about before I finally sleep.

My dreams are usually turgid. They depict days at an office where I don’t work; nights with a loving family that I don’t have; commutes between them with a plum purple 1980s Oldsmobile that I don’t drive, and whose wheels detach at random every few feet.

I fail to dream what I want to dream. I also fail to sleep. My bedding disappoints me. I sit on the floor, facing my window, hoping. I repeat and I repeat and I repeat.

My dad says “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I believe that enchantment is possible, and very close.

***

A surveillance state. A panopticon. Eyeballs on the porch—in the windows—through the fences. It has come to this. Maybe it always was this but it has since been subject to maximizing institutional reforms.

Many seasons have changed since that time I saw the quilt. It’s under heavy guard. And so, it seems, am I. Like lovers kept apart by warring houses. Have others discovered what I discovered? Are they suppressing it for their own purposes? Are they coveting it for themselves or are they shielding it for what they tell themselves is the greater good?

I stare up at my shaded window and indulge myself in revisionism. It was I who had the pure intentions. It was I who had the quilt’s best interest at heart. It was I who saw into Ms. Lawson’s vision and saw that it be respected in posterity. No one plans on finding the most beautiful thing in Christendom. There are protocols for when you do. Like escaping a burning building. It was I who followed them to the letter.

I try to render the quilt on paper. It’s square, I know that. Within it are smaller squares. How small? How many? There was a visual concept, too. A pattern. What? Floral, I think. Or hands? Or types of fruit? Geometric shapes?

I tell myself “I need to inquire. I need closure. I’m entitled to it” as I walk out the door.

***

It’s cold now. There is frost on the grass and fog hanging in the barren trees. I’m wrapped in a thermal blanket. I walk down the middle of the empty street. A family of deer—a buck, a doe, and two fawns—issues from between two houses just up ahead of me and, taking no notice of my approach, continue on unperturbed in between the opposite facing houses and the woods beyond.

Ms. Lawson isn’t home. Neither, for that matter, is her house. Where her one-story ranch home used to be now sits the plywood framework of a much larger structure, a beast in incubation. The grass once tended well enough by Ms. Lawson, Jr. has been upended—or suppressed—by mud, gravel, and the tracks of heavy machinery.

I walk into the unfinished house. My feet thud on the floor as I walk through walls trying to get a sense of what used to be. There is a strong smell of sawdust, hay, and chemicals. Out the back entrance I see a pile of surplus wood and an uninstalled septic tank. I fumble over two trash bags sitting in a corner as if that would tell me anything.

“Can I help you?” A voice calls from behind me. The man is in work boots, ragged jeans, and a Jets sweatshirt. His construction hat is wrapped around his arm, the hand of which is holding a Dunkin Donuts cup. “This is private property.”

“Sorry. I was looking for something that I thought I left behind.”

“Does this look like a Goodwill?” he shoots back.

“No, it doesn’t.”

I shuffle in place, readjusting my blanket. He looks at his boots.

“Look, you want some coffee?”

“No thanks.”

He takes out his phone. “Can I call the local parish? Maybe they can get you to a shelter.”

“I live around here,” I say as I make my way out.

I see the realtor sign at the edge of the lawn and the lawn chair folded up against it. The builder sees me taking it and does nothing.

I spend the day watching the frost thaw.

***

The light in the topmost window of Stanley’s house, just above his garage, burns ceaselessly. It’s troublingly alone, not just in relation to the lower parts of his house, all light-starved after sunset, but amid all the houses on the block as their occupants lull them into darkness as muscles relax and as breathing rhythms slow down.

I never did look into what the meaning is behind my Tarot card. I still don’t know the meaning when I walk across the street to Stanley’s mailbox at 1:14 AM and place it inside. Maybe he will interpret it poorly. Maybe he will interpret it kindly.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I shower regularly. I catch up on sleep.