A Literary Feast

The Weather Underground

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

1.

 

How To Have A Body

 

Here are your limbs and where

Oh here is your

Head it has these many

Places for looking and this line

Jaw to hair that a hand

Could go, hesitantly

 

It’s not clear? A finger passage

Spells out the unspoken

Is an alphabet of unconscious–

You mean you just

Want the manual, the sockets the

Sight and its correction, the bone

That follows the other bone, down

To where the ground

Begins, to where all

Sentences end

 

The allen wrench

Of your arteries, the pill

That puts you out

 

Tab A

Slot B

Requires some

Assembly.

 

2.

 

How To Be In Motion

 

It’s been some time, and maybe this is

What it was like to drive the lunar

Rover, familiar and not

Familiar, the luminous curve

Making a distant signature of gravity

On the dark mouth of space

 

It’s just a

Dashboard, and your leg below

It, levering–

The place where breaks have been

Bonded back, the stiff pain

That means motion

 

It takes you to the grocery store

And wanders down the aisles, each

Bright thing calling out a name, calling

Out your lack of

List and you alone in it, not sure

How you got here

 

Six months of

Memory and

Celery spelling

Why you’re crying, why a hole punched

Its dim fist through your

Surprised heart

In this stupid

Parking lot.

 

3.

 

How To Remember

 

You never meant

No, they never

Do

Would you be able?

No, I would not and then

That makes me

That makes you nothing, but what you

Choose, really

 

Remember Patrick Swayze? And

This is your

Dance space

This is my

Dance space

But also Nicki Minaj

You don’t tell me

Who I am

I tell you

Who I

Am–

 

They will want

You to stay small, to

Keep the lights on

In that one spot

 

It’s a fire

 

And you left it

To burn

out.

 

Pour Lost Ones

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

You couldn’t really call the sound of the saxophone anything but blurry, he thought as he licked the grey foam from the edge of his glass. The beer made his mouth feel grainy and thick. He wiped his nose with the knuckles of his right hand; he leaned forward and licked the foam again, this time trying to taste it. Steel and spit, like the music, a strange empty sensation like the constant blab of the saxophone that blared beneath every phrase like some dark and fundamental presence, something older and grittier than the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea. He ran a jagged fingernail along the wood of the bar and wished he were anywhere else.

 

Outside it was the end of a summer day, the nasty kind that leaves a gummy second skin between your shorts and thighs. Inside the bar it may as well have been last year, or the dawn of time, or that moment that will come in a hundred years or so whether you want it to or not, that moment when, for the first time since your birth, no one you ever knew is alive anymore and never will be. The moment that keeps you up at night, although it will only come when you’ve been dead for years. The moment where the ripples you made when you fell out of the sky and into the tepid pool of life vanish for good under black peaks of wind-lapped water.

 

He thought about these things when he visited home, which was probably too often.

 

His name was Stephen and no one here knew it. He came to the Dockyard to hide from the weather and because it was a discreet place for business. He did not come to drink the beer. No one came to drink the beer. He came when the sun was still in the sky. He came often enough to call it a habit and seldom enough that none of the worn faces along the bar or at the tables in front of the stage recognized his smooth cheeks, a little too round for his jaw, or the light blonde hair that didn’t quite match the curve of his skull. He was more than a stranger here – he was invisible, a pasty ghost drinking cheap grey beer from a tap with no label and wondering who might come by to see him, and when. He only ever came home for business, and business never quite seemed to happen. Business wasn’t exactly legal, wasn’t exactly wrong, and seldom turned out to be real. Business always called to say it was running late, then later, then in another direction. Business made excuses about other business that was better business, and left poor Stephen wondering why he even tried, and whether he should find a job in an office, and made him order more grey beer and wonder how to make his face look, and reminded him that no one here knew his name.

 

The saxophone blared and blabbed as the rest of the four-piece band swayed above it, the soundtrack to someone else’s jazzy gothic nightmare. Stephen turned on his barstool to watch. He had nothing else to watch, and the strange mustard lights – anywhere else they would have been amber, but in the Dockyard they were mustard – made it almost seem like a spectacle. Just some kids trying too hard, younger than anyone he still knew, slaves to delusions of fashion and grandeur, but at least they looked like they meant it. At least they weren’t no one.

 

A heavy-set man with dry black hair set himself down on the barstool to Stephen’s left and ordered a beer of his own, a bright reddish thing that at least looked nicer that Stephen’s glass of foaming cement, though for all he knew it tasted of bricks. “Really great band,” the man said without turning. “They really pour their souls into the music.”

 

For a sad moment, Stephen thought that maybe the man was business, come at last to make a deal or at least to turn one down in person. Then the man turned back to the music and his beer. Just another regular who would never call him Stephen. He took a small sip of the grey foam at the top of his own glass, closed his eyes, and tried to hear, to really hear the music, the way he used to really hear music while lying on basement floors at high school sleepovers. Every note they played was blurry, blurry vocals over a blurry rhythm section with that blurry saxophone blaring beneath it all, the saxophone that he couldn’t help but love although he knew it should terrify him. The music made him feel stoned. It made him feel like stone, mossy stone, the kind that never rolls. Maybe they know a thing about business, he thought. Maybe they would want to do business with me. Maybe I should have learned to play bass.

 

The singer leaned toward the microphone and let out a sort of half-sarcastic whoop that seemed to come from another decade, another lifetime even. She flung her hair around like a mop and shouted something that made the handful of hammered groupies at the low tables in front of the stage bang their fists and holler in collusion.

 

“You ever heard them before?” asked the heavyset man with the dry black hair.

 

It took Stephen a moment to realize that someone had spoken to him. It almost never happened to him once, let alone twice. “No,” he shouted above the music, and paused as some small voice inside him told him to end the conversation there, to get up, to walk out without paying and drive south without so much as glancing into the rear view mirror. But Stephen never listened to small voices. “What did she just yell?” he asked, and felt as though a part of him had died.

 

The heavyset man with the dry black hair did his best to imitate the singer’s flourish and screamed, for Stephen’s benefit, in a voice surprisingly like hers, “We arrrrrre the Midgard Serviettes!”

 

“The Midgard Serpents?” asked Stephen, who remembered a thing or two about monsters and books.

 

“No,” said the man. “Serviettes. Like napkins.” He paused, took a long draw of his red beer. “It’s a metal thing, I guess. I don’t know. Post-ironic mythcore or something like that. Come on, drink up. Let me buy you round two.”

 

Stephen drank, which should have been difficult. But the gritty brew felt good inside him, as though his body craved lead, cement anything to fill it up and weigh it down. Ballast. That was the word for it. He kept one eye on the band and watched as the singer slung her hair again like a fistful of golden whips, chanting a high and wavering dirge into the microphone that quivered on its stand and seemed to jump up and down to the beat. Whatever she’s singing, thought Stephen, she means it. He swallowed the last of his grey lager. I never mean it, he thought sadly. I’ve never meant anything.

 

The bass and drums roused themselves into a fury as the singer let the last note of her verse fade into a single point of air. She left a hand on the microphone as her eyes rolled back into her skull. Groupies shrieked with glee.

 

“Jackie,” the heavyset man with the dry black hair shouted to the bartender, “another of mine for me, and another of his for him.”

 

“You got it,” said Jackie, who also didn’t know Stephen’s name – but then, he hadn’t known hers until now. He’d never asked. She poured another glass of the fiery red stuff for the black-haired stranger, and she drew something golden and clear from the same unlabeled tap that had coughed up his foamy grey brew an hour before. They must have changed the keg, thought Stephen, and toasted the stranger with an unsteady hand before drinking. This, he thought. This is better. It tasted like headstrong sunlight, the kind that will warm your bones or burn your skin depending on whether it likes you. It felt like a warm spear tickling his heart. It made him want to sing and scream and cry. He liked it. He guessed it was Belgian.

 

“So,” he said, and he grinned and scowled at the stranger as though daring him into a battle of wits. “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”

 

The stranger took a long sip of his fiery red stuff and smiled. It did strange things to his jowls. “There’s no place special, really. No such thing. But I do like it here. Don’t you?”

 

Stephen rested his glass against his chin and stared hot daggers at the pudgy man. “I never said I did, did I? It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go in this town.”

 

The stranger’s glass was almost empty, though Stephen hadn’t seen him drink. He laughed as he lowered it. “The Tap House. The Freedom Chalice. Quarry Road. Fine places, fine people, fine pints. And yet you keep coming here.”

 

Stephen turned away. The stranger wasn’t worth his time, and the band was good – blurry, but good. The singer held her trance pose without twitching. The drummer hunched over her cymbals and swapped out her rock beat for a hushed, hissing web of steel brushes, while the bass player leapt from the shadows and loosed a storm of bone-shaking low notes that made Stephen’s bowels leap to the beat. A little jazz, a little blues, a touch of the avant-garde, all delivered with the force of a thunderstorm at sea, but also calm, calm, like the sea’s blue belly. The groupies held hands and stomped their feet as though they wanted to summon something old and generous. As the bassist’s hand crept up the fretboard into the weird, ethereal high notes near the top of the instrument’s range, his mouth split open in a huge grin like a heap of bones in the noonday sun, and his dark glasses darkened a little more as though something behind them had fizzled out for good. The last muddy wail faded into silence and his grin remained, a frozen contortion of bliss. Groupies punched each other’s shoulders, each blow an embrace.

 

“Here,” said the man with the dry black hair, pointing behind the bar, “have another.”

 

Stephen took the beer from Jackie’s hand. It was thick and brown like the vital mud at the bottom of a riverbed, and it coated his lips like dark honey. He smiled. He’d never felt so damn welcome in all his life, not even when he was a kid here, not even in his own home with his mom and dad and his big brother who taught him baseball. He slammed his glass against the stranger’s, which was full again with his ale as red as fire, and he offered him a taste because the whole world had to know just how good it felt to drink what he was drinking in the best basement watering hole in the greatest town on Earth.

 

“Oh no, but thank you,” said the jolly stranger, with a little smirk and a wink. “I always save mine for last.”

 

Stephen didn’t know what that meant and he didn’t care. He drank the honey-brown beer like a big bear guzzling from a hive. He drank like it was what he’d been missing all his life, and all the bad bets and raw deals of the past decade didn’t make one jot of difference. He felt the whole rumbling earth press up under him like a hungry lover and it felt good, and he flashed a bright white smile, and he turned to Jackie the bartender, sweet, beautiful Jackie, and he asked her for one more just like it.

 

“Wait just a minute on that, Jackie,” said the jolly stranger. “Better let that one settle first,” he said, turning to Stephen, “I’m in no rush.” He smiled, and in spite of every good vibe in every cosmic barroom across the planet, something in that smile made Stephen shiver.

 

But the band was good. Hell, man, the band was everything. “They really know what it means to play, don’t they?”

 

“They really pour their souls into the music,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, his cold smile unchanged.

 

The man took another sip of his fire-red ale, sucking it slowly through his thick lips as the band played on. The blurry saxophone blabbed and sputtered with evil intent under the low grind of the cymbals, and for a moment it seemed as though the song might end in a slow fade of hissing metal. Then, as though a bolt of lightning had hit the stage, the drummer wrenched her body upright and vanished in a blur of limbs, arms and sticks and feet and legs leaping and crossing and beating the drum kit into a furious storm that hit Stephen in the chest and made him feel just for a moment as though his ribs might pop like a wet balloon. Groupies leapt from their chairs and threw their glasses to the floor, pounding at the air with fists like hammers, chanting to the furious beating of the bass drum, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, like a crew of frenzied sailors straining at the capstan to drag something angry and long-forgotten up from the bottom of the sea, something clinging to their anchor chain with a thousand burning hooves and howling through the deep with the ecstatic pain of its own waking. A shelf of glasses fell forward with an inaudible crash. A tap burst open, spewing yellow piss across the bar. Several ears started bleeding, and one man jumped up on a table to pound both fists repeatedly into his own stomach. Then, with a final roar like a glacier breaking, it ended. The drummer slumped across her snare drum like the victim of a firing squad. Only the saxophone blared on, blurrier than ever in the haze of echoes that hung in the air like smoke from dead men’s pipes, persistent and sustained as though it would outlive the stars.

 

The heavyset man with the dry black hair coughed once and cleared his sinuses with a wet snort like a trumpet made from something’s bladder. “I think my friend here will take that last pint now, Jackie,” he said, and she handed Stephen something dark and murky. He sipped it, and the bleakest bitterness he’d ever known wrapped itself around his tongue and started clawing its way toward his heart. His glands spasmed like squeezed peas, and the hair along his neck and arms stood bolt upright as though trying to flee his body.

 

“That’s our most popular IPA,” said Jackie, and turned away.

 

Stephen scowled at the fat man on the barstool next to his, scowled at the dandruff that coated the hideously padded shoulders of his grimy black sports coat, scowled at the grin widening on the fat man’s face. He thought of grabbing a knife and cutting the fat man’s lips off just to make the smile go away. His fists curled up as tight as his glands and he looked around the room daring anyone to look at him the wrong way. He could stave in the ugly mug of the sun. He could smash steel.

 

“How do you like that one?” asked the fat man, grinning.

 

Stephen swept his glass to the floor where it shattered wetly, and he dented the wood of the bar with his fist, leaving specks of blood next to stains from last week’s beer. “I hate it,” he said, surprised at how true it sonuded. “I hate it almost as much as I hate this backwash town. And this scuzzy bar. And all of you!” He slung his left arm outward toward the crowd, who turned their nervous famous toward him. All had gone quiet except for the low and disturbingly expectant growl of the saxophone. “I was born here, dammit. I drag my ass up here from Portsmouth every chance I get. I’m going to die in this bar and they’re going to carry me out on a pallet of empty kegs and dump my body in the river and has any one of you ever even asked what my goddamn name is? Anyone?”

 

Glances flashed among drinkers, disappointed but unsurprised. The night had to end somehow. A few pairs of feet shuffled nervously toward the door, while several of the less conscious groupies stayed behind to listen to the saxophone finish its sinister cadenza.

 

“Stephen,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, “finish your drink.”

 

The glass stood once more on the bar before him, somehow whole again and still only half empty. “It’s awful.” He drank it anyway, drank it to the lees, drank down the flecks of unfiltered debris that swam at the bottom like a flock of molecules trying to discover life.

 

He finished it. He coughed. His insides swarmed, full of bright vitality, full of mellow calm, full of bitter hatred for every corner of the world and especially for the four corners of the arrogant and heartless town he used to try to call home. He put his glass down on the bar, tottered a little. “Another,” he said to no one in particular. “Just one more.”

 

“No more for you, Stephen. You’ve had quite enough. You’re ready now. Plump, full of all you can hold. It’s a shame, really. I’d cram a few more into you if I could. I should have thought of this centuries ago; it’s so much more efficient this way. But you’ve never been terribly capacious, and when I found you you were so very, very empty. No – no more for you. One more for me, though. A special one I’ve hidden away someplace safe, far from prying eyes. One must be so careful these days, as they say. Oh, Jackie. One more please. For the road. You know which.”

 

He didn’t see Jackie appear behind the bar, compelled to obey. He couldn’t lift his forehead from the bar. His insides leapt and swam, and he felt a sudden panic as he realized that the saxophone had stopped at last. A sharp silence filled the room. He wanted to scream.

 

A jet black pint of stout slid passed his half-open eyes, blacker than the bottom of the sea, blacker than the space behind stars. It scurried over the bright wood of the bar as though it had a life of its own, leaping up and sloshing down the stranger’s throat like a lost child running to its mother.

 

Suddenly Stephen wanted to vomit, wanted desperately to purge himself of the foreign things inside him that he couldn’t quite name, things that belonged to other people, things that he’d never asked for and never, never wanted. He opened his mouth and tried to gag, but the things within him stayed down as though chained there, clinging to his insides with a thousand burning hooves. He tried to say something to anyone, but he knew no one’s name, not even the stranger’s. He hadn’t asked. He didn’t need to.

 

As he slid off the barstool and his vision went black for good, all he could think was that he would never come back to the Dockyard, not after this. As he fell through the floor, fell through the basement, fell through the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea, he thought with three voices, none of them his, that maybe at least in the absolute darkness of the place they were going, each of them might find something to call home. No one would miss them, no one would find them, and they left behind no unfinished business.

 

 

*****

 

[Editor’s note:

 

The Midgard Serviettes were:

Fabergine – vocals

SigFig – bass guitar

Millennitia – drums

Hrothful – saxophone

 

Their debut EP is not expected anytime soon.]

Bakery On Premises

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

I grew up in the Northeast, where twenty-four hour Greek diners were a natural part of the eatery landscape. They have names like ‘The Acropolis’, ‘Athenian’ or ‘Parthenon’ – possibly followed by a Roman numeral. It’s the type of establishment frequented by families for breakfast on the weekends; by senior citizens for the ‘early bird special’ – which is at least one page unto itself on the menu – and by teenagers and young adults spending their time in the wee hours of the morning working to stay just on this side of trouble.

 

The menu is as thick as a newspaper and includes everything from Eggs and French Toast to burgers and club sandwiches to spaghetti with meatballs or veal parmigiana to ‘Jewish Dishes’ and finally ‘Greek Specialities.’ All of these items are available twenty-four hours a day. If you are suspicious that any establishment could execute that wide a variety of items at any given time, you are wise. I recommend breakfast items, since it’s hard to prepare eggs over-easy any length of time before they are ordered. They do very few things particularly well; but they do enough things well enough. They consistently satisfy crowds at any given time of day…or night.

 

Instead of a neon OPEN sign, theirs is painted on the window – confirming they are indeed open twenty-four hours a day. Beneath this is the phrase ‘Bakery on Premises’. I always noticed it as a child because try as I might I couldn’t puzzle out its meaning. I mean, sure – they had a ton of baked goods: cinnamon rolls, elephant ears, muffins near the counter and usually a tall glass case with rotating shelves filled with heavy-looking cakes. Somewhere no doubt there was another case filled with pies and cookies as well. But – with a menu that has literally everything on it – why does one subset need its own declaration? As I exited my formative years I learned boring and reasonable things like requirements from local and state governments for a separate license for bakeries versus restaurants. I do not believe any include an edict, ‘To be displayed in script on the window.’ While I always found the phrase confounding, many seemed to relish the idea that theirs was a ‘Bakery on Premises’ and all the breakfast pastries and desserts were made right there! Well folks, they make everything else on the menu too, and how much of it is noteworthy? And so it is with the bakery items. The primary feature of the cakes is that they are weighty and they are thick with slick frosting. The pies are indistinguishable from those at bake sales, born of frozen pie dough and canned filling. The cookies, though, are unique. Despite extensive training as a professional baker I have not unearthed their secret. They have figured out a way to make chocolate chip cookies the consistency of compressed wet sand – the kind that holds its shape if you scrunch it in your fist (or make a sand castle out of it) but collapses into tiny coarse particles that spread to all the places you have never wanted them immediately upon exerting any sort of pressure…like, taking a bite. This sand-cookie technique is still artfully practiced; someone recently brought one to my two year old, who tracked it pretty much everywhere. Thank goodness for robot vacuums.

 

I’d like to say here that I am in no way trying to put the diner down – in fact, I wish that they weren’t a dying breed. Even beyond the nostalgia I hold for them; from times spent with family while I was young to the hours I spent in them as a teenager; the diner has value. They are consistent; they are always there – that is to say, open. And they each do some things extraordinarily well…My local diner makes excellent challah French toast (if you smuggle in your own syrup) and wonderful Spanikopita; but not necessarily better than other places that specialize in breakfast, or in Mediterranean food, respectively. Fine selections, to be sure, but in my experience each Athenian Parthenon Acropolis III has at least one item amid their sea of endless menu possibilities that they do better than any place else. And I truly mean better than ANY place else. The trick is finding what those items are. I happened to find out what my local diner’s secret perfection is fifteen years ago as teenager during a late night visit with friends; no doubt attempting to drown our angst with coffee, lots of coffee and…cheesecake. Diner cheesecake was a choice made in that moment that I probably would not make now and so I say that finding any diner’s sacrament is really based on sheer dumb luck.

 

As with all, my local twenty-four hour diner makes a plethora of items…satisfactorily. But what they do make to unparalleled perfection is cheesecake. They make cheesecake that occupies the perfect space in the fluffy-to-dense continuum and is so rich and creamy that I dream about it. It is about 14” in diameter and over 4” high. It has no crust at all. Sometimes it’s a hair over-baked and the top half just a little too firm or a hair under-baked and the bottom isn’t quite set…but even when the unevenness of what is likely a very old convection oven skews the consistency in one direction or the other it is still better than any cheesecake I have ever tasted. It tastes like cheese cake, with the flavors and consistency of simple ingredients. It still tastes like the soft cheese it is made from instead of just sweet or overwhelmingly vanilla or any other flavors someone has decided to doll it up with. This diner does not make any ‘flavors’ of cheesecake. It doesn’t have the gummy homogenized mouthfeel that is so frequently accompanied by cheesecake made to survive the zombie apocalypse with stabilizers and preservatives. It is unequivocally the best cheesecake I have ever had and unlike anything you can get at places where the window doesn’t say…‘Bakery on Premises.’

Canada, Comfort Queers, and Cynicism

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

Quebec City felt like Disney World felt when I was a kid. My cynical side only saw a series of tricks; some massive money-making scheme to build a pretend French-like town that could easily separate tourists from their money. How old could the buildings really be? This was Canada! (I learned later, quite old actually, but still not THAT old). When we first arrived at our hostel-like-hotel the overly friendly concierge/owner/chef laughed a lot while he pointed out local restaurants to us on a map. His loud bark followed each suggestion and my boyfriend Jose and I became increasingly unnerved by the sound. It was so piercing. After this initial meeting, where he suggested a restaurant called “The Hobbit” (this name was literal- it was actually decorated as if it were a hobbit hovel), we decided to figure it out on our own and took to sneaking down the back stairs in order to not pass the front desk each time we left. We quickly discovered that he lived in the hotel, in an apartment directly underneath ours, and that we were going to hear that laugh echoing for much of the trip.

I am largely a pill when it comes to doing anything outside of our apartment. I generally prefer to be prostrate, wrapped in a feather duvet, a hearty glass of red within reaching distance, reading or writing in my bed. At the end of these non-physical intellectual experiences I will sometimes, not too often I swear, take a Valium and watch television on one of our two flat screens. Did I mention I insist on the air-conditioning being on full blast the entire time I’m in the apartment?

I take credit for coining the term “comfort queer,” an identity I proudly formulated after standing in the rain for less than two minutes at the Pride parade last year. While the rest of my people danced and sang in the rain, I snuck off for brunch at Balthazar’s. I ate duck-liver pate. It was my own version of Pride. Thus the comfort queer was born.

Canada was a good idea, I thought. A way for us to have a vaguely European experience without the cost of going to Europe. We talked about potentially doing some “lite hikes” and doing more “outdoorsy” activities. Jose had his car with him and said we should leave for a while, go to an island near the city where there would be vineyards and beaches and woods to hike in. I had, shockingly, an attitude about the plans. I can be superstitious about anything that seems too idyllic or good, and something about wineries on a beautiful summer day struck me as the type of experience I just could not actually enjoy. Other people enjoy these things. People in movies! It just felt too adventurous. There was wine at The Hobbit right up the street! The guy with the ominous laugh told us so!

The day literally could not have been any prettier if it was a conscious entity trying to be pretty. We listened to French pop-songs the whole way out and Jose, who of course had learned “a little French” before the trip, translated them for me. The island, Île d’Orléans, was as idyllic as I had imagined, terrified, it would be. Hills sloped into small farms where people actually appeared to be out tending to said farms. People rode bicycles beside the cars as if this was their everyday mode of transportation. I even let Jose put the sunroof down, the warm wind batting my hair around as we drove onto the isolated stretch of Quebec. I kept pointing to any small house I saw for sale and exclaiming that if Donald Trump wins we should just move there. I could see it working. Jose could drive into Montreal to earn money while I raised our brood, with the assistance of an au pair, on our small home on Île d’Orléans. When he got home each night there would be freshly baked bread and the kids will have all been bathed and instead of television we’d play board games on the living room floor.

I get a little wrapped up in my own head sometimes.

We arrived at the first vineyard. An entire stretch of hills led straight into a river that flowed from a massive waterfall, visible from the porch of the winery. Our waitress’s husband was from Mexico, like Jose, and talked with us about how she was learning Spanish (something I was pretending to do). This small little detail she revealed, her study of Spanish, and my immediate reaction of feeling inadequate under its glare is the type of interaction/reaction that has derailed many seemingly nice experiences for me. My immediate defense mechanism is to somehow find cynicism in the entire experience. Two rosés in, however, and I could not muster a single sinister thought. She was so bright and kind. I asked her for tips on learning Spanish. I acted like a non-monster-well-adjusted human being. It felt nice. I wasn’t even mad that we had the only table in the sun, although the comfort queer in me kept an eye out for any possible sign of someone with a shaded table leaving so we could pounce on it immediately.

She brought poutine with chunks of succulent duck meat on top. I felt content in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I looked across the table at Jose. He was smiling into the sun, soaking up its rays. I thought about how he managed to be so calm and happy, even in the face of my sometimes unrelenting attempts to keep him at a distance. I could speculate here on why I feel the need to arm myself with defenses against love, but I have had years of therapy to work on that and mostly what I felt in that moment was grateful. Jose had done the research to find this island, something I would never have done. He had taken the initiative to take me off the beaten path. It wasn’t a “lite hike” but it was something different. We were outdoors, and I appreciated him.

Next we drove to a secluded beach where you could see Quebec City from a distance. It didn’t look like Disney World anymore. It looked like a beautiful hill covered in castles. I took pictures of Jose with his pants rolled up, wading into the water. Geese were walking around the rocky beach. He kept looking back and smiling and I smiled back because he kept running at the geese and something about the sun and the rosé and his smiling face just made it all seem so lovely.

We drove back from the beach and got ice-cream smothered in warm milk chocolate. It was turning out to be a ridiculously decadent food day, one that would typically have me in whirls of anxiety about the amount of calories I was eating, but I felt calm. Vacations when I was a child had not generally been peaceful. What I remembered the most about our family trips was the fighting. How quickly it would come on, seemingly out of nowhere, and how an entire day could be soaked up by that. I did not have an overly tragic childhood, but my immediate reaction to moments that feel too good, too pleasurable, is to believe something could go wrong. I trusted Jose’s steadiness. I knew what to expect and he knew how to travel, how to eat well, and how to enjoy himself.

On our way off the island we drove past a fromagerie. Jose asked if I wanted to stop and I initially answered no. I was not hungry, what would be the point? Then the spirit of the day seized me and I said let’s go back. We had already passed it and he said we did not have to, it had already been a nice day, but eventually I convinced him to turn around. We ate fried cheese, probably the last thing we needed, on wooden benches outside. On the drive back we listened to French pop-music again, passed the waterfall we had seen from afar, and headed into the darkening city.

When we got back to the hotel we went up to the roof. The sun was setting and stars were slowly beginning to dot the sky. We hugged and watched the sunset. “Today was fun,” he said and I could only say, “It was.” The lights of the city slowly twinkled on, a crisp, unseasonably cold wind blew up onto the roof and I couldn’t think of a single thing to complain about.

 

Passing Time At The Plaza

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

In a secret life I will never live, I am a doyenne of the swanning set, fluttering here and there with Oysters Rockefeller in steady supply and a gaggle of the whiskery ones doting on my every need. Such a belle donna would take her lunch, naturally, at The Plaza Hotel. This is a secret life and therefore timeless. Happily, the New York Public Library has digitized the menus of my preferred eatery across the decades and I can peruse them at will, recalling all my favorites.
 
Join me, won’t you, on a gilded settee for our first Plaza lunch. It’s 1899 and Congress has just approved some strange new contraption called a “voting machine” for use in federal elections. While others fret about that bold female outlaw Pearl Hart who just robbed another stagecoach, this one 30 miles southeast of Globe, Arizona, we’ll be nibbling daintily, in the secret way of time-travelers, upon Clear Green Turtle au Champagne, Canapé of Caviar a la Russe, Broiled Spanish Mackerel, followed by a few Parisian Sweetbreads and a Salad Mexicane. Let’s finish, perhaps, this round-the-world gastric tour with something mysteriously called National Sorbet. Total bill? $3.50. What would Hart do?
 
I love my 1907 life, in which I am bedecked in the skirts and bonnet of the day and locate, perhaps, a rattan chair at the lunchtime table for the feast of Pate De Foie Gras with Truffles, A Fancy Roast, and a Selection of Oysters Broiled on Toast. I might dip a fork to the Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette, for courage, and discuss, over Broiled Woodcock, the first taxicabs that just started motoring around London, or the foibles of our own president Roosevelt. Darling, would you be so kind as to pick up the tab while I go freshen up? Oh, it’s $4.30, I see. Horrible the way these prices just keep going up and up!
 
In the fall of 1914 you meet me for lunch and we fret all about how World War is breaking out. But there is much to celebrate as well, such as the opening of the Panama Canal and I heard the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox just played and exhibition game in Egypt—fabulous. Let’s order the Turban de Jambon Florentine, the Filet de Bar de Mer Doria, and a little Sorbet au Rhum. Must watch the bottom line, sweet one. I trust you have the $6 on you to cover this?
 
I’ve bobbed my hair and might even wear a cunning pair of slacks to meet you for our Plaza lunch in 1933. We will keep a low profile. The nation is convulsing with ongoing economic troubles and it’s all just terrible but we must preserve our strength, you see, if we are to go help out with the construction of this Golden Gate Bridge, now underway. I’ve heard great things about the Crab Flake Cocktail, the Jellied Madrilène Consommé, and of course the Patty of Frogs’ Legs with Mushrooms Newburg. The Roast Saddle of Baby Lamb with Succotash Virginia and Potatoes Caprice sounds prefect, it’s between that and something mysteriously called the Supreme Plaza. Oh let’s just get both and see. And I’m a modern woman of my day and have saved up from my stenographer’s job (can you believe I work!? It’s a scream.) So I’ve got this one, let’s see, it comes to $6.65, because I had to have some Pineapple Paradise too. Oops—there goes a whole month’s rent!
 
Oh goodie for us, we haven’t aged a day and here we are, invited to the Plaza’s 1954 Long Island Oyster Tasting with Appropriate White Wines, Beer, Stout, and Ale. While others trouble themselves with Eisenhower’s military aid to Vietnam or how the words “Under God” were just added to our Pledge of Allegiance, let’s gossip about Marilyn’s recent marriage to Joe while we slurp down these fine Seawanhakas and Greenports, described by our gracious hosts as “fat, heavy-shelled oysters with a sweet flavor.” More, please!
 
It’s 1987, and we’re the guests of honor at the Plaza Chinese New Year celebration. Let the others gab about the seeming rise of democracy in China or how the mainland’s first KFC just opened outside of Tiananmen Square, we’re too busy gnawing on these Five Spice Spareribs and ladling out portions of the Chicken with Black Bean Sauce. Wontons with Sweet and Sour Sauce crowd my plate while you extol the virtues of the Cold Spicy Noodles. Like much being served, our dessert is also an American invention: Fortune Cookies!
 
It’s 2016. I’ve put my bonnet and bobbed hair and petticoats and shoulder pads away and have modestly booked the Royal Suite. It clocks in at $20,000 per night but I’ve enjoyed the riches of the Plaza for over a century and figure the old horse deserves the oats. Stevenson, my personal white glove butler, leads me to my private elevator and I collapse in one of the three bedrooms while he presses and hangs my wardrobe, freshens the hydrangea arrangements, and inquires as to anything further I require. Facedown on the thousand-thread count pillows I gesture listlessly to the phone, thinking a quick nip of room service would be just the thing ahead of the 20-person dinner party I’ll later host in my suite’s private dining room. Right, then, Stevenson makes the call and, a glutton for choice, I go with the Lobster Cobb Salad, two ounces of The Plaza Private Reserve American Ossetra, the 14 Ounce Dry-Aged New York Strip, and a slice of the Lady M Cake. I miss you desperately, dear, won’t you come have a bite with me? And you won’t mind splitting this lunch tab of $670, will you?

Seen

Posted on June 10th, 2016

The western field has flooded.  The diner talk is all about the weight and depth of the water, and Ray’s truck stuck in it.  You know where you are, Kath is saying to Ray, because this is news and he agrees.  I’ve had four cups of coffee and won’t call today either, and the note looks back at me from the paper telling me to do it but I won’t.

 

Ray doesn’t believe in angels.  He told me that once over eggs even though I hadn’t asked.  If you sit in one spot long enough in a regular way, people tell you things, and sometimes, it’s about the afterlife and sometimes it’s about the bait shop.  They’re about the same.  He said their outfits are wrong and Heaven isn’t a place where you just wear bedsheets, and so he couldn’t really get behind it.  Ray had a daughter.  You’re expecting me to say that she drowned, because that would explain why he doesn’t want to think about otherwordly sheet wearing winged guardians but what really happened is that Ray’s ex took her to Arizona and he’s never been on a plane.  Sometimes people become past tense just because of geography.  They’re alive somewhere else, but, you don’t know about it, mostly.

 

That was last winter.  Kath was wearing the red jacket a lot then.  She has two, one red, one tan, and they signal something, but I haven’t worked it out yet.  I kept track for a month, but the pattern stayed out of sight.  Sometimes I think Ray is in love with her, and maybe the switching has something to do with that, but JJ tells me I’m fanciful and I keep it mostly to myself.  

 

What I don’t say is that I’ve seen one.  And they don’t wear bedsheets.  

 

They mostly wear canvas coveralls, and are at the hardware store, sorting through the nail bin, and getting silvered fingers.  I asked what that was all about, and he just said ‘It’s pleasurable’.  I didn’t know, right away, what I was seeing, which he said was pretty common.  They go to great lengths to make that happen, otherwise, it’s nothing but requests and gawping and hey can you tell me if I’m doing this thing right, or why this other thing happened and is there a plan, and it makes you pretty tired.  I said you get tired? and he said sure thing, it’s not the easiest job, and put his silvered hands in his pockets, and rocked back on his heels a bit in some invisible wind.  Ray doesn’t believe in you, I mentioned.  Oh, we know.  That’s okay, is what he said, which was charitable, and I guess that’s no surprise.  I was gonna go for a walk, is what I said next, and he said We know that too, and I thought that it must be annoying to talk to anyone, knowing everything all the time, and he said, out loud, yeah, sometimes, it is.

 

He followed me out of the hardware store.  I wondered if I should be nervous about it or not, but, figured there was no point, either way, and kept on down the sidewalk.  A condom had washed up against one of the road drains and I felt embarrassed to have to see it given my walking companion but he didn’t say anything and I guess he sees everything no matter what, but still.  Don’t sweat it, he said to the back of my head, because the sidewalk had narrowed and I was walking in front a little bit and I started even though I knew he was there.  I’ve always been a nervous person.  When I still lived with JJ I’d forget that he was in the house sometimes and he’d come into a room and my heart would stop because I didn’t always know who he was right away.  I lose faces.  Their parts go from me, and it takes effort to call them back.

We reached the hill that falls down to the docks and my feet started on the familiar slope to the water.  

 

I like this place, I said out loud again, because it is habit and habit is hard to stop having, and the presence behind me didn’t say a thing.  It smelled the way that it always did, halfway between what you’d like to remember and what you’d like to forget, with salt mixed in.  Ray can only ever talk about all of the fish that have pissed in the ocean when we go out early in the boat, and I see it when I look down, a river within a greater river.  

 

My companion says nothing, which is fine, which is what I expect, I guess, but also, if he knows what I am thinking, he knows that I am not going to call.

 

I take the paper out of my pocket, where its number has grown thin, in the creased places, so that it is soft.  As soft as water.  As soft as sugar, sifting down.  As soft as anything.  

 

It lands on the water.  Soft, there too.

 

It comes back.  

 

What, I say?

 

Just what I meant, he remarks.  You will see.

Last Call

Posted on June 10th, 2016

Lately I’ve been thinking about a dark side of consumption—addiction. Something might start innocuously enough (wow, this feels really good, if I have more if it, I’ll feel even better) and spirals to that malicious, delicious point where one is otherwise underwater without it. The glass of wine that becomes a bottle. The cigarette that becomes a pack. Drugs hidden from sight but very much present in the owners mind until that next sip, drag, hit and now the water parts, the mouth reaches the surface, and you can breathe again. As if every moment until this moment had been a deep dive act of breath-holding until that thing you most want is in your hands again—vaulted, exalted, exhalation.

 

I see addiction all around me. As a public school teacher in the South Bronx, I see the unswerving student commitment to Takis, Doritos, Sour Straws, Utz Chips, Cheese Doodles—each offering a chemical high for under a dollar, stuffed into black plastic bodega bags and parceled, assessed, and consumed throughout class. And the next class. And the next. And the following morning. Again, on Wednesday. Thursday. Every day of the week, hours a day, bag after bag, and no amount of cajoling, of “no eating in class” signs, of teacherly demand or love or any combination thereof will pry the goodies loose. A true exchange between a kid and me the other day:
Me: “What’s up, D? You have so many bags of chips in your hands. Is this seriously your breakfast?”

 

D: “Miss, don’t start with me.”

 

Me: “Okay, I’m just curious—when was the last time you started your morning without the redolent taste of honey-roasted barbeque cornstarch?”

 

D: “I don’t even know what that means.”

 

Me: “I mean, why you gotta eat this crap all the time, it’s so bad for you.”

 

D: “Miss the fuck you getting in my face for? I am not in the mood.

 

Me: “Why not?”

 

D: “High as fuck, miss. I am high as. My head is not connected to my body right now in no way, shape, or form, trust and believe.”

 

Me: “Huh.”

 

D: “Yep. And when I be high as fuck like this, I be getting the munchies and you know how that goes. You do not want to be in Ms. L’s bum-ass fucking class without a good few bags of these, you know what I’m saying?”

 

Me: “But why even go at all then? How are you going to learn anything if you’re so high?”

 

D: “Miss! The fuck you think I’m ever learning anything anyway in this bum-ass school? I’m only here because I got to be here by law. Trust and believe, soon as I turn 18 I am out of here. But as long as I gotta be here, Imma have some fun.”

 

And then I go home and pour a gigantic glass of red wine and think—what’s the difference? As long as I gotta be here, Imma have some fun.

 

Lately I’ve been dating a man in that rapid, circuitous, pointless way that only online dating can so consistently deliver, while offering little else. No one looking for much of anything serious, everyone just having a laugh, taking their clothes off, walking away the next morning, texting vaguely after that or not at all. Or maybe that’s just the way I’ve gone about things. The other morning as I got ready for work, the radio host remarked on the fine quality of the day’s weather: “And if you’re just waking up from a one night stand, you are all set,” the host said. “The weather is perfect and it’s exactly the same as yesterday, so just put those same clothes back on and get out of there.

 

This man I met online had been relatively candid with me from the start about his addictions: a recovering alcoholic, he didn’t drink. A sworn pothead, he lives in Colorado and there enjoys the legality of the substance to the point that several times he forgot, while I was visiting him, that he was having a conversation with me. “Wait, what were we just talking about?”

 

“I just prefer an altered state,” he explained. “I prefer that to the real way I feel, whatever that means.”

 

I don’t know what that means either. I’m not judging, not refuting that addiction is a disease, or that his voracious appetites do not challenge this man. Or that I don’t have problems of my own. He came to visit me in New York and flew with what could only be described as a “shit ton” of pot tucked into various pockets of his luggage. We found furtive places in nearby parks and greeted the few people that passed us with nods and smiles, me silently praying no one was an undercover cop and, seeing as nothing happened, I guess no one was.

 

Bourgeoning addiction is a lighthearted flirtation with an absolutely destructive force, something alive in the same people who chase tornadoes and stand, awestruck, by how close they can get to something so powerful without getting killed. I’m not bigger than Valium or wine or pot—smoked or eaten. I’m much, much smaller. And these things will not only continue to exist but thrive in minds and livers and bloodstreams long after I am gone—a dust so fine you could snort my remains. And if you believe the rumors, some people have. Is it true, for example, that Keith Richards rolled his father’s ashes into a joint and smoked before falling out of a coconut tree? Addiction can make people do funny things. But is addiction itself funny?

 

I laughed pretty much throughout Weiner, the new documentary on Anthony Weiner, a man clearly struggling with some variation of sex addiction that found easy, not-so-private expression through technology that consequently blew up both his private life and political career. “I did some pretty stupid things,” he tells the camera. “But I also did some pretty good things.” You can almost see him wishing—pining—to wrap his hands around some secret clock in the sky and reverse time and make it so that none of this was ever discovered. Not to turn back time so that he never did it, but to reverse, somehow, its discovery.

 

I don’t think I was laughing so much at Anthony as with him, in a way, for his trajectory outlines in the boldest possible strokes the same route that any of us could take with any number of vices if only we felt, somehow, that we could get away with it and never face the consequences. What feels fun and affordable—even cheap—at the time of rampant consumption becomes astronomically expensive at the moment of intervention. The moment of “Did you send these photos?” The moment of “Do you realize you called me eight times last night, sobbing and slurring your words?” The moment of “Ma’am, you can’t sleep here.”

 

While the guy in Colorado was pretty upfront about his smoking (off the charts) and his drinking (cold turkey) he was less candid about perhaps his biggest vice—sex. He scrambled innocuous questions about my day with explicit questions about my body. He demanded photos. He wanted details. He called me panting. He joked that he had been kicked off an online dating site “again”. And for one hot, deeply flawed minute, I took his attention as intense passion, just for me.

 

Then he invited me to his brother’s wedding and I attended, twirling on the dance floor with his father, listening to his mother retell stories of the man’s childhood. And I thought things like “Who am I to judge?” and “Maybe this could go somewhere” and “Nobody’s perfect.” Being a single, childless woman near 40 will easily allow such statements to seep into your mind just as spilled wine seeps into your couch on the night before you know you’re not going back to your South Bronx job tomorrow because you are going to call in “sick”, sick with a sickness of your own making.

 

Two days after the wedding, the man texted me:

 

Him: “Can I still seduce other gorgeous women if we are married?”

 

Me: “No. I’m happy to not be the right person for you and to let you be, but no I don’t want a marriage built on that kind of bedrock. No.”

 

Him: “Makes sense. I’m just still not able to commit because I don’t want to cheat and I am so tempted by so many beautiful women for pleasure. This partially why I have never been married, like we talked about.”

 

Me: “Got it. That’s not good enough for me but I wish you all the best.”

 

Him: “Wow, intense. You don’t fuck around. You have my shoes and I have your keys.”

 

Me: “Okay, let’s find a time this week to deal with all that.”

 

Him: “I love your decisiveness.”

 

Me: “Bye!”

 

But it wasn’t bye. There were still the logistical arrangements of handing off our possessions—something he did not want to do in person. And there was still the fact of his sex addiction, which kept coming up even as we tried to hammer out these logistics:

 

Him: “Thinking about you with other guys is hot, but probably not healthy.”

 

Him: “Dressing sexy for tonight?”

 

Me: “The fact you just sent me those two texts back to back cracks me up so hard. Literally read that. You can’t help yourself, babe!”

 

Him: “I am a sex addict and love seducing women. Mother Nature made a mistake with how I was designed.”

 

Me: “Do you honestly identify as a sex addict?”

 

Him: “Dude, labels are odd but quite possibly.”

 

Me: “Would you be open to answering a couple anonymous questions for a piece I am writing on addiction?”

 

Him: “Now I’m your guinea pig, not sure I’m into that. But I hope you cum so hard Friday that you are like, who was that sex addict guy again?”

 

Me: “Just looking for insight.”

 

Him: “Google it.”

 

Me: “Are you ashamed?”

 

Him: “Nope. But I have big goals and sex is fun but doesn’t feel productive after I cum.”

 

Me: “You mean big professional goals or big sexual goals?”

 

Him: “Professional, social. I’ll drop your stuff off tomorrow.”

 

Me: “Cool, I appreciate it. By the way, do you think your parents and bro will think it was weird that I attended the wedding, or are they used to this kind of thing?”

 

Him: “Who cares.”

 

Me: “Wow.”

 

Him: “I can’t live my life for how they think I should be. Have a fun date!!”

 

A few days later he wrote me again.

 

Him: “Even though it never feels good to have a woman happy with a new guy, hurts a mans ego a bit, but I actually can’t help but respect you based on how you have treated me. Have the best life!!!!”

 

A couple days later I found my response, a photograph of text from Louis de Bernieres’ 2002 introduction to Chekhov’s “The Story of a Nobody”, analyzing the character Orlov:

 

He does have ideals, but he knows that he wouldn’t be able to sustain the inconvenience of pursuing them. He despises all classes of men, but would rather be in his own class than any other. He knows his job is a waste of his life, but he quite enjoys the manner of its wasting. He knows that he is intelligent and talented enough to achieve a great deal, but he happily spends all his spare time reading unsystematically, and playing cards. He knows that he just wants a mistress with whom he can have fun when they are both on top form, and he knows that he couldn’t be bothered with the proper relationship that he is conventionally supposed to want…He seems to have achieved the imperturbable indifference of an eastern monk.

 

Perhaps in sending this text, I indulged one of my own biggest addictions: the pretentious use of academic texts to achieve a dual sense of self-righteous insight while delivering a backhanded insult.

 

The man did not respond.

My Pizza ‘Tis Of Thee

Posted on June 10th, 2016

My father is a pepperoni lover.

Dad grew up in Sandusky, Ohio with one sister and two brothers. He is the son of a tennis player, go-cart racer, and pool shark (my grandma was a badass). He is the son of a German grocer who would take him to Chicago to select beef for his meat counter. He used to deliver groceries in exchange for comic books. He would ride his bike down to the train station and watch the trains come in and leave for points north, south, east and west. These visits turned into a lifelong passion for model trains. He loves being on the water, beer, photography, John Wayne movies, and the practice of medicine. He loves goofing around with the grandkids, taking walks with his partner of over forty years, helping his four sons with whatever they need, and giving lengthy updates about the comings and goings of his weekend. Who did what, where they went, what they ate, what they drank, if they danced or not, and what their plans are for the coming week and month. He is a man of curiosity and intense interest in the fields he chooses to shine his gaze on.

My dad is a pepperoni lover.

Not just any pepperoni. Not the fancy stuff. Or the cheap stuff. The pepperoni he loves is something special. When he utters the words “…and they had really good pepperoni…”, everyone in the family knows what he means. There is no real way to describe it to anyone outside the family. It is a code that sometimes excitedly passes his lips. If he were to say it to just any old so and so on the street, it may be hard to decipher the details he eludes to. You just have to be shown. Taken to the mount. Guided to the edge of the canyon. Lead to the light.

He brought all four of his sons into the church that is Pepperoni Pizza very early on. First in our single digits, we grew to our double number years in those hallowed halls of grease. The ruler of these was and still is Massy’s Pizza.

This great among greats started in 1949 with two brothers (Jim and Dan Massucci) and their pal Romeo, together they owned The Italian Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. They were the first to bring pizza to town. Cooking it on the hearth of their deck ovens, they then cut each pie into rectangular strips and served the slices in brown paper bags to go. The Massucci’s saw how popular the newly introduced food was and opened the first Massey’s soon after. These days, they have nine locations in Ohio and three sports bars in other states. As for the pepperoni, it is still the same and still exclusive to their operation.

My memory of this pizza is a combination of fresh cut grass, the first time I got a concussion, the first time I kissed someone, and watching Saturday morning cartoons. When I try and get back to eating this pizza, it brings with it smells of my dads office chair, the feeling of wind on my face while riding my bike, the first time I saw a horse and thought it was the biggest living thing I would ever see. There is so much wrapped up in this memory. A childhood that remains a magical, half remembered time.

When I was 11, we moved from Ohio to Virginia. Gone was the playground, the sandbox in the backyard, the reservoir, the creek, the woods, the neighbor I had a huge crush on. I even had to give up my pet mouse Houdini.

And Massey’s pepperoni pizza.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

My world had changed so irreversibly that the only option was to lay down and adapt. To go to the ocean and learn how to boogie board was a new experience. Having our grade school mile run on the beach was a strange and wonderful thing. Distracted by hormones and trying to shyly make friends. To come into ones own in a new place, with a new tan and a new swim suit. A new life. So on it went. I went through grade school. Then to high school. Trying to find an identity, a group, a style. Running away from family to find my own. I revolted. I learned to smoke cigarettes. I got into weed, wore a drug rug, and did other goofy things that people who are lost do. Like listen to 90’s music.

Within those clouds of confusion, clear air was visible. I found restaurant work. After a brief stint bussing tables, I got my first pizza job. At my tender, angry age of 17, the door of Doughboys in Virginia Beach opened to me (after applying of course). I was making dough, saucing, cheese-ing, topping, cooking, serving. There was a calling in this work. My god, what a life! Slinging pies to the tourists, smoking cigarettes along the side of the building, talking shit, and generally just being a bunch of intolerable teenagers. So began my love affair with making pizza. It was a job that I looked for throughout my twenties. “Experienced pizza cook”. I made it in Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts. I’ve eaten it in France, Spain, England, Belgium, and Italy. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. I’ve made a lot of pizza. A kind that I thought was pretty good. There was a place on the Cape that I helped open and one of the main concerns was the pepperoni. It had to be the right kind of spicy. The right curl when it cooked. The right amount of grease. We thought we had hit it right on the button. I felt as if I had achieved something in the world of pizza. I made a good pie, with good sauce, good cheese, and good pepperoni. Good pepperoni.

I am a pepperoni lover.

—————————————————————

Fast forward a few years……I had gotten fed up with the job I was working. I had made my way to being a chef. In charge of the food. Training, ordering, sourcing, work work work.  I was tired and it was time for some change. That change came in the form of a road trip. The plan was to go and cook, go see friends, take in the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of this country. Scrimp, save, hatch plans, contact friends, come up with a route.

It’s a wonderful thing to think of, The American Roadtrip. Something that gets us out, changes us, spits us out on the opposite shore. Some may say, a birthright of the American experience. To go to the wilderness and come back with news. Some understanding. Some mysterious knowledge gained. The wonder. The awe. Scope. Scale. Power. Silence. The amber waves of grain. The purple mountains majesty.

The plan was to get in a car alone, travel to various cities, stay with friends, set up my tent, cook with people, see the desert, and learn a little bit about the country that we Americans all call our home. The trip was to last three months. Maybe somewhere out there I would get lost. Perhaps.

So off I went.

I went to New Orleans, shot an AR-15 and sat through a rainstorm. I went to Clarksdale, met the Iceman and saw what a Walmart can do to a town. Bow fishing from a canoe near Dallas. Music in Austin. The desert on the Mexican border. The mountains of Colorado. Snowstorm on the transcontinental divide. Mormons in Salt Lake. Sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Riding passenger on a motorcycle through Phoenix. Joshua Tree. LA. Route 1. The Redwoods. The Olympic Peninsula. Seattle. I had traveled for two and half months and was tired. I got drunk a few times. I cooked a few times. Had visited friends that I cherish from the then to somewhere in the distant future. It was time to go home. It was time to be done with the car. It was time for a sock drawer.

At breakneck pace, the Northwest, Montana, the Dakotas, The Midwest; they all flew past my windscreen. The high desert, the Badlands, amber waves of grain. Driving straight for long distances. Watching storms break on mountain ranges and suspicious stares at gas stations. Alone and trying to get home.  So much of the trip was strange territory. Things never seen before and still unseen now. A language and way of life that was beyond my understanding. Places that draw my curiosity, but no place for my boat to dock for an extended stay. New terrain and strange practices. How’s that go? A stranger in a strange land?

Then things began to feel familiar. Somewhere east of Iowa City. The roads took on a familiar color, a familiar curve. The trees started to resemble something known. Green and lots of it.

——————————————————————————————

The old house has new coat of paint that turns it more modern and less 80’s Tudor. The creek is way smaller than memory tells. The big hill ain’t that steep. The main street is so tiny.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

Pulling into the parking lot, calling the number, placing the order. Waiting 5, 10, 14, then 20 minutes. Should be ready. I step into the heat. Walk across the divide.

First things first.

The smell. Wind, dad’s chair, laying in the grass, horses. Home. Family. Belonging.

This was an experience that was pleasurable and embarrassing. The first feeling of yearning for someone else. Seeing something beautiful and laughing out loud. A knowing. Some sort of reason for all the searching and looking and running.

A memory that matches the reality. A hard fact of being alive. An identity that is impossible to erase.

I had no idea how much I had missed it. How good it was. How good it still is. I understood something that I didn’t know I didn’t get. My brothers were there suddenly. My mom was there. And my dad was there. It was joy. It was confusion and comprehension. It was home. It was Family. It was belonging.

It was Massey’s. It was pepperoni.

Vacation

Posted on June 10th, 2016

 

I asked the owner of the rental house ten questions in my first email, and six  of them were about the kitchen. I had been scrolling through property listings on AirBnB for many hours and, despite panoramic views, hot tubs, cable TVs, and ‘charming touches,’ no house had seemed suitable until this one. “Lakefront,” it said and, “rustic Maine character.” My fingers hovered over the ‘next’ button. “Great room with stone fireplace. Huge screened porch.” I paused, then scrolled further into the description. “Kitchen can handle large meal prep. Sleeps 23.” Hallelujah. It’s hard to plan a vacation with twenty of your closest friends, but Tuesday Night Potluck is doing it again. We’ve added several members, two babies, and one dog since the last time we all spent a week in Maine together. Knowing us, however, the hardest part of this expansion will not be finding a house or coordinating money or even getting along for a week: it will be bringing enough butter.

Tuesday Night Potluck was founded on one guiding tenet: show up. It doesn’t matter what you bring, or how much, or even if you burn the bejeezus out of it, freak out, start over, put in too much salt this time, and then bring it anyways. It doesn’t matter if you skip a week, and then two weeks, and then maybe three months. Each of us has gone through phases where we pulled back, turned in, stayed home for awhile. Some of us have actually left, moved, fallen out of touch, then come back and called and starting showing up again. The reason Potluck works is that it is always there to return to. The dynamics ebb and flow as the individuals within it live their lives, but the community is strong enough to absorb these fluctuations in energy, attention, investment. Potluck lives and breathes its own life, grows through its own changes, and leans into the challenges of a family that is chosen, not born. We show up, and we bring what we have, even when that is only our broken-down selves. Particularly when it is only our broken-down selves.

Like a family, we are very used to eating together, but unlike a family, we do not often plan or cook entire meals together. In the normal course of things, we simply bring whatever we have in the fridge or whatever new recipe we’ve been thinking about trying. One week I might make an elaborate stew, the next bring a big bag of chips and a jar of salsa, the next – exhausted and late – rummage through my pantry, come out with a jar of pickles and a weird box of seeded crackers I bought on a whim last month, and hustle out the door. Sometimes everyone has made soup and we have to do courses, each person circling back with their empty bowl to refill, while other times I’ve brought weird seeded crackers and someone else has brought just a block of cheese. We don’t even blink at these kismet moments anymore.

On our first vacation together, we realized that our normal system wouldn’t work. On the simplest of levels, none of us would be coming from anywhere else, so the very premise of a potluck fell apart. In practical consideration, a dozen people all trying to prepare disparate dishes in one kitchen, one modest kitchen, at the same time seemed like the fastest way to strain our relationships. So we divvied up the nights and in couples or trios took turns cooking dinner for everyone. Partners planned their meals ahead, brought ingredients in bulk, and headed to the kitchen on the afternoon of their assigned day.

It was a new experience from both sides of the stove. As cooks, we were unused to preparing in such quantity or with particular attention to the restrictions or tastes of every person. Part of the beauty of potlucks is that not everyone eats every dish, and no one dish has to feed all. As diners, we were used to contributing. People kept trying to edge in and help, even when it wasn’t their day, and conversation on the deck where we sat sipping pre-dinner cocktails revolved around how simultaneously luxurious and uncomfortable it felt to lounge while our friends scrubbed, chopped, and sauteed so close by. In the end, we had some spectacular meals, made all more special by the fact that we all ate the same thing, sat around the same big table, and helped clean up while the evening’s chefs relaxed by the fire.

This year, with our expanded community and expanded rental kitchen, we’ve decided to go one step further and assign cooking partners outside of our regular households. No one will be planning, shopping, or prepping with someone they are used to cooking with. Just as we have embraced eating in community, this year we will cook in community. It is a tangible symbol of the ways that Potluck is committed to creating an intimacy that transcends romantic relationships or the nuclear family. Those things which are typically reserved for behind closed doors or after guests have left are embraced as a part of what it means to really know and love another person. We listen to each other’s mean-spirited gripes, we know where the measuring spoons live in each other’s drawers, and yes, we’d even come over and clean the bathroom if you needed us to. When we bring those things in instead of pushing them to the corners of life, the pressure to be prepared, to be presentable, is relieved.

On vacation, we become both hosts and guests, and we change the way we interact with each other by changing our environment. We love our everyday community where no one person bears the burden of providing or receiving, but vacation allows us to experiment, to try on different roles. Planning and preparing a well-rounded meal that will make everyone happy is a stressful project, but it is also the fullest expression of the smaller generosities we practice every week. If it goes horribly wrong, the fault is all yours; but if it is a glorious meal with much happy groaning and many second helpings, the satisfaction is also multiplied. In our everyday lives, the risks and stresses of hosting everyone are unsustainable, but in the expanded week-long potluck vacation, we can go all in, if only to remind ourselves why it is we share the burden the rest of the year. The extremes of life are important in their balance, even when that balance is seven kinds of soup.

A Pie, We Suppose

Posted on June 10th, 2016

So consider this, please: a pie. I am holding it. It probably isn’t steaming but I’d like you to imagine that it is. I’m standing on a concrete stoop, or let’s call it a cement step because it doesn’t really have any of the dignity of a stoop which is something you should be able to sit on and look out at the world, and if you sat on this step you’d be straining your knees horribly and staring out at the broken window and the peeling paint across the street. It isn’t a nice neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of neighborhood where the person I’m visiting ought to live.

 

And he does—at least I remembered that correctly. I find that a lot of the things I told myself it’s important not to forget have faded: the way the light plays under the oak tree that looks too healthy to be here, the devious slant of the driveway that makes pulling out into the street a hazard for at least three months a year, even the way the antique glass ripples almost attractively in the upstairs windows that aren’t broken and look like they might hide either an attic or a cramped though civilized second floor. I wonder whether he sleeps up there, whichever it is, and I’m surprised to realize that I can’t remember, that I couldn’t even hold on to an intimate detail like that. I suppose it has been a while. Anyway I’m not exactly sure what the date is, because the art I’m practicing these days is that art of approximation. It is not an exact science no matter what the scientists try to tell you; it calls for a certain amount of finesse, and there’s plenty that can go wrong even if you follow all the rules completely. It’s a lot like gardening in that respect, or love. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like baking, too, and that makes me smirk even though I know it isn’t exactly an appropriate moment for smirking.

 

But I’m rambling. There’s me on the stoop. Doorstep. There’s a pie in my left hand, which is still a little weak from the accident, or maybe just from advanced old age—I can’t really tell now that I’m no longer exactly in my prime. By some ways of reckoning, I’m well past my vespers, but the aches and pains are worth it for this withered face, the perfect disguise. And, of course, for the peculiar skill that old age seems to have brought me. I’m better at everything than I used to be. I’m a culinary wizard now, and everything I touch turns to ambrosia and nectar. I could open a restaurant now and make it big as one of those celebrity chefs, if that is still a thing, and retire in a year or two, only I’m well past the age of retirement anyway and I doubt anyone would want to put my face on the television, or whatever they call it now, and anyway I have better things to do with my time, or whoever’s time this is, whatever “this” even means, which I can say with confidence no one really knows because I’m better at other things as well, things I always had a knack for but never truly loved like numbers and truths and the laws of the universe.

 

I’m rambling again. Or did I already say that?

 

Pie on my left arm, the weak arm, pie like a spry young suitor. Right hand reaching up toward the doorbell, which I also can’t quite remember, which makes me worry one last time that maybe I have the wrong house.

 

I ring. I don’t.

 

*****

 

Here’s another tableau for you: it’s my body on a gurney or a stretcher or whatever it’s called, wheeling down the hall of the larger of three hospitals in a city whose name you probably don’t remember either, quite possibly because you’ve never heard of it. He—yes, the same he who may or may not sleep up there behind the rippling antique glass, if you’re still with me on the doorstep—he, I want to make sure you know, had nothing to do with the accident. Nothing at all. How could he? He was far away by then, or I was. He was what I was running from, and I was good at that too. Not even in the same state. Out of touch. I doubt he even had my number anymore, because I’d changed it twice so he wouldn’t.

 

Back then I’d been a baker, at least for a while. Call it a change after my studies. I wasn’t great at it but I wasn’t bad either. I could make a perfect crust nine times out of ten, and the tenth probably lived up to everyone’s standards but my own. Typical me.

 

The nice thing about that little town—no, not the small city, we’ll get there, but the little town where this whole damn chronicle really begins, the one I was born in, the one I was standing in just now with my finger on a doorbell—the nice thing was that it had everything in the world that I really loved. My mother, until she died from a complaint too ordinary to mention. My friends, until they sloughed away one by one and forgot about Darby’s Dimestore and the Lurking Stone and playing Captain Jack in the field behind the middle school. A few streets that really felt like real streets and not just like strips of asphalt with houses on either side. And peaches that hung on their trees like orange stars in summer, and a low rambling stream that unapologetically powered what must have been one of the continent’s last waterwheel wheat mills, from which the smell of flour drifted like impossibly quiet music for the better part of every afternoon.

 

So maybe it was fate. Place is fate—isn’t that what one of the ancients said? My place decided long before I did that I was to be a baker, and so I came back when the others had left, and I won a red ribbon or two but mostly I rose before the sun and learned to sing the quiet music of stone fruits and pastry flour, butter and salt, water and ice and fire and time. It was everything I loved and everything I needed, until he leaned over the counter one day, a stranger from someplace that mattered more, and asked me questions, and told me he’d stay if I wanted him to. It was nice at first. I think he was running from something. It would have been just like him: the surrogate drama, the utter lack of any fresh notion. Only I never found out, not even when we’d married for a year or two. I ran instead.

 

After that, I lay awake at night in the city and told myself that everything I loved was back there in that town because it was the simplest way to dodge the sort of question that could make me lose an hour or a day here and there. I wasn’t ready to sift through my memories like that. I even hated the metaphor, which seemed to reach back and taint every pure black solitary morning I’d begun with a fall of flour like snow on my dark marble counters deep in the basement of someone else’s shop. If those were my memories, tumbling from their clumps, each one too small to imagine as anything more substantive than a mote of air, then somewhere amid all that indiscernible substance there lurked the rotten seeds of thoughts too dark to have twice, even though the feeling of them never left me, not even when I lay awake at night in the city and tried to think of anything other than the things he did, the sounds and the dull sensations, the locked doors and the sting of antiseptics, the cold tile floor and finally, always, his tears—never mine—which I almost never stopped believing.

 

A bottle of hydrogen peroxide will kill almost anything it touches, though it’s really nothing more than the marriage of water and air. On the other hand, they say alcohol is poison, but isn’t it an excess of chemical pageantry, the very stuff of life itself, that turns ripe grain to strong drink?

 

A sprinkle of vodka will turn a good piecrust into a great one. A sprinkle of hydrogen peroxide will kill a million bacteria and the flesh around them. I know which I prefer. Still I wonder how many times the killer saved me. Or did we use rubbing alcohol back there in the old house? My memory is blurry. I suppose I’m old now, or then. Am I still there while I’m here? I’m standing on a doorstep and ringing a bell, my white hair loose in the wind like a portrait of madness. I’m twenty-three, crouched on the bathroom floor and hoping the door never opens.

 

I’m not sure I understand the difference.

 

What was I trying to tell you? Oh—the accident. He had nothing to do with it. I slipped into the coma because I crashed the car. I crashed the car because I took the pills. I took the pills because I lay awake at night. I lay awake at night because I couldn’t not remember. I couldn’t not remember because it all really happened. It all really happened because he really did it to me. He really did it to me because he was a monster dressed as a man. A man who had nothing to do with my accident. Because it happened months after I left him. Because it happened in a city in the next state over. Because I’d changed my number twice and he couldn’t find me even if he wanted to.

 

This is the house that Jack built, but Jack didn’t build the house. Dame get up and bake your pies, bake your pies, dame didn’t. The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realize that it doesn’t.

 

*****

 

I’m standing on a doorstep ringing a bell. Suddenly it occurs to me that I might be inside. I consider panicking, but what’s the use? I probably wouldn’t even recognize myself, and anyway I think I’ve aimed fairly well, and this should be a year or so after I left. Which should mean I’ve already smashed my Corolla, which should mean that I’m lying in a hospital bed somewhere in the next state over, friendless and anonymous after changing my phone number twice.

 

A few seconds pass. It’s just enough time for me to realize that this is the closest I’ve ever come to myself, at least in this year which I missed entirely the first time around. It’s just enough time for me to have one really incisive thought, which is that I missed the peach harvest this year. Every year they’re a little bit different and that year—this year—I forever lost my chance to bite into even one, let alone to slice up a bushel and watch them slowly turn golden in an oven like the sun itself.

 

Only I haven’t really missed the chance, because I am here, after all. Forever changes, and sometimes now comes around again. For a moment I consider running away from the doorstep, finding the nearest orchard, and filling myself with the warm juice of summer peaches until I’m happy enough to die quietly, which is something I’ll likely have to do sometime in the next few years anyway.

 

But then I imagine the embarrassing scene when the policeman arrives—I wonder if I remember his name?—to ask the mad old stranger in the orchard to move along because it’s private property, after all, and is there someone we can call to take you home? And what would I tell him—no, officer, there’s no one you can call, I’m not a vagrant, I have nothing in this world or any, once I was a baker, now I’m a—

 

The door opens. He’s there. He’s still him. What does that make me? Now I really want to run but his look says nothing at all. I’m a mad old stranger with a pie in one hand, a neighbor who’s made too much of a good thing and feels an urge to pass it around to those who’d rather go without.

 

No, officer, I was just passing through. Just a humble baker passing the time. Just a traveler come back through the years to offer you a little taste of the future.

 

“Hello,” I say, wondering if I remember how to smile. “I’ve brought you something.”

 

*****

 

The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realized that it doesn’t.

 

Or maybe they’d known that much all along. I still don’t exactly understand all the science, but some weeks before I took the big leap I began to realize that no one did. It was just too much for any one of our minds to handle. A lot of us played little parts, a lot of people whom previous ages might have called geniuses. There were no geniuses any more. We all felt too small for that sort of thing.

 

The breakthrough came not long before I woke up. Or maybe I was the breakthrough. Honestly I’m not sure how much they worked out while I was sleeping and how much I worked out on my own in my strange days of bed rest and correspondence, slowly adjusting to my ancient face in the mirror, asking the people who came to see me what year it was exactly, and realizing I was cleverer than I’d ever been.

 

No one should have come to see me. I’d slept for seventy years, the doctors said, and there wasn’t a soul still living who knew me from a fish in the sea. So I stayed a while and I read. A lot, it seemed, had changed. The climate had gotten hotter and then gone cold again, which puzzled everyone. A shy screenwriter had brought Europe back together after the revolutions. Central Africa was quietly industrious and hadn’t admitted tourists since the Forties. The great whales had returned but they didn’t seem to trust us anymore. And last year’s Global Physics Consortium in Gaborone had collectively stumbled upon most of the secrets of time travel.

 

I read the article three times before I suspected it wasn’t a dumb joke. The hospital staff exchanged looks I didn’t appreciate when I asked for access to the actual conference papers, but it turns out there isn’t much a team of nurses isn’t willing to do for a patient who wakes up compos mentis after seventy years in an apparent vegetative state. The math was hard—I’ll admit that much. But the longer I looked, the more sense it made. Then my mind started seeing the cracks in the wall and working out how to fill in some and pry others wide enough to step through. I started writing letters. It was hard at first. My credentials were a Masters in physics, seventy years in a coma, and two years of pie-making. I didn’t expect any answers, but something about my terse prose style and my clean equations “attracted some attention,” as the committee chair put it when she paid a visit to my hospital bed.

 

We had the whole thing worked out less than a year later, which came as a relief to me, a fading nonagenarian who had done little in life and expected to do far less. Our theory rested on two principles: first, that everything goes round and round and nothing ever changes, and second, that the world is in a constant state of flux and yet entirely stationary.

 

Wheels within wheels. Loops bisected, spheres pinched together along finite boundaries, entropy applied to an ordered system to soften an invisible and ultimately unknowable interior. At night I dreamed of pies in ovens, whole universes cooking to perfection while eternally both fresh as spring leaves and also boiling away into oblivion. I thought about the old days of watching the stars fall all along my black marble countertop and couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d somehow understood this all along. They were a part of me, these secrets. If I’d never met him—if he’d never touched me—if I’d put half my fear of him into the old wonder I used to feel on winter nights when the town lights went black—if I hadn’t lost seventy years to sleep—

 

Impossible questions to answer. I tried not to lose more time. Somehow they decided I could be the first through. O pioneers. It was quite possibly a one-way trip so I wondered how much of an honor that really was. The device itself was relatively simple and would take a month or so to construct. After that, I was free to hurl myself into any abyss I pleased, provided that I could learn to walk again.

 

It took time. The hospital corridors were long and the food was bad. I found myself weeping one night over a cup of some orange gel the nurse called peaches. I would get away. I would. I went from shuffling to dragging my feet to lifting them, and before long I was the fury of the ward, the mad sage with the white hair who, they whispered, would be going away soon.

 

A week before the test run I saw his chart, carelessly left outside his room. He was old—older than I was. Had he followed me here? No—that was seventy years ago. More likely he’d forgotten me, found others, done to them what he did to me, moved on again and again. Life tossed him up here, in a city you haven’t heard of. Cancer had eaten him from the inside out. I tried to look in but the room was dark and I didn’t want to see a face I wouldn’t know. I didn’t want to think that whatever he used to be had somehow escaped, had duped some withered carcass into stepping in while he stayed twenty-nine and evil in the heart of some eternal summer.

 

I glared into the darkness. I thought of our equations, our beautiful machine, and I realized that that is exactly what he had done—that somewhere in the never-quite-departed spheres of the past world, he lurked and laughed and loved and killed, and stayed forever ripe as summer fruit. So did we all, maybe, but I couldn’t let him. I wouldn’t.

 

The next day he died. The day after that, the morgue lost track of his body. A week later the time machine was ready, and I stepped through into the warm orchard I’d never really left, an unsought gift on my weak left arm like an old lover.

 

*****

 

I want to see fear behind his eyes but I don’t know what that would look like. I see him as though it’s for the first time, or as I should have seen him the first time: a cold schemer, a brutal slave to all the wrong impulses. There are words for people like him but I haven’t had much time to think about them. I remembered his smile when he leaned across the counter of the bakery for the first time as though that wall was his to breach, a stale smile like stubborn dough that won’t rise.

 

Back then I mistook his face for something charming, charmed, a little wry. Now I realize what it really is: antiseptic. The smile that killed off all my worries away for just a little while, then started in on me.

 

Now is the time when I say something, isn’t it? I realize that I haven’t really rehearsed this part. I’ve been busy. Sleeping through my middle age, learning to walk all over again, honing the details of time theory and, of course, baking pies. What do you say to the man who stole your life?

 

“Hello,” I say, and I flash him a smile that I hope is as lifeless as his, that I hope will wash over him and burn like hydrogen peroxide, though I know he won’t feel it because he’s already dead—he was always already dead, even when he killed me—“I’ve brought you something.”

 

I already told you that, didn’t I. This is what it means to be old, I think, the gears of the mind spinning freely. Or maybe the big leap through the decades has left me a little unglued. Our travel theory strongly suggests that jumps of a century or so should have no harmful effect on the human body, but we were far less certain about the human mind.

 

I know that’s why they chose me to go. No one had to say it. Nothing would have kept me from accepting.

 

He’s looking at me with a hint of puzzlement and for a moment I worry that he might recognize me from the color of my eyes or the slant of my nose. In fact it’s the opposite: he’s wondering who I am. “New to the neighborhood,” I say, and I don’t give him the chance to correct me: “I mean, I am.”

 

He says something conventional and too welcoming, as though he wants to sell me a car, and now I remember what it used to feel like always to be talked into or out of everything, never to feel in control even of the passing time. I’m suddenly very, very tired. I don’t feel like wasting this second chance and I know he’s not used to people who don’t listen. “I bought the old house down the other end of the road,” I say, and the details come back to me vividly even though it’s a mile or more from here. “The one with the old green shutters. A real fixer-upper, they said,” and I hope I’m right because for all I know it’s not even for sale at this particular point in history, maybe a family of four lives there, in which case maybe he’d take me for a dotty grandparent with a penchant for baking, “but I still feel up to the task, I mean, what’s a little home repair even at my age, the wiring’s good in spite of everything else, and what really drew me there,” and I realize I’m rambling again but that’s all right because I’ve remembered something, the old house down the other end of the road, the great stretch of yard behind it, the wild, untended orchard where peaches as big as globes and as warm as the core of the sun hung from stout branches that even in the worst of storms swayed as though there really was something so enduring in this world that nothing could break it, “what really drew me there was the old orchard,” and as I say these words I know my task is over.

 

He asks if it’s peaches, still good at feigning interest in anything, and he nods toward the pie in my hand, ready to demand what he doesn’t even want.

 

I glance at the upper crust, afraid for a moment that he’ll recognize some telltale way I always had of pinching it together, or cutting slits that waver like trees through the dough, but of course he would never notice anything like that, or the first crocuses in April, or the eye of a frightened sparrow.

 

“Something like that,” I say. “Actually more of a breakfast sort of thing. Old family recipe. All right for supper too. A pretty hearty meal any way you take it,” and I smile. I give it to him and I turn and I walk away from that stoop or doorstep and I know now that he was never really the reason I wanted to come back here, not even for the thrill of impossible payback.

 

There’s somewhere I have to go.

 

*****

 

The week before the test run, the week before we powered up the squat steel box that we didn’t dare call a time machine? I spent it as anyone else might. I practiced my walking. I brushed my hair. I stayed up late into the night worrying about whether I’d be torn apart like a bird flung into a wormhole. I baked my first pie in seven decades, blueberry with a sort of meringue, an homage to the future. It was perfect; the long sleep had honed more than my math skills. I gathered strawberries, apples, fresh lemons, white wheat and barley. I contemplated the immortality of the human soul. I learned from an archive that peaches had been wiped out by blight almost thirty years ago. I sharpened knives, borrowed a bone saw when no one was looking, shut off the security cameras in the hospital ward for the better part of a night so I could dismember the stolen corpse of a man I used to know, grind the bones to flour, chop the muscles into passable cuts of meat, and throw the rest into the biohazard incinerator without having to explain myself to anyone. I read some of a book, just to see how novels had changed. I went out into the fresh air to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it, that the air really was cleaner than it was in my youth, that somehow the world had gotten better rather than worse, that we’d staved off the worst of the great crisis and learned to be something other than poison. I played with a dog. I learned how coffee had changed.

 

I baked one last pie.

 

*****

 

The world goes on turning until it doesn’t. I walk down the street I used to know, the street I know again now that I’m finally ready to forget it, and when I know I’m out of his sight I start running. I haven’t run in seventy years and I feel like my bones might break apart like the scattered shell of an old star ready to make new worlds.

 

I’m running toward the old orchard, which I tell myself I haven’t thought about since I went to sleep but then I realize it’s been longer than that. Everything I’d ever really loved was—is—right here, in this town, which is the shell I should have carried on my back all these years but didn’t because the fear was always too strong and too loud. The orchard, half wild with thistles and coarse grasses, was a world, my world. It had always seemed a little older than time itself and I hadn’t thought of it, really thought of it, since the day I met him. I’d traded my world for the one they always told me might be better, and the time since I’d crawled through those dark tunnels of weeds and crept up against a tree trunk and slithered up it like a quiet snake to grab sweet peaches by the fistful felt like more than centuries. I’d lost it, or he’d taken it, or it had passed me by—one or the other, or all of the above, or I didn’t care because there it was, the old house, still empty because no one, maybe, would want to live there ever again, they will say it’s haunted and it will be, soon, but not so soon that I don’t have time to summon one more thought just so I can cast it away: the thought of him, alone in his own evil home, prodding at the crust with a knife and thinking that a mincemeat pie isn’t something you come across very often outside of novels, and maybe he’ll try a slice but more likely he won’t and that is even better: the thought of him carelessly tossing the whole thing into the garbage can without pausing even for a second to think of what sort of animal gave its life to end up in that glass dish. He wouldn’t even save the glass dish, and later that week a small truck would come by the curb to carry the desecrated remnants of his future corpse to lie in the town dump where growing things would feast on them and rise again from the lifeless ruin he tried to sow in earth that was never his and never will be.

 

It’s the last time I ever think of him. I can see the orchard now, just around the corner. A different sun shines here, and I feel for a moment as though I’m pressing my face against the universe.

 

There’s no way back. That’s also why they chose me—why they let me go. The only way they’d know I’d gone anywhere is that I wouldn’t be in the box anymore when they opened it. Our primitive sort of time travel is a one-way street. I’m okay with that. I think I always have been.

 

We must start somewhere.

 

I have pinched together the two sides of my life and left them joined forever. There is no top or bottom to the universe. That was our great breakthrough, the one that made this all possible: time does not resemble an arrow or a spiral or even a sphere. It’s more like a pie, we suppose, a constant opposition of past and future separated by some infinitely enticing present and yet joined around the edges so subtly that if it’s done just right, you can’t tell where the top ends and the bottom begins. A world that doesn’t need to turn. A world that is the turning.

 

The peaches hang like ripe stars ready to scatter. I stumble through the grasses and I reach for one. It’s already inside me, it’s already sprung from the ground I’ll lie in after this last shimmer of blinding pain passes through my used-up body and leaves it quiet. Both of my arms are weak now. The grasses are tall enough to cover me if I kneel, and all around me the bright spheres grow slowly dim as all stars will.