First published in the March 2010 issue. Retracted that April. Proudly reposted in February of 2013.
Neighbor/Composite/In a Bus Station
I was standing in line for a ticket, tasting Finnish Christmas cookies. Then just staring into space and the man behind me asked me if they were chocolate. If I liked chocolate.
If I liked chocolate? I said, No, they were spiced. Pepper and ginger. I wasn’t sharing; they were for later. They were from a friend. I hoped that she and I had finally started our friendship again. She made these for me.
He said he liked chocolate. He wondered if I’d ever been to Paris? I looked like someone who’d been to Paris, he said. Well, yeah. I’ve been to Paris. He thought so. Is it crazy there? Does it really look like the movies? he wanted to know. Well, yes, I paused. Movies have to come from somewhere. My cookies. Parts of it look like that, sure. The 35 year-old man behind me with no luggage.
One Lesson/A Lesson
Never undo your shoelaces in the car. Once there was an old woman with a new car. She undid her shoelaces at a stoplight. The woman in the red car behind her was watching. The older woman in the new car was not watching the traffic light. The light was red, and the woman in the red car behind her was worried about the safety of everyone. In the red car, she sighed, and swore at her mother, who wasn’t there to hear it. When the light turned green, the red car honked loudly and the woman who had been untying her shoe looked up to see the light turn green. She drove on to her gas station a few miles ahead. The woman behind her remained angry and did not see a car was pulling over with a flat tire, and she collided with it, killing both herself and the person with the flat tire.
I am not intimate with men in prison. It doesn’t follow the rules. I know that we all know the rules. I don’t wear scarves because I might be choked. They sit across from me, rather than next to me. Many people feel very intimate with men in prison. Men who are about to die have a schedule of events. There is probably a priest who has felt very intimate with men in prison. There are reporters who have felt intimacy, people on the teams of injection-execution, who have felt an overwhelming sense of intimacy with men in prison.
As with any men, it’s not always clear what is wanted. We are not able to convey wants—even at the times when we may know what we want—to each other very well. We avoid intimacy if we can so as to simplify certain aspects of what we’re doing in prison, when we, people from outside a prison, and they, people from inside the prison, are in there together. I am always telling people this when they ask me about it.
For instance eating a meal. You eat a meal together in the prison, sitting at tables much too small. Men and women in white and blue shirts stand at various corners and walls in the room where you are eating and they watch your legs, watch your arms, watch how you are eating or not eating. You are also watching each other’s eating. Do men in prison eat a lot? Do they eat more quickly than you eat? Is the food that they are eating any good? Are you eating the same food as what they are eating, or are you eating different things? Some of you are vegetarian; are some of them vegetarian? Are you eating more quickly or more slowly than the men in prison at your too-small tables, with plastic forks and knives, and with sugared water? Are they adept at using plastic knives? Is it rude not to drink the sugared water? Are they finishing everything on their plates? Is this the same food that they eat when they have no guests? Someone brings around dessert, as well, banana splits, huge things in Styrofoam.
You have never had a banana split, you exclaim! You are already too full from the rice that didn’t have any meat in it, which you ate instead of the fish. In your mind, fish is meat, though when you were asked whether or not you ate meat and you said, No meat, you were given fish and too much rice. Now everyone here knows, except for the men and women in their uniforms at the corners and other stations of the room, that you have never had a banana split. Men in prison at your table laugh—banana split?! Really?!
A good time is when everyone else is asleep. Understand this. Things happen in the night. Rats at night. Run along walls, in alleys, come up close to smell food on a baby’s face. And bite.
I go running in the middle of the night. I think Rat as I’m running down the center of the road. Rats move along walls and under things to feel them as they’re passing they can feel this with their hair. They like closeness, small spaces—they’d rather skim a wall than cross a road. My running the road lengthwise. At some point, I’ll turn around and go back.
There is a deer, there is a well-lit house, otherwise nothing. The deer to my right can hear me because it stops moving. There are no lights there are no cars; there is a history of women running and being raped here. I think, Rapist. I carry a screwdriver. They might be city rapists, afraid of the expanse of the field I am running by. People who come from cities are often afraid of the dark behind this fence and must fear waiting for me in tall grass with deer ticks burrowing into their leg-flesh. I am not double jointed, I cannot collapse my ribcage (rats can) but if a rapist from the country or the city found me in all this mist I hope I would use the screwdriver in such a way that we’d come to a quick understanding. Him falling and my getting away. When I hear the deer I stomp my feet and when I think of the rapist I spit, loudly, from my throat, in case he is one who doesn’t like women who spit. Or in case my spitting will make him think I am a man.
Everyone from the city has three rat stories. In the first, they’ve spotted one. In the second, they kill one. They find it in the tub, so they turn on the water. Drowning a rat doesn’t work because of course rats can swim, so they find sink cleaner in the kitchen and pour that into the tub, hoping it’s dumb enough to drink. If that works, they learn how to dispose of dead rat. That’s the third story. Are rats too big for the toilet? Can the tub ever be used again?
Looking for a Husband/Digging
Dorothy weeded. It began by sitting down with someone from San Rafael who was building a house and had a brother like her own and would surely understand. It didn’t shock her to see Dorothy weed, and they talked about it, and then went on to talk about their brothers. So difficult to have a brother who might marry the wrong person. So easy to find clover and slip it from the ground. Not even the ground! A boxed patch of earth that had been built, with a tree in it, planted too close to the house.
She knew a lot about these weeds. Her brother, unlike in San Rafael, was not about to be married. Her brother was about to call back. Her brother might tell her he’d been out with a friend, trailing off on the word “friend,” or not trailing off on the word “friend,” so that she could guess whether or not the friend was a woman, and whether or not he hoped to talk about this woman. Her brother and she had a language, an intimacy, about this conversation. She knew when he was involved. He hadn’t tried to marry the wrong woman yet. She hadn’t picked anything that wasn’t a weed yet. And the woman from San Rafael might not even know if she did. Different plants in San Rafael.
Dorothy went on to weed until everyone else also noticed and started to say it was good. She was embarrassed, or thought she should be embarrassed, as with a new boyfriend who had been discovered to make bad puns in company. But too late, weeded wad in her hand, there was clover and that rubbery one that makes its way from the cracks in the flagstone.
Smokers sat together. A smoker sat with a non-smoker and offered a cigarette. When someone says “chain smoker,” even a smoker speaking about another smoker, it is not said with admiration. A chain smoker is known to sit alone. Knitting is also hard to stop. In knitting, you are praised—Look how many socks—that sweater—all the colors—when really you have been bent over, unable to use your eyes for anything else, ignoring dinner and changing the shape of your hands for the rhythm of the needles. She didn’t have a thing to say to the man with whom she stood, so she bent over and began again. There was food inside.
Are you sure they are weeds? someone asked, pointing to the flagstone. At this house, they did not plant between their stones. This was obvious. Dorothy weeded. She smiled. No one else would do it better than she, or take over what she was trying to do, or try to tell her how to do what she was doing, though there were clearly other weeders at the party. Dorothy knew which was which.
The logic, really, between the stones is like what Ann says over the phone. She has spent all day moving a pile of wood from one part of the yard to another. Ann has encountered so many natural things. The woodpile, she discovers this day, has been home to many animals and plants, and she meets them all, slowly, or quickly, as she’s moving the wood. Soft white snake-eggs, dilated spiders, and then the snakes, too. Soft snake eggs. It was a cool day. The snakes didn’t care. She considered, also, their cold blood, a thing to slow them down.
There is the question of therapy. Stuffing coming out. Bread sticks. Glass a spine had shattered into after leaping. The color of the sky. Easily.
Men actually dying in prison. Not just talking about it. One this way, one that way. The size of the emptiness of that house. The memory of the emptiness of that house when it was just them in it. Shaking, leaning, chattering.
A translation of a Japanese text from 1000 years ago. Really; 1000 is not so long. Germans, speaking in German. Dogs barking. String instruments. Bottled beer and powdered parmesan. Frozen cheeseless pizza. Throw some cheese on it! The question of where is not the hard one. Doesn’t even remind you of the first time you heard it. I don’t even remember first falling in love. Six years ago. Really? Ages. Cigarettes. I was pickier about a lot of things then. O? You smoke? We play games. Look, we don’t have to be touching all of the time. Even most of the time.
The first thing we saw was the police, so we hesitated, and then a man, deciding it was too late to throw his hands up, so he turned around and put them down, behind him, and was cuffed.
We went inside, which felt like that dive from last summer. These were the police I’d expected there. That place barely had walls, but this place had police.
Some people have to be arrested. There were so many people at the bar. He said he didn’t recognize anyone. I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t see what kind of beer. A man was getting arrested and the prison I had driven from to get to the Belmont was full with arrested men. The man shrugging and turning around to put his hands down.
We sat down in the Belmont. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and, frankly, hadn’t seen each other much before that. We looked the same. I said, We used to play hockey, right? Then we wrote letters. There was a DJ playing things I recognized but no one was dancing and no one was sitting at the booths, even though the rest of the place was full.
After the Belmont, we went back to his apartment and loaned each other books. The one I’d brought was called Esther Stories. His girlfriend was called Esther. I didn’t think of it. They’d just broken up.
He took the book anyway, put it on the table in front of him. Laughed. Not like it was funny, but like it was his responsibility.
The Deal/About a Book
I have to imagine that you’re thinking about me, across the street on your porch, opening and closing your door, pacing between your front steps and the corner behind a toddling daughter. You look up, sometimes, right at me, though I’m never wearing my glasses and can’t see your expression.
Our room is the top window, the one facing your house. If you are looking, then you can see the light is on or it is off. Your attic light was on for three nights. Finally you turned it off. When you’re inside, with many small children, your wife, and your wife’s friends, I don’t imagine you’re thinking of anyone but yourself.
But people who have children and wives think about other people all the time. I have to imagine you’ve once thought about me. You might have been thinking of me when you looked over smiling as I drove by on my way to work last week. Your wife is never outside at the times that I am, but you always are. When she has the baby, I might bring a book to her, for the baby, and maybe not even see you. I’m young and you’re young. You have many children. You sit on the front porch facing out; your pregnant wife is inside and the kids are around.
Maybe you are wondering if I’ve seen you without a shirt? Of course I have, since your front step faces our house, and since you sit there in the mornings when I am leaving for work. Do you make any money? I can’t imagine you make any money, unless it’s you selling the drugs instead of buying them, and then I have to imagine that you might go to prison. In that case—if you’re selling instead of buying what exchanges hands some Monday mornings at 8:30 after the school bus and after my boyfriend and your wife have gone away in cars—I imagine I should say something important to you. About prison. Since I know about prison and, if you’re selling or buying drugs, you might not. We think of each other, you and I.
I have to imagine you’re thinking of me, but I can’t figure out how often. You were not thinking of me last winter when you yelled at three in the morning and woke me up with your friends in front of my house. Although you might have been thinking of me, or all of us on this street, when the gun went off, I don’t think that you were. I certainly wasn’t thinking of you. I was thinking about the sound.
The Girl Who Belonged/Door/Handle
Rules are: jump in, make lots of assumptions, act like you know what you’re doing. Even if they don’t, dance when it’s time to dance. Point out pock-marks. X does things last-second one rule is don’t resist it completely. The other one is don’t let him push you around. Another rule is: drink, eat.
I got in by sitting by a backdoor I didn’t realize I was sitting by. I don’t want to know if they built the door for me to knock on, but some people think they did. I got in through a door. Not sure what it was a door to, since I was already sitting there, in it, when I realized there was a door, tried the handle, it opened, and I went in and took a seat. It was not so simple. I stood in the doorway for a hot second, hands almost on my hips, looking squarely at what I had already been looking at, said a few things. Said, Hey, I’d like to come in, but look here I wear shoes and I sleep at night and I don’t plan to catch anyone’s puke do we have a deal? And the voice nodded earnestly and I frowned earnestly and put those hands on my hips, cursed, and I walked right in and sat down in my old chair. Turned it a little so I could face the new door, face that new direction, that new/old voice and we got started.
There was still a lot of pushing and grabbing. My car would disappear for hours on end and come back smelling like smoke. There would be calls at 6:30 in the morning about nothing. I’d say to the voice, If this is nothing, I’m hanging up. If this is something, you can go ahead. It’s just that I have a big favor I might have to ask you. I know. Are you going to ask it? Nonnonono hahaha I mean—It’s just that I might have to ask you to pick me up. You might have to ask me or you’re asking me right now?
Then I went away for a while. My shoulders were sore, my hips were sore. I hadn’t learned to drink, really, yet. I didn’t sleep much, but I danced a lot off of me and I threw things, hit them with my fists to make them travel further. I definitely drank. Then I was in. Who knew? Then it got harder.
On TV they talk about prison, too. They talk about men having sex with men, and breaking out. They say, “barbed wire.” I don’t know anyone who has broken out. I have been to places people have broken out of, the old-fashioned way, sheets tied together as rope from a tall window. Someone fell asleep on the job I guess. After it happened I didn’t hear anyone talk about it on TV, but that prison built new gates with new barbed wire, and some new, thick glass.
On TV they like to talk about prison. Once they did a story about real prisoners. Real men in prison, interviewed, for a real story about men in prison. They asked the men what they were doing there, which was studying the liberal arts, and they asked the men what they had done to get into the prison, which was to kill their mothers. Then they went away with hours and hours of footage and made a real story about the men, dressed in green, studying while they were in prison. People saw this on TV and worried about their mothers and sighed that there was prison and were impressed with the men. Men in prison who have killed their mothers are awfully articulate and can even study like students, which is not what you usually see on TV.
The Man Who Fell
Every time I walk out of my room, I think, There is a man falling, and I can catch him. I should put my weight in a good spot. Once a man from France told me not to play too much soccer or my thighs would grow large. But I can’t catch him, he is too far up and I am too far away. He might feel less embarrassed if I pretended not to see. There I am, at the bottom, and I might choose to stay until he finishes.
The Tiger/The Dharma/The Date
When we were dating, I remembered a lot of things about you from before. You had me over for dinner, which was actually to watch a movie, but then I brought wine and you made a cream sauce and you noticed what my hand did or my leg, getting out of the car, and told me.
We were both reminded of Catholic high school, which we had in common. The wine was in big glasses. We had just run into each other at a monastery. You said you’d been away for a while, and abstinent for a while, but you smiled at me. I was with the dharma. So we were on a date.
I had to remember, but not until later, what you’d said to me four or five years before. We were at a party, the biggest kind, outside, and you’d said, Dorothy, if you didn’t seem like my sister, I would totally want you. You were surprised that I knew you had a sister. I was with the dharma, so you leaned over and asked if you could hold my hand. This reminded me, again, of Catholic school, but I’d never been asked, so I said, Sure. I thought of it some more, of course, of karma and incest, and thought also of the time you had proposed to me. I remembered that, too. Catholic high school, your sister, your wife, can you kiss me next. Hmm. A real live date. Maybe your memory serves you better than mine. We watched a movie next. I was still a little bit attracted. It was going away.
Christ on a Bike/Birds
Last night, 2 am: Fuck you. Stay the fuck away from me. I get up to open the window. This isn’t the man from across the street. This man is walking from our driveway west on East Union then south onto Crane, he throws his hands up at the car I can’t see. Just leave me the fuck alone I’ll be fine. You’re drunk I’m not getting in the car. A truck backs up along East Union, the bed filled with two-foot tall diameters of tree trunk. They must be beautiful. Backs up straight and steady, waits a beat or two and pulls into Crane Street, the direction his friend went, south.
One tried to get in once, in the middle of the night. He knocked, he must have seen my light on. I thought maybe it was Bob forgot his key again so I went down in my pjs. It was a very drunk or high not-Bob, trying to convince me one of my friends had invited him, he could crash on the couch. I frowned for a while and then closed the door. Everyone else slept right through it.
I wake up. I’ve been yelling all night at one of my friends and he has treated it so lightly, as if to leave me room to take back what I am doing once I realize how silly it is. It is not silly, and I start to scream. He has not heard me. He will never hear me. But until now, I’ve been very quiet, so I must try. All of my points are valid. I wake up completely exhausted.
In sunlight, in broad clouded bird-filled daylight, they are on the street. Open the window to hear if they are children or if they are angry. The birds don’t stop. It is spring. They are angry. From the window I can see one backing up into the intersection. There are at least two other men that I cannot see from this window. He’s my age. Backing into the intersection with his hands in front of him, out. His voice is the loudest, not the deepest. One yells to another to get in the house. One breaks glass. O now you gonna break shit? Someone in a car drives away, not very recklessly.
A Hand in This/The Man
and the Blade/A Sharp Edge
He’s in a restaurant with her, handing her a palm-sized box that she can open. If she knows that he is married or if he is very careful about concealing his tracks, which restaurants they meet at, how often—all of this is here.
This is not someone he has known for long. It is romantic. A palm-sized box for her to open toward herself. A man, nodding; a woman, nodding. Someone is making someone else happy. A wife in the wings but not aware of her wings. His wife must be angry, she must know for a while that something is going on. His daughters must too. There are very angry women in that kitchen, angry women late in the afternoon or maybe even at night after dinner time. His grown-up daughter screaming something at least once, before refusing to talk ever about it again. The neighbors, not knowing a single thing. Cat hiding. The dogs, not knowing what to do.
They meet, not for the small box, but for something else. For dinner. They meet and eat dinner. She is somewhat diminutive in her fingers and her eyes, chewing, and otherwise substantial. She is trying to look pretty. He thinks that she does look pretty. He certainly wants to, and he tells her that she looks beautiful. Being told you look beautiful is something. Being told she looks beautiful makes her fingertips light. She touches her fingertips to the top of his hand, which is resting on the table.
No one understands this. The shame of being found out. Of being ripped from kitchen and bedroom and seat in the car near his wife, which, according to how it might have worked, he had no intention to disrupt. He had no real intention to disrupt his family, no real sincere dissatisfaction with his wife. She must have felt very strange, then—to be given such a small box that fit so dramatically into the palm of her hand, and one that opened toward her when it opened. To be left behind when he and his wife finally did divorce. She must have had some expectations. He must never have spoken about that with her. The woman in the restaurant with the red nail polish is waiting for him, maybe not him, but someone, somewhere, and she doesn’t have any reason to think that she shouldn’t be. He has told her just how beautiful she is. Twice. Whether or not she was ever completely cognizant of his marriage, she was relieved, in the end, that he and his wife were divorcing. Her relief was not like his.
I don’t imagine he was relieved at all, actually. He was more embarrassed. Like my neighbor pulling his hand back from the blade of the joiner, counting the digits he had left, calculating whether or not to call for help. I am sure he didn’t want to know if someone saw him do it. We were not there. I am sure he was glad no one had seen.
When you have put your fingers into a blade and then pulled back your hand, I imagine you’d want everyone around you to picture your hand whole, as it had been before, so as not to have to explain how it was you went about losing the tips of your fingers and why you are now relearning how to bend at the knuckles and touch surfaces.
To talk about rats is to come up from there with or without something in your fist. Rats and standing water. Disease. Disgust. Climbing down the ropes of every ship we ever brought from wherever we were coming, guns out, heading for land. Rats running in from near docks. Nesting.
This is what a rat king was not: not the Nutcracker. Not even his one huge adversary. A rat king is never just one rat, not: a single rat, trying to take the world. He is so many rats with tails broken in the direction of each other, tangled in a knot. Many means 5 to 32 un-independent rat bodies, closely. Rats stuck that way from not enough room; preserved sometimes, later, in German museums, as they could not run away.
While still alive they are fed by the more able, unconnected rats. Not so much nuisance as tragedy. Not so much tragedy as rats.
I made real good money in the end. You spend so much time working and you never think you’ll ever not be working. Those dogs—and now I’m here—I loved those dogs. They accused me of having slaves. Those girls were quality workers. We were part of the city. They do that to you, turn things on you, they don’t know what’s really happening. We did business with all the judges and lawyers. When they arrested me, they killed the dogs. Touches her brow again. I’m getting old. How to make hair dye from mess hall cleaning solution.
In German one word for brothel is Puff. The madam is the Puffmutter. The word for rat is Ratte. Fidelity. A rat. Rat on you. You can’t trust any of them: a story about Michelle. She’s in prison, they were not slaves; the same guys who used her business sold her out. Sailors tie knots. They were all lawyers.
Getting in to Prison is
You empty your pockets and sign your name in a book. Hand over ID, get a temporary prison ID. Sign a number next to your name. Get your hand stamped, go through a metal detector.
There is the small dog that the officers have adopted who hasn’t stopped barking at you. The officer who is waiting for you to go through the detector is also waiting for you to leave the lobby so that he can continue to eat his dinner, which is still hot, from the microwave. There is a man in green, mopping near where you need to stand next, waiting for you, because he knows you need to stand there next. You’re in his way; he’s in your way. People come here every day. Religious people, educational people, theater people. AIDs education people, aggression replacement people, men who play basketball, kids who are getting into trouble. Everyone comes to prison.
The religious people have religion. Meantime they wear a suit or a robe or a beard and see what it’s like in there. The educational people have read about this and they might write about it. The people with the theater, the people who know about AIDs and the people who want to replace aggression with something else all come because they believe in the power of. Everyone believes in the power of. The people who play basketball are the ones who look most similar to the people they come to see. So they are the ones for whom there are invisible ink stamps, and metal detectors. In case someone inside should try to switch places with one of them.
The kids who are getting into too much trouble come because they are told to, because they have to, and because they want to see what it’s like. They line up, 15 of them, taking their belts off for the metal detector, holding fistfuls of their pants up while the officers stamp their other hand. Other hand. The officers say, Other hand, watch the kid switch hands, try not to drop his pants.
The Prison Near
Where Mark Twain is Buried
I called today to double check on the call-out and gate clearance for tonight. I called the school. Dorothy answered and transferred me to Dottie, in the Dep’s office. Dottie checked for me and had nothing and then transferred me back to Dorothy, in the school who said (again) that she didn’t know, and (again) that she had been out all week. I asked very politely if she knew who I could ask and then she transferred me. Guidance answered, which was a relief. The callout existed, according to guidance. I asked the lady at guidance about the gate clearance. She said Hold on I’ll give you back to Dorothy and I hung up.
I called back, asked the operator for the lobby officer to check with him for the gate clearance. He was busy but he looked. Found some but didn’t find the right one. I said, It’s probably a one-time clearance, just tonight. He said, I’ll look again. He didn’t have it. He apologized that he couldn’t transfer me anywhere, his phone just didn’t work that way, we hung up.
So I called Dottie back, in the Dep’s office. I said, It’s me again, I’m really sorry to bug you I found out there’s a call-out but no gate clearance—she said That’s what I was trying to tell you there’s no gate pass. O, I didn’t understand that. She said, Alright, hold on please and put me on hold.
Then after a while she came back. Dottie said No one knew anything about tonight, this is the first time we’re hearing anything about tonight. I said, I called last week to set it up but she said No one knew anything about tonight. What’s his name? Bob Sucker. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of him. What is he bringing in with him? Course materials. She said back, Course materials. Then, Will he be coming in every Friday night? I said, No, just tonight. I said it like when I’d said it two weeks ago, when she asked, and the week before that as well.
We need at least 48 hours notice on things like this. Right, which is why I called last week—Well this is the first time anyone’s heard of this. Ok. Now this is a one-time thing? Yes, just this Friday, he already has an ID and everything. Ok, I’ll put this together. That’s great. Thanks so much.
Going Around/Writers/Other than that
I have to imagine that you’re writing about me. You’re down the hall, in your office, with the door open. You’re a writer, you must notice things.
I drink water. Down the hall you are talking on the phone. Then you hang up. My boss coughs, I tell him he sounds horrible, he coughs again, more loudly. We share a grapefruit. We’re talking about baseball. Down the hall you are sitting with your door open, mouth closed. It’s not clear whether you are also listening when you’re concentrating, but I have to imagine, at least most of the time, that you are. You’re very polite. You lean over into your computer and hold your hands against the desk, as if you would be sucked into the screen if not for your precaution. I walk by and see you doing this. Not every time, but sometimes, you look up and say Hello.
But you’re writing, actually, about New Orleans. A place I have never been and never expect to go. This is what you tell me when we meet on the front steps of our building. You say, Good morning. What are you writing about, anyway? You say, New Orleans.
It’s where you’re from, and even though you’ve spent the last ten years writing about Southeast Asia, you now say you’re writing about New Orleans. I don’t believe you are writing about New Orleans because I never see you writing. I believe you did write about Southeast Asia. I have seen the book—it’s a good book, about another place I have never been. When you describe a river, I can see the people in it, looking for their fishes, and the places where it’s too deep to go. It has many pages, and I can imagine you thinking about where the pages would break. How you could get from one to the next, even though I never saw you writing that one, either.
When I am writing about something, I am always writing. My boss hears me typing and remarks how fast. People call and I don’t answer the phone. They find me and I don’t invite them to sit down.
You, though, are often leaving your desk for hours at a time to eat, to find books at a library, or to circle the parking lot in search of better reception for your phone. You are always walking by the door of my office. You can’t be writing about New Orleans, because you’re not writing. I am curious to know when you are writing, and what you are writing about, if it’s not all of the time and it’s not New Orleans.
If you are writing about me, you have heard everything. You have heard four different phones ringing. When the office is empty, I talk to my mother about loans or airplane tickets. You’re writing about my tired face. You’re writing about the time I climbed out of our building through the window. Or you’re writing about the way my hand looks, trailing after me into the bathroom, grabbing the light switch and the fan switch before it follows me into the room and shuts the door. If you’ve been paying enough attention. If you’ve looked up as I walk by. If you actually write, in there, about anything with your door open and your phone on.
Fish and Wife
When the electrician came last week, I stayed home. The electrician was here to fix the light in the bathroom. I wanted to be near the electrician, in case he should have a question for me. I didn’t yet know if he was the kind of man who tries to fix many things in one day well or a few things well or just many things in one day. It was also possible that he wasn’t very good at fixing things at all. I wanted to help him focus on what he was doing and on how important it was that he do it. I also wanted him to know how interested I was in what he was doing, so that he should feel encouraged to talk about what he was doing as he was doing it. When I am at the doctor’s and there is a needle involved, this sort of talking makes me feel less suspicious about the nurse.
The electrician is called Jeff, and he has tattoos on his old forearms. He had been here once before, and, it turns out many times before that, but only once when I had also been here. He’s really not so old, but is missing some teeth and has skin that wrinkles on his forearms and fingers that have been used for a very long time and, like a car mechanic’s, are maybe never clean.
I showed the electrician the strange shape that the wires had taken. The light switch was loose and stuck between on and off. He finished two of my sentences for me, including the one where I asked if we could have a new socket with a grounding switch on it. He said “grounding switch” when I hesitated before the phrase; and he waited for me to finish talking so that he could begin working. I worried, for a moment, that I had insulted him—sometimes people who are very good at what they do dislike being told what needs to be done, and feel as if you doubt them to have given them information they already had. I hoped he did not feel insulted.
I sat in the room closest to the bathroom, and I wrote about it. I thought that if I were writing, he would think that I was working and not hovering, but if I were writing at least I could be writing about him and it and then I would be paying attention to it and him. If I paid attention to it and him, then I could learn as much as possible about what he was doing and what was wrong with our wiring so that, if there were any problems in the future, I would know about it more readily, and be more likely to identify the problem. This is how it seems to work with my mechanic and my car, and I feel very safe driving.
The electrician was working in the room with the best light, a tall room that, with the door open, spills light down the hall almost as far as the kitchen. It made me feel happy that he would experience the best light in our house when he was here to work on a day on which he may not normally have been working. I sat and wrote in the room with the second-best light.
Because he was so quiet, I wrote about myself. Occasionally, I wrote about how the light switch was being fixed and about what he said when he talked to himself. I noticed when he said “hmm” which he said twice, with about half an hour in between the two times. He also said “that’s funny?…” and “well what’s this.” Because I didn’t know the answers to his questions, but wanted to learn how the wires in my wall might develop such black bubbles, I responded to his questions by saying things aloud to myself like “hmmm” and “bad news?”
I did wonder if he thought I was listening to him too closely. I know that people often dislike being observed, even though most people I know want more attention than they get, most of them also feel very uncomfortable when they are being closely observed. I have a friend who likes to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they come to the door. He invites them in, because he thinks they are good people, and because he has a lot of questions for them. He listens very closely to what they are saying, and shows a great deal of interest in their ideas. He has many questions about the world, and he likes to ask different kinds of people what they think the answers might be. Jehovah’s Witnesses seem especially ready to have conversations about the world, and so I think he is often quite excited to find them at his front door. They almost always take him up on the offer to come in, but often do not stay as long as he could talk because he begins to ask questions about what they say to which they have not prepared answers.
I have been trying very hard to be careful about the discomfort people feel when they are observed. I try to look like I am not observing people when I am observing them. So when the electrician came, I sat in the other room and wrote on my computer. To him, it might have seemed like I was writing a letter.
When the electrician said “well what’s this” and I said “bad news?” I joined him at the door of the bathroom. He had a tool like an eye doctor might touch your eye with once it had been numbed. He was touching this tool into the different electrical sockets in our bathroom. When the tool touched a socket, it made little beeps, like a telephone that has been left off the cradle for too long. It seemed as if many sockets caused this beeping, but, he was not surprised to find, the one with the burned wires did not. I wasn’t surprised either. We nodded together. We both understood.
“See this?” he pointed to the box where the light switch and the wires were housed. It seemed very close to the sink. There were two boxes. He frowned and so I did too. Clearly there were not supposed to be two boxes. “See the rabbit ears?” he held out the old light switch to show me where the previous electrician had cut the metal loops on the light switch to change their shape. I did see, and it did look wrong, and I nodded. I had never known what rabbit ears were before. It was a relief to know just how poorly our boxes had been wired. Later, I might even ask him about wiring in other rooms.
I thought about writing as I listened to the electrician say “hmmm” and “well I’ll be” in the bathroom where the light is good in my house around 3 pm. I thought, I hope that I can write about him without worrying that he’ll never fix another light switch for nice landlords like my landlords who live downstairs because he’ll know someday soon that I have written about him because I’ll read what I wrote at a public reading, and, although he won’t be at the reading, maybe his nephew will be, and his nephew will be angered that I wondered if his uncle had very many teeth, and will tell his uncle about my question about his teeth, and his uncle will feel put on the spot, embarrassed, and will refuse to work for my downstairs neighbors or me on the weekend anymore.
My family is here to visit. When the electrician came today, we had just finished eating breakfast, and my brother was saying that he needed a set of new sheets when the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and hoped that it would not be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have a hard time thinking of what to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses, or thinking of questions to ask that might seem polite, or supportive, since it seems like so often they are looking for support when they ring my doorbell.
They do not seem to be looking for the kind of support that sometimes I am looking for—on weekends I often feel helpless and as if I don’t know how to spend all of my hours and so I hope for someone to make decisions for me. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not seem to ring my doorbell hoping that I will make decisions for them. And they are not looking for a good listener, which is what I am and often what my friends need when they are asking for support. But they do want a certain amount of attention, and they do want a certain type of response. I often feel as if I’m not able to give them what they’re looking for, and they often come on Saturdays or Sundays, and so when they ring the doorbell, sometimes I hide in the kitchen.
This time, I did not hide in the kitchen. My parents and my brother would not have understood why I wasn’t answering the door, and would not have felt comfortable answering it themselves, since they were guests in my house. It was possible that my roommate had rung, coming home from grocery shopping, needing an extra hand with the door and on the stairs. Or it was Jehovah’s Witnesses, asking me for something I felt ill-equipped to give. But it was the electrician, and it was his younger helper, also called Jeff, and they were here to work on the light switch in the bathroom and the showerhead in the shower.
I noticed our electrician’s bumper sticker, which says “wife and dog lost/reward for dog.” I read it to my mom and she rolled her eyes. I think she must have rolled her eyes because it was a joke and a silly joke. She likes to collect jokes like this one in a small notebook, the way I like to remember what my electrician says when he’s working. But it’s possible that she did not understand how much I like our electrician, and that she rolled her eyes because she suspected that he really might not love his wife. I don’t imagine that our electrician does not love his wife, although it’s possible that he has a bossy wife.
Our electrician has told me how much he likes our downstairs neighbors who are also our landlords, and how unusual it is for him to work on the weekend. But he comes to our house often and always on the weekend. Our downstairs neighbors, who are very nice people, may be an indication of his inclination to like good people. I suspect that his wife is a good person, and that is why she is his wife, even if she is bossy. It’s possible but not very likely that she is not a good person, which is why he spends so many of his weekends at our house, fixing light switches for our neighbors and for us.
When my parents and my brother drove away, I checked in with the electrician. He told me about our showerhead which was now secured to the wall. He told me, now that he’d fixed it, not to use it until later in the day. He used the word “massage” when he said so, describing to me how he had made the pipe of the shower fit into the wall and stay there. He also replaced the receptacle for our light switch in the bathroom and asked us not to touch it right away. He used the word “silicone” when he described this kind of fixing and waiting, and I think that mostly we were talking about drying. He wanted the things he fixed to dry before we used them. Drying is not a word that I associate with electricians but I nodded, and he nodded, and I asked him what he was working on now. He said, “a motion sensor light.”
While they were working, I brought him and the man who was helping him some chocolate chip pumpkin squares. I noticed that he is missing some teeth and that some of the teeth he has have been capped, but we had so many pumpkin squares, and it was the weekend, so it seemed right that I should bring them some pumpkin squares.
I took some time to decide which dish or bowl to serve them on. I thought, at first, a plastic container might be best. They were working on a light at the bottom of the stairs and it might be dirty or dangerous to have a real plate. Then again, it seemed like they should have a real plate, so that they could understand how glad I was that they were fixing the light switch and that they had come here this Sunday, even though I knew they had also been here last Sunday, working on the rooms downstairs.
My electrician is wiry like a boy and wears a baseball cap, although he must be in his forties and so is certainly not a boy. It’s easy to imagine him as a younger man. When he is not working for us, he fixes cars for his family members. I chose a china plate with a fisherman painted on it. I thought the electrician may have gone fishing with his friends or with his father, and, if he had, it might be a good memory for him. If he hadn’t, well at least I would have given him a plate I care very much about, and maybe he would understand how thankful I was that he had fixed our light switch and had massaged our shower into its setting in the wall. I left the plate near him while his back was turned and said “I’ll just leave this here, my roommate has made pumpkin squares” and then I ran back up the stairs.
I didn’t want him to feel he ought to thank me, or decide whether or not to eat pumpkin squares in front of me. If he didn’t want to eat them, I wanted him to make that decision in privacy. If he was embarrassed by my generosity, well then, I didn’t want to be embarrassed with him. I ran back up the stairs. He said “pumpkin squares?” and I said “yes” and he said “thank you” and I said “sure.”
Then I watered the plants and wiped the counter tops and put the new dish rack where the old dish rack had been. I left the door open in case he needed to call up for anything. He didn’t. He brought the plate up before he left.
The plate was empty, so they may have eaten the pumpkin squares. Although he sometimes cannot remember the name of my downstairs neighbor, I can tell that he feels a lot of affection for my neighbor and his wife. He may even be developing an affection for my roommate and her boyfriend and me. I gave him pumpkin squares today, and the last time he was here, I was very interested in what he was learning about our light switch as he took it apart to fix it. I am always very enthusiastic when he has fixed something of ours, and he certainly likes that about me.
I do not know how much he has had time to like something about my roommate, whether they have spoken about light switches or massaged showerheads or the silicone that needs to dry, but he does know that she has made pumpkin squares, and he may or may not have eaten them. It’s possible that he or the man who was helping him put them in the garbage can, which was right near where they were installing the motion detector sensor light. It’s possible he doesn’t like pumpkin or chocolate.
But if he ate them, there is a good chance that he liked them because the squares, though they are not shaped always like squares, are very delicious. And even if he didn’t eat them, he is sure to have thought it nice.
Everybody Who Teaches Writing in Prison Has a Book
Walking to class through a few gates are two women called Dot and Dorothy, wearing beepers and invisible ink and a student of Dot’s is mopping floor. Dot’s name is also Dorothy. Her student says, Hello. Dorothy number one turns—yes, sharply. Did he just call you “Darling?” She mistook from “Darathy” but it does not reassure her. He should have used the second name. And nothing must sound like darling.
In prison, they don’t say “woman,” they say “female.” A female walked in the room. There was this female and she was talking all about it. Dorothy reads stories and essays and poems with them. She is thinking of voice and style and word choice. They say, The female in the story is pretty paranoid. Officers are female officers. She is a teacher; a female. An officer comes to help unlock a door and Dorothy thanks her. Louis shakes his head. Don’t thank her, that’s her job.
The texts are sometimes ironic. She sees Louis she doesn’t know what to say to him. He doesn’t know what to say to her either. He pats her shoulder. This does not trouble him. She asks him how his semester goes. He looks deeper into her eyes, he thinks she can do better. Says, Fine, fine. We’re all adjusting. Taking some time to find our footing. The end of the sentence goes down but his eyes go up, wider. Is she done?
One day he wants to learn Shakespeare. He chooses the sonnet about the ugly beloved and the lover who knows how ugly. He reads pure praise and passion from it, and for a half an hour becomes a man all love. Dorothy makes some observations. This is a very ugly woman—her lips are not red, her gait is not light. She does not smell good. She does not look good. Does he understand? He thinks about this. He cannot pronounce “coral” and she cannot get him to.
Dorothy reads aloud a story of an alcoholic lover. The alcoholic is a woman, the object of her love is also female.
It may be the wrong thing to read. Alcoholism has always angered her. A person is struggling. Dan putting his hands on light bulbs and sleeping under bushes. Dorothy driving him home. Him, chanting, Don’t look at me like that, until he passes out. She wonders will she have to wake him when they get there. She parks to open his door and he tumbles out, comes puking into the world again, alcohol and alcohol and something orange. In this story the women are not yelling yet. One is asleep and one is counting bottle caps.
They talk about this story politely. Clarifications first. Louis has such things to say.
That was a Female, right? And another female?
And the next man, Cause I didn’t realize at first that was a woman.
So they are lesbians?
Louis, approaching thirty, muses instead about age. He wonders is the teacher Dorothy old enough to drink this stuff?
There is a big cake that has been made for students and teachers. Many people have made speeches and everyone has clapped. There are photographs as well. Louis appears in sunglasses, saying, Come on. A Dorothy must be photographed with cake. She supposes she must, pictures are memories and this is not to be forgot, so she follows Louis to the camera. He hands her the knife says she has to cut—she’s the woman. The photographer is a man, Louis is man, a man is to her left, a man to her rear and only one other Dot.
Here is a wide cake. She hands the knife to the other Dot. A photograph is taken. Louis with sunglasses shakes her hand. It is like an athlete who doesn’t know what he plays but thinks he does. Not enough of his hand. They shake, she frowns.
This is not the way you shake hands. He smiles: Because you are a woman. That’s how with a woman. His mother taught him this.
Brain/Jinx/I Owe You a Coke
She wasn’t embarrassed, she was just yelling at me. I steered. I offered a room off of the hallway. It’s not likely we’ll agree to talk again.
Once my brother had a headache on my floor and wouldn’t move. If he’d had a brain tumor ten years earlier, he’d probably be dead. You can make use of a casket. The way to make use of a casket is to take it seriously. White gloves, dark suits, tall men. Everyone has white gloves on, and the closest relations stand the closest to each other. Some men are brothers. They stand next to each other, where they’re told to stand. They wear white gloves, and they carry the casket of their uncle.
Nature of the Crime
Here is what a cowbird is. It used to be that cowbirds followed bison west, diving after their wakes for insects and prairie seed, but now the herds don’t move. A cowbird has never been good at nesting. What they do better is to use the nests of neighbors: some close observation before adding an egg or two to the pile, hoping they’ll hatch under the warm belly of a yellow warbler. Not all birds are so willing/stupid/generous. Some hosts build nests on top of these new eggs, or push them out of the nest, or peck them open. Sometimes they hatch cowbirds. Sometimes this works.
The word “parasite” is not like “dependent,” it’s negative. You can remove a leech with a flame, or, if you don’t have a flame, with your fingers, or, if you don’t have fingers, you can wait until it swells and falls away. The only real thing you might not like is that a leech takes your blood. Too many leeches might take too much blood. There’s no harm, actually, in letting them suck and fill and then fall away. Paul said, You know they used to use leeches for that, to take away blood, as if I should not be surprised. I was still surprised. When I saw a brown bug on the floor of the bathroom today I wanted to flatten it; it shouldn’t be near the toilet where I sit. If I saw that bug on dirt, if the floor hadn’t been in the way, the bug might have been just where it should.
This what I’m saying about Nature, today, though I learn more about it every day. There was a squirrel in my closet one morning when I woke up only it sounded like wings. When I finally coaxed it out it was a bird.
Then there is nature. How. Jade grows up. Horses home for supper. When I wake on Saturday mornings with no plan I stay in bed. This depends on what I remember when I wake up. Different bugs do different things. Some hang out near herds and get scooped up by cowbirds.
They do dress differently when we are there, in prison, with them. I come once when they are not expecting—I have never seen such pit-stained t-shirts on these men before. Bench pressing, thick necks, sweaty pits—they’ve come straight from the yard, from the weights, not planning to be seen. Such thick parts between their ears and their shouldertips.
There was a rubber bubble on the lawnmower the size of a thumb. To prime, you had to push in the rubber a few times, then rip the cord back fast to get the motor going. Two, or three times? Dad showed me again every lawn, a clean effort, estimated like water into an omlette. Told me, A few times. Voodoo, maybe, priming. This year my friend found water with a rod. They are always collecting parole letters. They have a pile the height of my ankle of proofs and page certificates.
Write how long you’ve known me, the nature of our relationship, write about my achievements.
Yes, of course.
Plus positive adjectives.
Here’s a dream I had about prison: I was going in there and everyone had died. That place has never been emptier. Everyone. I just dream about this one place: cathedral, corpses, old monastic courtyard. It was built as a prison but they kept making it prettier. I dreamt I was the only one not dead in that place, sitting on a pile of bad poetry someone’s wife had written under a table in the mess hall. Trying to be in the one safe spot (on top of the poetry) where it couldn’t touch. I think I made it, but everyone else was dead the whole time.
DOROTHY ALBERTINI received her MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 2008 and has been a Fellow at the MacDowell Arts Colony and Wellspring House. Her fiction and poetry appear in Chronogram, Shifter, textsound, Tantalum, Dog Under Porch, Milk Money, and the current issue of NANO Fiction, where she was the winner of the first annual NANO fiction contest.