Gut Instinct

I hang up from haggling with a software rep and realize my second cup of coffee is cold. Typical. I get lost in what I’m doing and rarely finish a cup of anything.

In the kitchen, my husband is half done preparing a poor-boy lunch: taco shell rejects—the ones in each box a little too warped to stuff—cracked exactly in half and topped with grated cheese and cream sauce from last night’s pasta. He’s feeling triumphant in his frugality, I can tell. But I’m a little ticked he didn’t even ask if I wanted any. Just a couple nights ago—when we’d eaten the shells that did stand up to stuffing—we’d both remarked how much we loved the greasy indulgence of melted cheese and marinated sirloin we’d raised ourselves.

This casual maneuver is typical, too. As I’m asking, “Making some for me?” I can hear his How-many-times-have-I-come-in-from-working-and-you-haven’t-made-anything? reply. And when he actually says it, I’m ready with How-many-times-have-I-made-something-and-you-haven’t-eaten-it/didn’t-like-it/thought-it-dried-out-too-much-warming-in-the-oven?

“That’s a defense from Out West,” he says for both of us, referring to the season of our marriage in which his best friend’s wife—a traditional ranch wife—kept a plate warm in the oven. I resented the expectation so much that I started treating missed meals as do-it-yourself affairs.

“That’s true,” I say and leave it at that. No real use dredging up arguments that ended in “selfish fucking pig.” His whole-body screams when he gets to words like that. Blunted, I hear myself fling them back.

I put three whole shells for myself on the cookie sheet and chop onions and garlic, knowing he’ll want some, too, as soon as he smells them cooking.

He returns to the corner that contains his desk and the spreadsheet he’s cross-referencing for year-end profit and loss calculations.

We’ve weathered several of both, I think. Trouble is, the profits weigh little in my memory. And it bothers me. Loss seems worth more—and that bothers me, too.

 

Our first terrible investment might well have been Martha, a tank of a Brown Swiss, and her Holstein-cross heifer calf, Lightning. They were his first livestock purchase Out West and a bargain for good reason. Broad, suspicious, unyielding, Martha dominated any herd she mixed with. Call the cows one way, and she’d throw up her head at the sound of your voice and bolt the other direction, trailing the less ambitious behind her. Her calves had to earn her protection. If they couldn’t keep up, she’d leave them behind or at least love them less.

Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.

Against obvious odds, my husband intended to make Martha a nurse cow. She produced enough milk to raise more than one calf each season—a double-your-money bet. The trick was to “draft on” an orphan calf or dairy steer, fooling her into surrogacy. When the calf’s shit started to smell like her milk, conventional wisdom went, she’d take him.

But Martha would not submit. Twisting like a bronc in a box stall, winching her halter tight as a noose on her head, she would fight until one leg could be caught in a lariat and tied in a corner opposite her head. Stretched and strung, she would froth, breathing hard, as the calves sucked. Twice a day this was necessary. And not with sure success. You’d think the udder relief would be worth it.

Lightning turned out as big and indomitable but black with a jag of white on her forehead. Same deal with drafting. She had a way of tensing her hind leg just enough to cow the orphan calf into backing away, for fear of catching a hoof in the jaw. At that rate, the calf probably wouldn’t thrive, but he’d still fare a little better than on sugar-laced milk replacer. Break even, I guess.

 

“Jesus—low broil, LOW broil,” I mutter, mostly to myself, as I take the shells out about a minute past perfect. He believes in high broil, despite the consequences. I think it has something to do with the reliable intensity of the heat, the way virtually anything will quickly crisp under it. My shells are burned on one side. His aren’t as bad.

“Hmm… very artistic,” he says of my near-loss with a smirk, as he dots his with hot sauce.

“Shut up,” I say, smirking too.

 

I was responsible for getting calves on Lightning one weekend while he was gone. I hadn’t practiced enough to do it well—always relying, I realized, on him—but the calves had to eat. The net result was that we never drained a single quarter. She’d have to be stripped out by hand for several days to save her udder from mastitis or some other infection. My hands cramped, then went numb. She knew where the bucket sat between her legs and periodically kicked its contents onto the barn floor, warm earthy milk seeping away, yogurty clots stuck in the straw.

I remember the sticky, sick feeling in my stomach and between most of my thoughts in those days. Fights erupting even before they hit the surface. Tit-for-tat and caring less with each pass. Little time for best-case scenarios and less for hitches like Lightning.

Pregnant and very indifferent, I had let our pony run past me down a road, away from the neighbor’s yard where he was pastured for the sake of her small kids, and into a forty-acre field of oats owned by another neighbor quietly suspected of catching and selling off livestock not his own. “Fuck it,” I repeated in my head with each awkward step out of the field access. “Let him fucking deal.” My pony-less neighbor walked with me, carrots in her hand, as though they would reel the tension back into proportion.

Desperately over-committed, my husband had spent the afternoon single-handedly corralling cows that had pushed through fences on our rented property. By the time he got to the pony with a bucket of grain, it was well after dark. Enraged at my unwillingness to solve such a simple problem, in comparison, he threatened not to come home that night—not coincidentally, just as my family was due to pick me up for the drive to Denver for an uncle’s birthday. I told my parents and grandmother this even as I finished making the soup that I’d leave for leftovers. “Let him fend for himself,” my mom said flatly. I said nothing.

 

I’m just topping my last taco with homemade salsa when the cupboards banging behind me reveal he’s rummaging for something for his sweet tooth, metal mixing bowls and spoons clattering.

He doesn’t realize he does this—slamming through life. When he leaves the house, the door shuts so hard behind him that the floor reverberates and pictures leap a little on the walls. In our first year together, we each bought a pair of rubber clogs. He wore through both the liners and the heels of the soles themselves within a couple years. A sales rep marveled at the destruction when I asked about repair. We’ve since replaced them altogether.

“How many bananas for banana bread?” he asks. I know he’s already mashed a couple but just wants to check. He’s the ask-forgiveness-not-permission type.

“Two cups, if you’re following the Moosewood,” I reply. As reckless as he is with oils, vinegars, and cayenne when whisking a salad dressing, he will follow a recipe to the teaspoon—his mother’s perfectionism, I think—so I point him toward the more indulgent version that I like. It calls for three sticks of butter, citrus and nuts, but I know I’ll have to put the latter two in myself if they’re going to get in at all.

…on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.

“How many teaspoons in a tablespoon?” he asks.

“Three.”

“Two?” he counters, because he wasn’t listening or—more likely—because he wants to test how sure I am.

“Three.”

This happens outside the kitchen, too. We work independently a wall away from each other, and on average, he asks how to spell five words a day, from the moderately tricky to those he doesn’t bother to remember because he knows I do. He’s also reliably a few keystrokes short of good grammar because I usually proof his important drafts.

“Do we have any allspice?” he asks. He really wants me to rummage for him through the Tupperware container that contains handfuls of bulk-bagged spices, most of them unlabeled but easily recognizable by smell, at least I think.

Instead, I offer to grate some of the fresh nutmeg my eighty-four-year-old Norwegian grandmother unwittingly smuggled back from Jamaica. She gave me five nuts and half a coconut shell to display them in three years ago, and at the rate we’re grating them, the rippling, glossy meats will be around years longer than she will be.

There’s one taco still standing on my plate, cold now and soggy because I’d already spooned salsa across it, but I run downstairs for a couple satsumas to grate for zest. Citrus fits into only two categories for him: juice and fresh-peeled. Not bread or salad.

“Here,” I say, sweeping a little pile of zest into his batter without asking how much the recipe needed or whether he wanted any. I already know the answers to both. I skip the nuts.

“Only one teaspoon!” he sputters, feigning that he will flick some out with his spatula.

“Are you really going to notice?” I reason, submerging the zest myself. I know he’d considered this. In at least six cups of batter, one teaspoon doesn’t stand a chance, but I think it’s better to have just that hint than to go without.

 

Cooped up at a resort outside Denver, through three days of talking around my marriage with my family, I register that the baby moves little. I don’t allow this to surprise or alarm me, but I sense that I’m distracting myself from the sudden, localized pain I’d felt jogging after the pony. A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.

 

A slow but searing pulling, like peeling fascia from a raw steak with your fingers. It had gone away after a few minutes, but I could have traced on my abdomen where it had been.

At some point, my grandma, sharing a full-size bed with me, asks to feel the baby kick. She rests her hand there a while, then concludes for me, “He must be sleeping.”

Driving the many hours home, I feel a denseness returning to my thoughts, knowing stuff that matters awaits me. That my world cannot run on small-talk. I also remember thinking, my head pressed uncomfortably against the window of the sedan, “Maybe, kid, it would be better if you weren’t here.” The words, the phrasing, hung there like I had spoken them out loud.

A weight, the size and shape of a fist, dropped from the area of my throat to the pit of my stomach.

 

He’s smoothing the batter into two loaf pans now. I’m massaging one with a wooden spoon because he’s got the spatula. Satisfied with his pan, he takes mine. “Hmm… I did a better job than you,” he says absentmindedly, stroking the second pool into swirls, a pursed-lipped cake decorator.

“I didn’t have the right tool,” I complain, feeling the lameness of my defense. Truth is, I didn’t care. “But if you want to keep score, I’d say you could have scraped a good quarter-cup more out of this bowl.” I swab it out and lick it off the spoon.

He’s already back at his computer. I notice he’s set the oven on convection bake—a feature he likes because it purportedly cooks multiple items more evenly. I avoid it because I think it skews baking times.

 

I return to work—off the farm at that point—and pretend we’re fine. One conversation gives me away, though, when, “What the fuck were you thinking?” comes too loudly through the receiver at my ear and there’s a little too much silence in the shared office after that.

A coworker notes that my right ankle is swollen and jokes that she bought slip-on shoes in her second pregnancy so she wouldn’t have to look too closely at her feet near the end. I don’t register this comment until much later.

Two days pass and there’s a clenching in my stomach, almost like cramps, I realize, but I finish the accounts payable and crawl into bed late as usual.

By midnight, though the ceiling fan is shoving humid July our direction, I’m shuddering with chills. I wake him, but he tells me not to worry. We both know that everything is dramatic and distorted in the dark.

Around four a.m., I’m wheeling down a hospital corridor, its sick greenish lights revealing too much, it seems. The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, “Twenty-seven weeks,” she says worriedly, “That’s too early.” As though I honestly didn’t know.

They search for a heartbeat for twelve minutes, then there’s a heated conversation in the hallway. The doctor is livid that they can’t get my medical record together. I relax a little, my contractions eased by the distraction.

But our son is dead.

We both know it. And pity the doctor who has to actually say it. I don’t look at the ultrasound screen.

The nurse asks how far along, and when I say, ‘Twenty-seven weeks,’ she says worriedly, ‘That’s too early.’ As though I honestly didn’t know.

By morning, the baby floating still inside me, we’ve called our parents. “Oh, no,” my dad finally manages, and I can hear my mom gasping, gagging. My next closest sibling—a sister—was stillborn at full term, a casualty of misdiagnosed negative rH factor.

Canceling appointments until his cell phone dies, my husband is getting used to saying, “We lost the baby.” But I’m realizing that it’s not lost. He has yet, literally, to be born. The body can’t reabsorb twenty-seven weeks of organ and bone. It all has to come out. And there’s going to be a lot more to remember than I’m ready to.

I’m transferred by ambulance, because my hemorrhaging could be fatal. I chat with the paramedic, and he can tell I’m not facing the fire.

We get admitted to a birthing suite and set adrift for twelve hours or more in our own quiet. Narcotics and Pitocin, hushed voices, a white paper rose taped to our door.

My husband sleeps cramped in the armchair in my room, holds my hand for a few seconds only when I ask, wanders out to eat. When he wakes and finds me curled like a fetus, my un-brushed breath condensing heavily on the plastic handrail of my bed, and I’m telling the nurse not to fucking touch me, he finally panics. He’s raging in the hallway, crying and screaming for more painkillers. He doesn’t know that’s not really what I want. More nurses rush in. The doctor on-call has been asleep—it’s 6:18 a.m.—and it takes minutes to release more meds.

I know it’s over before his fury has even passed.

“It’s out,” I say, lifting my head back onto the bed. Someone pulls the mess of baby away, and I sleep, aware suddenly that this is a beginning, not an end.

 

I shuttle the banana-sticky dishes to the sink, sweep up a handful of wayward sugar on the floor. He has flour down one leg of his dark jeans and under his nose.

“I’m sweating,” he announces, a little surprised himself.

I don’t mention that he gives off energy of almost comical intensity when he sets about a project like baking, something beyond his orbit but clearly, though he never stops to think it, within his abilities. Then again, maybe he does think this and runs on confidence. Typical.

 

They ask if we want pictures, want to bathe our son or hold him. I say no to bathing but yes to pictures and holding, and then there’s a bundle in my arms. He’s much heavier than I imagined, an actual weight, a substance, though just over two pounds at birth. His skin is still pink, not yet gray, and the line of his brow, the set of his nose are unmistakably his father’s. Wedged in that wretched, partially inclined bed together, we curl and uncurl his translucent still-pliable fingers, little red veins running down each one. We’re swollen but cry little, dead ourselves to what this means.

And then it’s time. It skins me to watch the nurse walk away with our child, the peach tassel of his knitted hat in the crook of her arm. We will never see him again.

Just hours later we get released, practically outpatients. When I balk in front of the nurses’ station, caught in the fluorescent awareness that they’ve witnessed our disaster and our unpreparedness and the resentment between us, my husband takes my hand and leads me quietly to the elevator, then into the real light of day.

For some reason, I’m surprised to see the same dirt and small gravel beneath my feet on the floormat of the car. Then, I see I’m wearing exactly what I wore in—a pair of maternity jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, not new or clean, no bra—as though this all might not have happened, like we could have turned right instead of left.

We drive to the mortuary down the street to sign over our son’s little body for cremation, writing out his full name, letter by letter, in standardized boxes, for the first and last time. We’re told he will arrive a few days later by certified mail. His enameled urn, it turns out, is the size of a film canister.

As the searing engorgement of breasts dies down and the cleanings flush out—the last of the physical—there’s nothing more to do but see it all in hindsight.

 

“Your bread is beeping,” I say, hearing the oven timer go off. It sounds loudly at first, then chirps every thirty seconds that it goes unattended.

His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.

“How do I get the middle cooked?” he asks, several beeps later. I can see him probing the loaves methodically with a toothpick.

“Move them to the top rack and check again in five minutes,” I suggest, irritated by his asking but glad he’s made dessert. His feet slide back to his desk.

 

After seasons of second, third, and fourth chances, we send Martha and Lightning to the sale barn within months of each other. He tells me he has to sit on his hands to keep from bidding on Martha when she is pushed, bewildered, into the ring and circles wildly, nostrils skimming the gates, her eyes rolling. “When it’s your first one, you’re surprised how you feel,” he jokes to a friend, but I think he means it. She goes for $.40/lb live weight and is burger by eight a.m. the next day.

Lightning has twins in an ice storm the next March and abandons them. Barely forty pounds each, they’re half dead, gray, too cold to shiver when he hauls them in. As they thaw under towels and our fingers, we notice one is male and that one of its hind legs is broken—probably stepped on—and the other is female. Insult to injury. A female fraternal twin is almost always runty and infertile, a “free martin.” We give her away to a neighbor who will raise her as a project with his daughter. The male limps hideously until we stop splinting the leg. Then it heals quickly, and we turn him out to lush summer pasture with Lightning and a Jersey calf half drafted on.

“Fuck it,” he says. “I’m done fighting her.”

Miraculously, both calves come back showing little heartbreak. But Lightning hasn’t changed and cinches her fate the next time we’re sorting misfits for sale. In our way at every turn, she wheels and squirts the wrong direction, sending her own calves stumbling and unhinging the others we’re steering toward the loading pen. Without a word, he pushes her into the trailer first. He swings the compartment door shut, slams the bolt through. I never hear what price she brings.

 

He made it forty minutes of the hour that the recipe suggests we wait before cutting the cooling bread.

“It’s dry,” he mumbles through his first bite. “The damn convection bake dried it out.”

I say nothing and know, as I push back from my desk, that I will not think it’s as dry as he does. His skill is measuring how far things are from good. Mine is sensing just how close.

“I’m writing little scenes like this down,” I say, spreading butter on my first slice. “I think there’s something I can do with them.”

“So, I should watch what I say?” he asks, but we both know he’s kidding.

“Yeah,” I answer anyway. Funny how things come out.

 

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Special Guest Judge, Christine Hale:

Kristine Jepsen’s “Gut Instinct” makes powerful use of juxtaposition—between time periods and narrative lines—to create subtle but viscerally disturbing parallels between the fates of cows and of women: their service as breeders and nurses; their small, often doomed rebellions; and their ultimate expendability within a meat- and male-dominated food chain. I admire both the tonal restraint and the fierce emotional risk-taking in this memorable piece.

—Christine Hale is the author of A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, and the novel, Basil’s Dream.

 

Kristine Jepsen is a writer and farm-business owner in northeast Iowa who writes most often for the Driftless Region’s Inspire(d) Magazine. This piece comes from her experience founding a Midwestern grass-fed beef company and a memoir project that earned her a spot in the AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship program. She is also a 2017 finalist in the personal essay competition at Proximity Magazine.

Photo by Eliza Jepsen

To Mold a Star without Burning (or, Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Art Critique)

A. Description

The Work’s medium was oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, birthed one December day in 1960, Brooklyn. Boy child from brush strokes of Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father. Face framing wide-set brown eyes and wide refined nose. Our eyes are drawn to the thin line that divided his naked torso in two—a bisect from a childhood car accident that kept him bedridden and flipping through Gray’s Anatomy for weeks. We could dedicate a whole page to The Work’s hair, which was sometimes untrimmed garden with thick clusters of kink. Other times it was a simple landing strip of wool on scalp. By adulthood The Work was distinguished by an average height and flowing lines. His walk more of an ooze, really: a median for a being in a hurry and taking his time all at once. He painted sans shirt or nude. His smile was all play, all bold teeth framed by wide lips. Watching Jean-Michel grin was watching a magnet at work. No wonder The Work was born artist, weaned when his mother brought him to The Met again and again to absorb post-impressionism like a prayer of echoing stipples.

 

B. Analysis

Take note of the repetition; a common motif in The Work’s life was black excellence and white indifference—or exploitation.

Throughout most of his life Jean-Michel was unstable. His Met-loving mother became institutionalized. His accountant father demanded pure tones and definition… the expectation was all school and obedience, no deviation from the classics. Going from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico back to Brooklyn left The Work unevenly seeking some form of stability, a sense of permanence.

The Work’s magnet-grin made him repellant. A rebel of law and order (namely his father’s and the public school system’s) that christened him problem child. Meanwhile the city dragged him across one landscape to another, from sleeping in Washington Square Park at seventeen to writing cryptic messages on subways in the early morning hours, all the while taking the drugs that allowed his brain to rattle. His favorite would become heroin and the way it made lines converge and blur.

Consistent drugs rendered Jean-Michel’s interior chaotic. He learned to channel the chaos through broad strokes and colossal ambition—his, not his makers’. That ambition was channeled onto eighty-four-inch canvases. Some subjects of choice were griots, black athletes, the body, and the self. Under double-weight of expectation and constraint, elasticity may’ve been what The Work craved all along, like in his painting Flexible. The painting is a shadow of near-black acrylic on near-white wood. A dark figure’s eyes, nose, and head are outlined in yellow. Jagged circles and squares are teeth. The lungs drawn in white on the torso. The dark figure’s arms loop together like a speech bubble. Kindergarten colors with an esoteric message crowned Jean-Michel the art world’s radiant child, their primitive painter. Even better he was black; primitivity from the source.

The Work’s most distinctive feature, talent aside, was his ochre surface that dubbed his success dangerous. That made hailing a cab impossible, multimillionaire status be damned. That branded The Work isolatingly individual, a Twombly in a room of Rembrandts. That curdled the eighties art world constants of white wine, white walls, and white people. That classified Jean-Michel as “Black artist” rather than “artist.” Take note of the repetition; a common motif in The Work’s life was black excellence and white indifference—or exploitation.

But what does it all mean?

 

C. Interpretation

If you break apart the name, “Jean” comes from the Hebrew root for “God is gracious.” “Michel” translates to “Who is like God?” A rhetorical question, since no one is like God. Even if they leave a Godlike furor in their wake: pained lovers, painted fridge doors, befuddled art dealers, powder trails. If Jean-Michel was like God he was strictly Old Testament. The ones who felt his grace most were friends and women who could stand the clutter. Some came as dark-eyed runaways that couldn’t tell him no. Others came as Area blondes, though none were as free-form as he was. They were awarded with garish love (gourmet desserts, cheeky portraits, playfulness) and grayed selfishness (infidelity, indifference, STD-turned-sterility).

If Jean-Michel was like God he was strictly Old Testament. The ones who felt his grace most were friends and women who could stand the clutter.

It’s hard to determine what Jean-Michel was meant to convey. If we asked the makers—Matilde and Gerard—what their intentions were in sculpting him, their answers might have varied. Perhaps they envisioned neoclassical rather than neoexpressionist. In any case, the makers were unwitting masters. Their Work sold canvases that disappeared in the blink of an eye for millions. Some say his purpose was to do just that, shake up 1980s art and then vanish. Some say his purpose was to color in the blindingly pale, where the only African art in museums came from Picasso. Maybe all that matters is that the rest of us felt Jean-Michel’s grace, too, jarring and certain on his canvases. Maybe The Work taught us that grace reveals itself in crossed-out words and three-point crowns, and that mercy is not as neat as we like to think.

 

D. Judgment

Now the lingering question: Was he worthwhile? We must outline the criteria for what makes a work of art “worthwhile,” being: 1) beauty, 2) uniqueness, and 3) fulfilled purpose. There’s little doubt about The Work’s sly symmetry, bold shading, and pure form. His glaze was breathtaking before his decay. There’s even less doubt of his etchings without boundaries, the likes of which the world had never seen, nor will ever see again. Heroin shortened The Work’s duration at twenty-seven years in August 1989, Brooklyn. Jean-Michel’s funeral was attended by comrades and art dealers alike; the latter’s eyes glossed over The Work’s corpse while calculating death revenues. Now his pictures garnish t-shirts, sneakers, and backpacks. Canonization renders Jean-Michel costume fodder for hip young black men and those who want to be them.

We’ll say The Work was what he was: black, brazen, and beaming. We’ll say Jean-Michel was the harshest brand of divinity.

The third criteria, however, isn’t as easy to discern; Gerard and Matilde left no artist’s statement. They didn’t post a placard saying, “In this male flesh we recognize our own blood and tempest. Through him we explore the concepts of love and longing. We merge the prodigal with the inventive. Touch him. Love him and expect to be loved in return” next to his mounted figure. They didn’t anticipate bringing a spectacle into the world.

At best The Work was explicitly abstract. As one of many lovers noted, “[He] was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly… [He] was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain.” At worst The Work was warped. In his most aggressive sheen he obscured all obligations, hurting the ones who loved him in fits of puerility. Beloveds didn’t want to risk hearts, dealers didn’t want to risk wallets. But how do you say no to gloss? How do you subdue a magnet’s pull?

You don’t. You appreciate the strength of his hands and the resolve of his paintbrush. You marvel; in The Work’s eyes, every canvas mistake was a chance at invention. We won’t say The Work was good, good is too noncommittal. We’ll say The Work was what he was: black, brazen, and beaming. We’ll say Jean-Michel was the harshest brand of divinity.

And we weren’t ready for his corona.

 

Works Consulted

Basquiat, Jean-Michel. Flexible. Digital image. Pace Prints. Pace Editions, 2 June 2016.
Clement, Jennifer. Widow Basquiat: A Love Story. Broadway Books, 2014.
Davis, Tamra, director. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Arthouse Films, 2011.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. “Burning Out.” Vanity Fair, Nov. 1988.
Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. New Edition ed., Quartet Books, 2015.

 

Ola Faleti lives, works, and writes in Chicago, Illinois. When she’s not writing grants for a creative writing nonprofit, she is eating her weight in peanut butter cups, probably. Her work has appeared in Harpoon Review, The James Franco Review, Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, and elsewhere. She is honored to be a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award.

The Typewriter

The typewriter’s film of dust: I could have written in it with a finger. It had been a while since she’d found reason to type anything. The last thing, perhaps, a fresh list of contacts she carried around with her, knowing she could not be trusted to know, might not remember. Her family, our names, phone numbers tying her to what she knows she knew, to who is tied to her, who ties her to home as she walks, her walks in tighter circles as she comes to not know what she knew. Have I shown you this? she’d often said, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Or, What’s this, she’d ask, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Oh, yes. Have I shown you this? She was always a preparer, thinking, planning, figuring, preparing.

I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need? How many bras? A sweatshirt with a garden on it? Her USA baseball cap? I have no idea. All the underwear that’s not decrepit, her fleece jackets, two dress blouses, two dress pants, a pretty jacket. I don’t know. Sneakers. Light hikers? Slippers. Nice loafers? I don’t know. How many sweaters? How many sweaters does anyone need ever? How many pairs of corduroy pants in pastel colors?

I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need?

I have filled garbage bags with her life. Articles clipped out of magazines, magazines, small pads of paper, old bug spray, piles of paperclips, maps, pencils and pencils, pens, erasers. A spare roll of correction tape for the typewriter. Should I keep the typewriter? She wrote some of her classic tales on it. The one about the Texan on the bus trip in Canada. What do y’all Yankees think about us Texans? We don’t think of you at all. The one about winning the speech contests all the way up to the state level when she was a girl. By the shores of Gitchee Gumee. By the shining big sea waters. The one about her boss at the Horn and Hardart accusing her twenty-something self of fraternizing with the customers when the “Okay, I’ll see you Friday” meant she had just served coffee to her dentist and she was due for a checkup. I will find the pages somewhere, in a file folder. In days (years) to come, I will sometimes remind her of the stories she told again and again. Really? she’ll ask. Interesting, she’ll say.

I will show her photos of herself in her seventies, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, waiting to hold hands with two strangers who hold hands with two strangers who hold hands across the country with Hands Across America, a fundraiser for our poor. I will explain the photos to her again and again, and each time will tear up about this tender and silly-innocent initiative that she so proudly joined.

We will look at her terrible photos—always blurry, unartful, on the fly—from Germany, China, Thailand, Tennessee, Seattle, London, an Adirondack hike, an Oregon camping trip, in front of a church in Prague, along a canal in Paris. Is that me? she’ll ask. Yes, I’ll say. Is that you? She’ll point at an old photo of her young self. No, that’s you, I’ll say.

I look for but do not find the old Brownie. It hadn’t worked in years, but I remember as a child peering down into its viewfinder, feeling the nubbled leather of it in my hands. I must have found her current camera. I do not remember what I did with it.

Without our memories what are we? She remains a Maine-iac, a former travel agent, a mother of MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn, someone who does not like vegetables, or flying insects, or food that gets under her dentures. She never wins at Bingo (she frequently wins at Bingo). She’s not interested in things she used to be interested in. You like peaches, I tell her. Oh, she says. Interesting. She no longer likes mandarin oranges, until she sees what they are. She loves chocolate. She’s from Maine. She was a travel agent. Been all over the world. She has… four children, MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn. She believes she has grandchildren. Yes, she says vaguely. She has a great-grandchild, I explain. She does not understand that idea. Interesting.

She remembers that she must use her walker. She does not remember a time when she did not use a walker. Sometimes she remembers a time when she did not use a walker. She remembers how to pronounce certain Welsh place-names. She cannot remember exactly who Jan Sibelius is or how to pronounce Jan. She likes to say, “après vous,” impressing the aides in her facility. Some research on the development of the sense of self indicates that memory and goal-related behavior and the memory of goal-related behavior work to define the self for the self. If you have no memory and no goals, who are you?

Among her articles neatly scissored, I found one detailing instructions from the Hemlock Society.

Typed notes from trips. Typed envelopes ready to send her rent, unless the landlord himself stopped by to borrow her hammer or a screwdriver from her little toolkit. Typed list of items to remember to bring on trips: Band-Aids, a small expandable clothesline, binoculars. Typed list of people to send Christmas cards to. Last year I’d asked, Who are Madelyn and Don? People she’d exchanged Christmas cards with for years. I can’t remember. Isn’t that awful, she said. Is she a cousin? A college roommate? I thought of the photos of four laughing women on the roof of a building in New York. One hand to her mouth in mock horror, she repeats, I don’t remember. Isn’t that awful?

The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World. Then the whole unfolding story of our life, a story narrated and rewritten in our head, retold to the world, reflected back to us by those people who say, “I remember that time when you…” or, “Tell that story again about when you…” Responses to the world become habits of mind. Will I ever forget that apple pie makes me shudder? She is always cordial, always polite, always thanks people for visiting, thanks people for assisting her. Some days she says yes to going for a walk and some days no, not now. Some days she says, I don’t know, what should I do?

The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World.

Near the door she long kept a small backpack. I discover inside it a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a soft container of Kleenex, a roll of toilet paper, a small bottle of water, a packet of peanut butter crackers. She never knew when opportunity or emergency might arise. I had called her one day to say we were going up to our mountain house and would she like to come. We would not get there until later this evening, but she could come the next day. She heard “come to the mountain house.” We arrived after eight p.m. to find her settled on the porch sofa, the porch door having been uncharacteristically left unlatched, with her book, bottle of water, packet of crackers, the blanket she kept in her car for emergencies. She didn’t know where we were, but if we didn’t show up, she was ready to settle in for the night. I no longer latch the porch door, in case some other traveler needs a couch.

Piles of letters from old friends, postcards. I find my own handwriting scrawled tiny on international letter paper, that thin blue stuff onto which I would try to pack my adventures running around the edges. I don’t find the very old postcards from my dad that she’d kept for some reason for years and that I would, as a preteen, periodically take out and examine. Hong Kong. Amsterdam. His blocky handwriting looked just like my brothers’. Her own neat writing appears on notes to herself, notes taken about books she was reading, dates to remember.

In the last few years, on the arm of her sofa she kept tiny slips of paper with the days of the week typed on them, each attached to a paper clip. Each day she would attach the proper day’s name to her purse.

It had been mine, I think, the typewriter. Maybe an older one was in a closet somewhere, or I’d already hauled it away in one load to the Salvation Army. The self-correcting tape was a miracle. Gone the days of feverish erasing with the pencil-like white eraser, always grinding away at the paper, and the tiny whisk broom at the other end to flick away the debris, the extra e, the misspelling, the errant comma, converted to dust and sailing around the room to settle in crevices in the floor. I had read somewhere that the first typewriter to be mass-produced was made by the sewing machine manufacturer Remington, which also went on to produce firearms. This all seems fitting.

She has outlived her money, her hearing, her brain, her lifelong good health, her better judgment, her best intentions. Judas Priest, she used to swear. I did? she says. Interesting. Tough shit is her new favorite.

This model is a Brother. In place of the old metal arm that pulls the paper along, this has an automatic carriage return and paper feed. It has a neatly fitted top that snaps into place and a handle for carrying. Each letter cradles the fingertip. The space bar is shinier than the rest. If I un-scroll the correction tape, I will find impressions of the things taken away. If I un-scroll the ink ribbon, I will find the impression of what was written, dim, blurred letters, ghost stories. Names and numbers.

 

Marilyn McCabe’s book of poems Glass Factory was published by The Word Works in 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts resulted in the video-poem “At Freeman’s Farm,” which was published in The Continental Review and Motion Poems. She blogs about writing and reading at marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.