1. When I was eighteen, the most boring professor in the world taught me American history. She was a scholar, yes, laden with more degrees than the earth has tectonic plates, but an inspiring teacher, that she was not. At the designated hour every day, she entered our classroom, sheathed in yet another handwoven sari, in colors as vibrant as fire and cinnamon. She glanced around the room giving us all the benefit of her gaze, and I suspect, the time to admire her exquisite taste in wardrobe and hand-forged silver jewelry. She set down her purse, seated herself and took attendance. And then she opened her notebook and began to read. For fifty minutes, thrice a week, our classroom saturated with the sing-song quality of her voice, interspersed with the furious scratching from pens that truly cared and those that only pretended. Our hands got a reprieve when one of the front benchers asked her a question. But the moment she delivered the answer, she returned to her notebook—drawn by some umbilical attachment that only she understood—and the space between our ears plugged up again with the droning static of her voice. I glanced at my watch, at the clock above her head, at the pages of my own notebook, where lived the newest doodle of her face with a foghorn for a mouth. The window next to my seat shimmered the pristine lawn outside and whispered enticing words such as “freedom” and “independence,” and I vowed, for the millionth time, to never become a college professor.(More …)
The immediate family members were invited into the small, doorless room, covered floor-to-ceiling in bright blue tiles. The only decoration was a high, small alcove displaying a crucifix and a simple bouquet. This was not how I expected to see my brother, lying on a platform covered up to his chest in a white sheet, wearing a dark blue suit. His arms were straight by his side and his hands looked dark and unnaturally big. Makeup disguised his yellowed skin, and he was clean-shaven. He was still wearing his glasses, and his eyes were shut in peaceful repose. His face had been gaunt in the photos my uncle took in the hospital the previous week, and my husband had commented on how handsome Ted looked with more chiseled features. But today his cheeks were plumped up again, and I wondered if that was the embalmer’s craft, trying to make the deceased look as much as possible like his portrait, like the stocky, muscular man everyone remembered.
Friday, 2 p.m.
“His spinal cord’s severed,” the voice on the phone says. “They helicoptered him to Emergency in Birmingham.”
My legs crumple, and I land on my butt. I’m in Panera Bread, behind the order counter, on their phone. Moments ago, I joined my writing group for our weekly meeting, and Jamie handed me a phone number. The hospital called the restaurant, seeking me. Gary’s been in a car accident, Jamie said. She and the two other members of my group sit in a booth ten feet away, oblivious to the words I’m hearing. (More …)
In Anchorage, the director of 49 Writers lent me a hat she’d gotten in Nome. It would keep me warm as I traveled farther north. Sealskin on the outside plus a beaver-pelt lining meant hardly any cold got in. Ropes of stiff yarn ending in fur pom-poms brought the earflaps nearly to my chin. When we finally do get to the AC, an Iñupiaq woman selling colorful handmade parkas (at six hundred dollars, I won’t buy one, though I will be sorely tempted) will ask to look at the hat. Upon inspecting its craftsmanship, she will compliment the maker. I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me. Wearing the right hat for Barrow helps me feel less out of place. (More …)
I follow my fifth-grade classmates, single file, down several flights of narrow, wooden stairs into a dimly lit room, yellowed with age. As we crowd together, waiting for our eyes to adjust, no one speaks, but everyone is searching. And then we see it: On a small table, beneath thick protective glass, lies Jefferson Davis’ death mask.
Our teacher, Mrs. Griswold, tells us in hurried whispers to, “Line up. Pay your respects.” We take our time, merging together, until we are single file, our eyes focused on the mask. The weighted heaviness of his features is horrifying and fascinating: The large peanut-shaped nostrils and high bridge of his nose, the hollow cheeks, and long thin lips turned down at the corners. Pennies cover the eyeholes. I stare and stare at this mask until the features blur. And then right before my eyes, the beloved Confederate President transforms into the Union President. It is an optical illusion, created by the pennies. The mask now belongs to Abraham Lincoln: same nose, same cheeks, same mouth. Completely different person. It is Lincoln’s final victory over Davis. Now you see him, now you don’t.(More …)
On the edge of a flowerbed in the University of Nebraska’s Yeutter Garden, a man in a chartreuse vest studies a map, flips through a three-ring binder containing photographs of plants, glances at the map again. Then he pulls from a rack what looks like a weirdly proportioned golf club or dental mirror. He drives the sharp end of the club into the ground on the outer edge of a clump of cranberry-pink blooms past their prime. When he steps back, I see that the plaque atop the stake bears names: “Heartleaf-Bergenia/Bergenia cordifolia.” I consider these words. Because the edges of the large, leathery leaves are rolled in, I can’t see if they’re heart-shaped. Bergenia. Probably the name of a botanist who studied this plant. Is that with a hard or soft g? If it’s the former, I’ll see reddish stems as assertively lifting the wilted blossoms above the leaves. But if it’s the latter, I’ll see the stems as gently supporting the blossoms. If I hadn’t known the name of this plant, I might have just glanced at the flowers and moved on, without noticing the leaves or stalks, without searching for the right name for the color of the petals, without considering the connections between the name and the named. (More …)
I. The Church
Uncle Dondey has died. For real this time.
We had grieved in advance of his passing thanks to my highly excitable aunt, or rather, one of my highly excitable aunts (a certain level of hysteria thrums in the veins of this generation of women in our family). My aunts, Magdalena and Rosalva, and my mother Dolores are three of Dondey’s five sisters. They live within shrieking distance of each other—two and a half miles at the most—though they do use the telephone to share and sigh over life’s latest woes and to leap frantically to conclusions.
When Dondey, suffering from emphysema and a medley of collateral ailments, asked for a priest, Magdalena assumed the worst and soon the family, spread across dozens of area codes and multiple time zones, wept at the dreaded news. It turned out though that it was confession he wanted—only that. Not last rites. Not yet. (More …)
To find a star garnet:
First, drive to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Alternatively, go to India.
You will need to bring a shovel, a bucket, heavy plastic bags, and an eighteen-inch square made of two-by-fours with a quarter-inch screen stretched over one open side.
Take a child, too. A ten-year-old is best. A seven-year-old may get bored and start throwing rocks. (More …)
Today, I am not in a hurry.
There is no race. No deadline. No urgent press that compels me forward. No one is waiting. No one depends upon news I might bring.
There is just this road in front of me. Two lanes, one leading north and one leading south. They head down a prairie hill and then over a rise. Fields on both sides. There are clouds on the horizon, but here, at the intersection of I-94 and US Highway 83 in eastern North Dakota, at the Cenex gas station where I’ve stopped to buy gas and coffee, the morning is bright and warm. (More …)
The chickens hang in a row, a hook through each left leg, some legs with scaly yellow feet still attached, some ending at the drumstick. Some of the attached feet are only semi-attached, cut through the joint so that they dangle, fatty soles waving. Some chickens, split open along the belly, expose the ovaries’ bright sacs of yolks, the nascent eggs inside the birds waiting for whites and shells. Others remain mostly whole, bumpy skin buttery; fatty tails over cave-like holes leading to hollow bellies. Beneath these curtains of chickens, white tile counters covered in steel trays with more chickens and parts of chickens. Behind the chickens, women in aprons, selling chickens, their booths festooned with fuzzy green garland lingering from Christmas. One woman points to the orange cluster of yolks, tells me, “Pollo bonito. Con huevos.” I understand this. I can say “pollo.” But I can’t say much else. The words, las palabras, nestled and slippery in my brain.(More …)
“I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.”
I rarely see any African Americans swimming in my gym pool in Knoxville, Tennessee. I always imagine that other members of the gym are amazed to see me doing laps. Most of them probably believe that black people can’t swim and I’m just a cultural anomaly. I say this because just recently I caught another article in the news about the high number of African Americans who acknowledge not being able to swim—a number much higher than other racial groups on national average. My gut twisted when I read it in that way that most people experience when they realize they have risen above a statistic but know that this does not make the statistic incorrect. I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.(More …)
The secret to chicken soup is to start with a chicken—a whole one, three to four pounds. Chicken soup is a pot of deliberate attention, a thing that contains everything that you and the chicken have to give, so if you have a heavy Dutch oven, maybe a vintage Le Creuset you found at the thrift store that is the color of faded sunshine and that you have named Estelle for no good reason other than the pot needed a name, use it.(More …)
Sometimes the rending apart of parent and child is abrupt, sometimes gradual.
Always, it is painful.
In my family, it happens with dogged, painful insistence at age thirteen. Thirteen is the beginning of the end. It was the last year I spent with my father. It is the age my son is now.
What is it about thirteen, I wonder. I study him. (More …)
In the autumn of 1973, I had a stack of poetry books checked out from the library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I would complete a BA in English the following summer. The stack of books (all of them those familiar slender volumes) was about seven times the height of the meager pile of poetry books I actually owned. This pained me. I was enamored, enraptured, and swept away by poetry. (More …)
Since moving to a city, I have had a thing for the full moon. How it waits behind buildings like a spy. I learn the espionage of streetlights, headlights, the tease of stark beacons on planes. I mess with my camera and patrol the dark like a captain of capturing what’s splendid. Full moon photos from the high rise. From beneath the bike path’s leafy oaks. Caught between phone lines. (More …)
Just outside the dwarfed door to the racquetball court he asks me, “Do you have protective eye gear?”
Adam, chesty and Bavarian in build, a colleague at the small university where we both teach, keeps his hair buzzed short and clean, and is in top physical shape. He sets down his bag designed specifically for the game: (More …)