Tonight the creek sits high in its bed
a wolf howls at a snowy owl
she mistakes for the gibbous
moon (until it takes flight)
as I eat wild sloes
blaming them both—
creek and wolf—
A crowd gathered on the crumbling pavement of the town square. The Leader stood quite still in its center, her unusual silence commanding our attention. Eventually even the men tilling the fields nearby set down their plows and stepped over rows of freshly planted seeds to hear her proclamation.
The Leader held a curiously stretched oval, like an egg made long by the captive hatchling inside. A thin silver rod protruded out of the oval’s side.
“My family,” she boomed, and the breeze played with the hollyhock blooms wreathed throughout her curly brown hair. “Brother Nielwin”—she acknowledged me with a slight nod—“discovered this artifact from deep within the waste mines. Our foremothers called it a ‘radio.’” She offered the crowd a rare smile with her words, then she turned a knob and the thing began to crackle and moan.
Some men leaning against the ruins of a brick wall covered their ears with their chapped hands. Others whispered of wickedness. A child sitting at the Leader’s bathed and oiled feet reached toward the object.
“What do we hear, dear Leader?”
The Leader’s voice dropped from full to half-mast. “That is the sound of our future, my child.”
“Our future sounds like a storm rolling in,” the girl replied, and the Leader stooped to let her touch the wailing gray thing.
“SO IS THIS WHAT YOU DO HERE—make Rube Goldberg machines?” Jacob said, after I’d spread string, scissors, plastic cups, and a few small peg boards across the breakroom counter. He was sitting at the table eating a sandwich and fries from a styrofoam box. I watched as his paisley tie dipped into ketchup. That’s how new he was to the pediatrician’s office—no one had told him yet that Medical Assistants could dress business casual.
“Huh? No, I’m the Scribe? The one who inputs the doctor’s notes into the patient database? The job’s kinda tedious, so I started pushing thumbtacks into the corkboard behind my desk and wrapping rubber bands around them two at a time. Set up a little maze down the wall for a marble to travel down. Janet, the Nurse Practitioner—not Janet, the Lab Tech—saw it and liked it. She started bringing patients by for demonstrations, and then she asked me to build a machine in here.” Stop rambling. Why do I turn into an idiot whenever a hot guy is around? “I’m Ethan by the way.”
“Hi. I’m Jacob. Your machine sounds cool. Where’d you learn to make them? Did you go to an engineering school or something?”
I answered his question by pulling out my college ID and showing it to him, not remembering the terrible picture on it. Scraggly beard, eyelids half-closed, a questionably-high James Franco smirk. Jacob pulled a matching ID card out of his messenger bag.
“We must have just missed each other on campus,” Jacob said.
After that, a pause filled the room. “When you’re done eating, do you want to see the machines?” I asked. Jacob nodded, mouth full of pastrami.
I took him down the long hallway past the exam rooms to the corner where my desk squatted and showed him the machine. I handed him a silver marble and pointed.
“Drop it on the highest rubber band there,” I explained, and we watched as the marble glided across the vertical maze, and down to where I’d looped the final band around the switch of my desk lamp. The marble clicked against the switch and my light turned on, which also caused Jacob to beam.
“Like I said, I have a lot of free time.” I tried not to notice his long eyelashes or his one crooked tooth; I itched my ear instead. “So, yeah, the kids liked it, and pretty much everyone in the office is looking for new ways to distract patients. It was a hit.”
“I see why.”
Two coworkers came out of the exam room next door and asked me to demonstrate my machine again, after which, one of them, Cindy from Billing, said she wouldn’t mind her own machine. I told her I’d see what I could do.
AT LUNCH THE NEXT DAY Jacob ventured down the hallway again carrying a milk crate with about a dozen random objects in it.
“Hey, Ethan, I did a little googling and brought you some supplies.” His elbow brushed my shoulder as he set the crate down on my desk. I could feel heat disperse through the ridges of my ears. “I…If you feel like it, I can help you with Cindy’s machine.”
“That would be great,” I said, avoiding his gaze by inspecting the items in the crate. Some dowel rods, duct tape, a hamster wheel, and… “A blender?”
“I figured if we couldn’t use it, maybe I could make us some margaritas? Not here…I mean, back at my place…but, you know, not like that.”
Not like what? A date? I felt tingling in my feet. “Why don’t we just play it by ear?”
The rest of the work day dragged. When it was finally just Jacob and I, we took out all of the things he’d brought. We decided to make a machine that would unfurl a sign at Cindy’s desk. Jacob started pounding pegs into a pegboard. When I caught myself watching the curve of his bicep contract with each hammer blow, I started tinkering with the blender.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
I told him what I was thinking: dowel rods and a wedge to guide a marble into the bottom of a flat, paint-stirring stick. The stick would jerk and a string attached at the top of the stick would yank a paper clip free from the sign we’d hang from Cindy’s desk.
“Sounds good, but I wonder if we could incorporate her chair somehow or put something on the floor? I saw a video last night where they wrapped an electric cord around a chair les so when someone pulled it out the machine started.”
“We could, but how long do you want to be here tonight?”
He faced me, a grin triggered a set of dimples. That crooked tooth. I knocked something off the desk and was turning my head to see what it was when I felt something swipe my neck. I smacked at it without thinking, connecting with Jacob’s nose and cheek. He had tried to kiss me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Are you ok? I was…um, let’s maybe not kiss? At work, I mean, with the security cameras. But definitely again.” I put my hand on his shoulder and winked. I never wink.
“Well, at least we got that awkward first kiss out of the way, right?”
We quickly set up Cindy’s surprise after that. Jake printed out a picture of a cat with a pink party hat over its ears and a wry look.
We tested the machine a few times and started repacking the milk crate with the items we didn’t use. I picked up the blender still sitting on the breakroom table where we’d left it.
“Hey, you still up for some drinks?”
“Absolutely, but we won’t be needing that.” Jake pointed to the blender. “I just needed some way to ask you out.”
To my NYC Midnight friends, this is an edited version of the story I submitted. Group 54—romantic comedy, a pediatrician’s office, a blender.
yesterday I gave you my love to mine
quietly you donned an orange lantern hat
leery to discover the lode you’d find
yesterday I gave you my love, to mine
scorpions, alluvium, quartz or brine?
hopefully it’s diamonds reminding us that
yesterday I gave you my love to mine
quietly you donned an orange lantern hat
As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.
A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus, I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”
The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.
I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that August night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room makes me think of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.
The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”
The Cardigan stopped unpacking.
“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”
“Haha! Nathan’s dad’s a queer!”
“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan: both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, searching their shoes because, for some reason, I thought they’d tell me what unified them and set me apart.
Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.
I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, Ass Hole, how ’bout you? I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he slid past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”
But I didn’t.
Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.
Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.
The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.
“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”
“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”
“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.
“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.
“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.
Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,” Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.
Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.
The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.
You can read my original post here.
Passing thoughts, arranged.
Everything about my idea of happiness, food and a lot of food for thought!
The queen bee of this hive
"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." - Stanisław Jerzy Lec