First Snow

First snow today.  Or so I am told.  Facebook friends told me, either by way of whining post or exalting post.  The mobile Weather Channel told me, with a background like cotton balls falling behind a pane of glass.  It still looked like sleet to me, but we ran out just in case.

Ruby wasn’t sure why I had pulled her into the cold and wet; she turned in circles upon the grass before stopping to cock her head at me.

I looked to the arms of my jacket, now spotted with dark beads.  Each one shone and hung heavily for a moment before disappearing against the fabric, as if I were stuck all over with melting candy buttons.

The grass and the trees were merely dripping; no dusting of white betrayed snow.  Even the roof, surely cold enough to hold flakes, was merely a soggy brown.

We went inside, Ruby running ahead so that she could turn in the living room to look back at me wryly.  Is all the fuss over, then?  She asked, before moving to make sure her stuffed skunk was just where she had left it.

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In Which I Call for Help and am Answered by Tim

I am happy to report that the saga has ended.  My truck has been pulled free of its icy prison, and is currently resting happily, if tiredly, in the back alley driveway.

Really, the only unfortunate part of this ending is that I didn’t procure it myself.

Yes, friends, I caved and called AAA.

But only after another afternoon of scraping, gas pedal tapping, and boiling pot after pot of water to pour on the stubborn ice.  My housemate, Jordan, came out to help after a time, which was cause for additional optimism: Jordan recently bought (and maintains) a motorcycle.  Jordan recently started a business consisting of himself and a friend performing oil changes for college students who can’t afford to go to the local shop (or, heaven forbid, the dealer).  Jordan had some ideas.  He went to the garage and returned with several small planks of wood and a dirty towel.  The idea was that the planks would give the truck some leverage, and that the towel could fill in the watery tire grooves for added support.  It was a valiant effort, but after watching the planks shot forty feet from the truck by the force of spinning tires (I got out of the way, or else I would undoubtably be typing with my right leg missing below the knee), we decided that a tug was the only hope.

The AAA man was nice on the phone.  “I’ll send my son out,” he told me gently, “he’s going to delay his meal and head out there.”

“Oh, he shouldn’t do that!” I exclaimed, horrified at the prospect of the son, stomach growling, turning away his dinner in favor of helping an automobile-impaired college student who had managed to get her truck lodged in front of her own house.

The man insisted, though, and within a half hour, his son Tim was hooking a tow chain to the back of my truck.  One good yank and then a push from Tim, his right shoulder braced in my front wheel bed, and I was free.

I thanked Tim, drove a victory lap around town, and then went to the grocery store for a celebratory (and much-needed) shop.

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Ice

My dear truck is currently stuck on the ice in front of my house.  We had a winter storm over the weekend consisting of the star combination that is sleet and snow, and when I crept out yesterday morning seeking a ride to campus, I realized that the tires were frozen to the street with a thick coating of ice.

Fine, fine, I can walk to campus today, I said to myself.  I’d be worried about driving when the roads are so slick anyway.

This morning, however, I walked from the house with more resolve.  I had purposely gotten up early and forgone shower and morning BBC reading in order to free my truck from its glassy chains.

First, I tried simply chipping away at the tires with shovel, foot, and window scraper.  I got most of it off, but when I tried to drive forward, I could feel the tires spinning on the ice beneath them.

Not discouraged, I went back in the house for the bag of salt we keep by the front door,  I poured it on the ice in front of each tire, then tried to drive again.  Still nothing.  The truck, I realized, is not only stuck on the ice, but the ice beneath it had frozen into grooves in which each tire is nestled.

So, I called my Dad.  He directed me to the four sandbags in the bed of the truck.  I thought they were there simply to add weight to the bed to prevent fishtailing on slippery winter roads, but actually, they’re partially for traction-requiring times like these.  Use your keys to rip open one of the bags, Dad said.  Then spread it under each tire, let off the brakes, and let the car roll on its own.  The key trick worked perfectly, not to mention made me feel pretty darn handy.  But then there was the issue of breaking up the frozen sand, and scooping it out with the cumbersome shovel, and managing not to spill any while climbing down from the bed.  And I had to go to work.

So I abandoned the project and walked the treacherous sidewalks all the way to campus.

Tomorrow, however, I’ll be back with reinforcements.

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The Tempest

I am currently sitting on the third floor of the library.  I am smug because I managed to snag one of the comfy chairs.  I am full because I just polished off my lunch of orange and homemade chicken soup.  I am focused because I’m reading for Feminist Theory.  I am tired because I chose the Downton Abbey finale over sleep last night.  I am slightly uncomfortable because there is a woman I’ve never seen in my life taking pictures of me from a few shelves down.

This is awkward.  She just moved around to my left and is taking some more.

Okay, it’s all right: she finally introduced herself.  She’s part of the University Relations team, taking photographs for the UMM website.

Welcome to my life, friends.  And you thought Kim Kardashian has paparazzi problems?

In other news, Morris is under yet another blizzard warning.  Not knowing this, I walked to school this morning (not that there were other options had I known) through 33 mph winds. That was fun.

What was fun was that at one point in the walk, I passed my friend Andy.  Not bothering to peel the scarf from his face, he shouted through it a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”

Trekking

Snowpocalypse 2013 has come and gone, and while the plows have been out at all hours (I heard them at 2:30 this morning) clearing the streets, the sidewalks are another story entirely.

My walks to campus have now been enhanced with Everest-like snowbanks which must be scaled.

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Typically, more often than not, my leg will get stuck or slide out from under me, and I’ll tumble down the slope in front of God and country.  So it goes.

It’s Saturday Night, Take III

We’ll all waiting for some snow.  Francis, the yellow lab next door; the town of Morris; and me.  Funnily enough, we’re due for a winter storm, which will hit between midnight tonight and midnight tomorrow.  Then we’re due for a blizzard, which will hit between midnight tomorrow and midnight on Monday.  A foot of snow total, and white-out conditions.

Meanwhile, I’m eating the Most Delicious Orange in the world, pretending to enjoy my raspberry green tea (it’s bitter, but Dr. Oz told me to drink it, so I’m obeying), and watching Little Miss Sunshine.

And waiting for the storms, of course.

At the Common Cup

I feel like such a “blogger.”  I am sitting in an actual, non-chain coffee shop.  There are mismatched tables, there are vinyl-backed chairs, there are drawings from the local elementary school children on the walls, there are apartments upstairs.  I am drinking fair trade ginger peach green tea.  It’s snowing outside.

I am reading (though not this minute, naturally) Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties.  I want to turn into Dan Wakefield when I graduate.  I want to take a train called the Spirit of St. Louis, or the Pacemaker from the Midwest to New York City.  I want to live in the Village and sup in mystical places called drugstores.  I want to run into Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in someone’s smoky apartment.  Mostly, I want what those men seemed to have: an assurance, right out of college, that they were in the place they needed to be and doing the work they needed to do.  Oh, for that kind of certainty.

As it is, though, I’m sitting in a vinyl-backed chair in the Common Cup Coffeehouse in Morris, Minnesota.  It is snowing outside, and cold.  And for now, I think this is where I need to be.

“Hearing that plain Midwestern accent, as well as the plain thinking behind it, bolstered my confidence, proving that people from the hinterlands could make it in East Coast literary circles.  It gave me courage to speak to some of my new classmates, jostling down the steps of Hamilton Hall after a lecture.

‘Hey, Van Doren’s great, huh?’ I said.

One of them shrugged, and in a nasal New Yorkese said, ‘I dunno, he’s a little too midwestuhn.’

‘Yeah, that’s it!’ I blurted out.”

Let Me Catch You Up

Sorry I’ve been quiet lately.  Truthfully, there hasn’t been much to write about.  I walk to campus in -40 degree windchill (yesterday).  I try to save the world via student government (Monday).  I play intramural volleyball (Tuesday).

(This afternoon) I make a mistake with my checking account and hold up the line at the grocery store for fifteen minutes while I fiddle with my online account via Iphone, transferring money to pay for my cereal and pears and peanut butter.  And then the Chancellor of UMM, in line behind me, offers to pay for my groceries (“I don’t want anyone going hungry,” she says kindly).  I am thankful to go to a school run by such generous people.  But mostly, I am mortified.  I finally get my credit card to work, and then I practically run home, sliding on the ice and torn between laughing and crying.  I decide to laugh, because I am quite possibly the most ridiculous person on the planet.  My mom laughs too when I call her, and I realize that perhaps the reason why I get into such scrapes is so I can tell people about them afterwards.  It’s quite worth a little humiliation to have a good story to share.

And now (I assure you, having read the above, you’re quite caught up), I am sitting at a desk in Imholte Hall.  I am at UMM’s literary magazine’s All Night Write.  It’s a wondrous night in which students are locked in a large classroom with their laptops and various junk foods, and given permission to abandon scholarly pursuits in favor of creative writing.  My gentleman caller is next to me.  He’s given me permission to talk about him.  He’s focused, and being very patient with me (I keep interrupting his work to make jokes, to proclaim my undying love for orange soda, etc.).  I am here for the writing, yes, but let’s be honest: I’m mostly here for the socialization.

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How My Good Days Work

I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it several more times:

When I have good days, I never have good-all-the-way-through-from-sunup-to-sundown good days.  I have no-sleep-last-night-zit-on-my-nose-could-this-get-any-worse days that magically morph into good days.

This morning, for example, all signs pointed to a bad day.  Well, by my above logic, I suppose that when things were dismal I should have suspected that a good day was on its way, although just because I’ve identified a pattern doesn’t mean I can make predictions…  Come now.  Who do you think I am?  (insert name of famous scientist/mathematician here)?

Back to the signs, though: I got six hours of sleep last night due to (I’m ashamed to admit) some last-minute wee-hours studying that was altogether unbecoming of someone in her last semester of college.  The temperature read -17 degrees when I awoke, and didn’t rise any while I ate breakfast, showered, and swathed myself in as many layers as I could find.

Long underwear, wool socks, fleece socks, Underarmour mock neck, sweatshirt, neck cozy (made up name.  It’s like a fleece headband for your neck, only about 6 inches wide instead of three), hat, mittens, winter coat, boots.  And so forth.

Once I had trudged to campus, thawed out a bit, sat through Feminist Theory and Shakespeare, talked a panicked anthropology candidate back from the cliff after he learned his application hadn’t been received, and eaten a very underripe pear, I received two pieces of news that turned a Bad day into a Good one:

1.  An important publishing company has asked the head of the history department (and one of my favorite professors) to do a review of a to-be-released tome.  They also asked if she could select a few students to review it as well.  And the professor asked me to be one of those students!  It’s a grand opportunity that will not only be enjoyable (we all know I go nuts for history), but that will also look rawthur snappy on a future resume.

2.  I’ve realized that for my Honors Capstone Project, I am allowed to use an existing project as a jumping-off point.  This means that I can combine my beloved Virginia Woolf with some extra research and, as the nasty saying goes, kill two birds with one stone.

This also means another semester of Woolf talk.  I hope you can handle it.  I suspect you can.

P.S. Just ate some cereal for a snack.  Just spilled said cereal all over Mac’s keypad.  Milk and technology don’t mix very well, for the record.  I’m trying not to view this as punishment for bragging so much about my good fortune.

The Waiters: A Short Story

Because it’s cold, and because I’ve been using said chill to justify a long afternoon of lazing around the house, and because having finally settled down with my Feminist Theory readings, I find myself engrossed, I’m posting a story.

I wrote this several years ago, submitted it to First Line Fiction, and won third place.  Having come a long way since 2010, parts of this were painful to reread.  You may cringe at the sentimentality.  You may wonder what on earth led me to disregard quotation marks.  But please know that I’m right there with you.

That being said, I do like a few things about this story, hence I’m submitting it to the Internet for the second time.

I also think this blog needs a little fiction every now and then, if only to punctuate many days of non-fiction ranting.

Here you go.  Happy MLK Day!

The Waiters

He brought in his shirt pocket the last photograph he’d taken of his son.

Poor guy.  You should have seen the way he walked into the office that afternoon.  He wore a yellow jacket that seemed inappropriate.  Its brightness contrasted with the hollow expression on his face so drastically that it was almost shocking.  I was relieved when he took the jacket off, carefully hanging it up on the rack in the corner of the waiting room. 

And then the man began to slowly cross, crumpling a little with each step.  I imagined that he’d be on his knees before he even reached the chair.  I imagined myself putting my hand on the shrugged shoulder, shouting into a wrinkled ear.  He made it though, sitting next to me as I knew he would.  There was no other place, after all.  The waiting room was full of people waiting, most of whom were buried in magazines or clicking on small phones.

He began talking as soon as he sat down.  Talking to me, or so I figured after a few seconds.

I had a son once, he said.

A son?  This was before I decided he was speaking to me and not to someone else.

Yes.  He died, though.  Car accident.

I’m sorry.  Because that’s what you say, isn’t it?  I’m sorry?  I’m sorry I can’t know what you’re going through, and I’m sorry that I’m going to try my hardest to comfort you anyway.  I’m sorry I don’t understand.

Thank you, he said simply.  I thought that would be it, and I could go back to staring at the wall.

He continued, though.  So many people die that way; it isn’t terribly original.  But my son doesn’t die that way.  My son doesn’t die.

He did, though.  I spoke softly, hoping he would know that I wasn’t trying to hurt him with my bluntness.  I wanted him to keep talking all of the sudden.  I wanted to know how this man had come to be folded into himself.  How his eyes got to be the way they were now.  Drowning.  He could see, but he wasn’t really looking out of them.  I saw all of these things in that waiting room, and I wanted him to keep talking.

The man paused for a moment, fiddling with the pocket at the front of his shirt.  Out of the pocket he plucked a folded bit of paper.  A photograph; it said Kodak across the back.  He unfolded the photograph and stared at it for a few seconds before folding it once more. 

He took a deep breath before he spoke again.  Afterwards, we all mourned.  No one talked during meals anymore.  My wife and I cried ourselves to sleep every night.  We tried to comfort one another.  I tried so hard.  But it is so very difficult to dig yourself out of the well of your own grief and reach for someone else.

Suddenly the man looked up at me, as if just realizing that he was talking to an actual person who was listening. 

He looked down again at the photo in his hands and continued.  My wife stopped grieving after awhile.  She got on with her life.  She went back to work.  She started running with the dog in the morning.  She drove our daughters to lacrosse and modern jazz.  She didn’t understand why I couldn’t get up too.  She used to become angry with me.  Why can’t you get over him?   She would yell.  Why can’t you see that he’s gone and that we’re left? You have two other children.  You have a job.  This needs to stop.  The man looked at me again, warily this time.  Do you have a job?

I nodded.  I deliver packages.  I drive a truck and I stop and I make people sign for brown boxes or tan envelopes.

The man took this in.  Do you enjoy your work?  He asked me.

I thought for a moment.  Then I answered.  I enjoy the people.  I watch them.  I guess what they’re like, what their names are. 

Do you ever get them right?

I don’t know if I do or not. 

The man frowned.  I would like to know.   He unfolded the photograph again and stared at it again.  I would like to know.

I saw that he was on the verge of crying.  His eyes squinted up and his knees shook a bit.  People across the room were beginning to look at us.  Not obviously looking, but peering at us every so often over their Newsweeks, as if to warn us that they didn’t want to overhear, but that they would if we spoke any louder.  They didn’t want to overhear.  They didn’t want a share in the anguish on the man’s face, the bewilderment on mine.  They read their magazines.

The man shuddered three more times and was still. 

He began to speak again after a few minutes.  I realized soon that I could lose my wife as well.  That she wouldn’t die, but that she would be just as permanently and irrevocably gone if I didn’t stop missing my son.  So I stopped.  I had to, you see.  I knew if I lost anything else I would disappear completely myself.  Everything tying me down would be gone.  I would be gone too. 

I stretched my legs out across the carpet and arched my back a little bit.  I wasn’t bored; I was only sore from sitting so long.  He knew I wasn’t bored.  Even if I had been, I don’t think he would have stopped.  We both knew now that he needed to say these things.  We both knew I needed to hear.

He kept talking through my stretch; his gaze wandered down to my brown boots and anchored on to them. 

I donated all of my son’s clothes, and cleaned his room.  I even took down his posters and painted over his walls with the spring green color my wife picked.  The paint erased my son’s smell until I couldn’t breathe in that room anymore.  I was about to shut his door behind me for the last time when I spotted the edge of something white sticking out from under the bed.

It was the photograph, wasn’t it?

The man nodded gravely.  I had taken it a few weeks before he died.  We were driving in my old convertible going west.  West like the pioneers, my son had shouted joyfully.  While we were stopped at a red light, my son dug the camera out of his backpack and thrust it at me.  We were laughing hard, like two teenagers instead of one.  My son rested one arm on top of the rolled-down window and leaned back away from me.  He grinned the same smile I had seen all his life.  My son leaned back into the wind against the highway and grinned while I took the picture.

It was all too much for the man then.  He dropped his head into the picture in his hands and sobbed soundlessly.  His back rose and fell with each rolling breath, and as I deliberated patting him gingerly on the shoulder blade, I intercepted a few raised eyebrows from across the room.  I shot those eyebrows straight back, sending most of the waiters diving back into their Popular Sciences.  I wasn’t a big man.  I wasn’t even a brave man.  Not then.  But I knew when things were private.  This was between the man, the photograph of his son, and me.

When the man finally calmed down he looked relieved.  Now he could finish.

Very slowly he opened the photograph in his hands.  I couldn’t quite see it, but I didn’t fail to be amazed at its proximity.  I only had to raise my eyes.  I didn’t, though.  I waited.

He spoke.  The last photograph of my son, the one I clung to when my wife wasn’t around, the one that allowed me to keep him and to keep myself together…He trailed off.  He wasn’t sure how to end, now that he had begun to end.

He tried again.  The last photograph of my son is something I both love and hate.  I can’t make myself throw it away, and yet it feels heavy in my pocket.  He stopped.

A woman had walked into the waiting room, and was now looking around with a definite air of impatient authority.  She called out a name.  I didn’t hear, but I guess the man did because he slowly stood and walked towards her with that same worn down gait he had entered on.

I sat back in my chair and looked around the room.  The other waiters stared boldly at me now.  I dropped my head, all defiance gone.  I sat and I thought.  I knew this was a story I would remember, not just another observation to drop in my brain like a marble.  I wondered if I would ever retell it.  I wondered how I would do it.  But mostly I wondered how it ended.

How did I know about the photograph in the man’s pocket?  Because he told me about it while we waited.

On his way out, the he passed me with only a nod.  Thank you, he said quietly, slipping either arm into that inappropriate yellow jacket.  I stared, decided.

Yes I must.  Sir!  I bounded after him past the alarmed waiters. Sir can I please see the photograph of your son?

He looked at me in his watery way, and then seemed to surface.  I imagined the last waves breaking around his eyes before receding like the tide.  Yes, he replied.  Yes of course you can see my son. 

Slowly he reached towards his pocket and drew out the creased picture.  He handed it to me without unfolding it.  Perhaps he thought that by unfolding it himself it would only make it harder.  Perhaps he needed me to take it from him, to hold his regret and his pain for a little while.

I unfolded the picture and stared at it for what felt like a long time.  I wanted him to feel me take it in.  But really it only took me a moment to understand.

As I handed the picture back to him and watched him refold it and set it gently into the same pocket, I listened to him speak the last words he ever said to me.  I had a son once, he explained patiently, as if we were starting over, as if we were just meeting each other.  I had a son once and he died.  I had a son once, and the last photograph I ever took of him captured only his elbow. 

I stood and saw the glass door swing shut behind him, watched it forget instantly that such a man had ever passed through. 

You know, with people you meet when you’re delivering packages, you can guess.  You can assume that a woman is snobbish, or that a man is out of sorts and late for work.  You can guess about them, and it never has to bother you if you’re right or if you’re wrong.  You can just let your imaginings hang in the air above your head.

Sons and photographs, I have come to realize, are a different matter altogether.  With them, you have to wonder your whole life why you didn’t look through the lens before snapping the shutter.  You have to wish that you had taken the time to aim, wish that you hadn’t been too captivated by the living, breathing boy to focus on capturing all of him forever.

Eventually, though, you have to know that when you tell the story of your son in a waiting room, when people listen, and when people look at the photograph of your son afterwards, that those waiters see all of him.  You have to know that those waiters see all of you too.