Flash Write: What she’s not thinking…

What she’s not thinking about takes up more brain-space than it ought to. She grits her teeth — an ungainly quirk from earlier than she can remember — and grunts a little as she heaves and tugs. It’s a grueling task, this dragging and pushing along; and her un-thoughts aren’t budging.

A hand slips, her teeth mash against one another so that a grating noise escapes — not thinking, notthinking, NOTTHINKING — 

like sour bile, the eruption:

He is her neighbor.

He is not a biology teacher.

He is heavier than he looks.

His hand grazes the dirt, drags a little trail through the grit like a grubby Hansel and Gretel.

* * *

Three miles away, there is a sad excuse for a rest stop, slouched alongside an idle highway. Cars whisper by in the dark, lights cutting through the murky night hours every so often, no rhythm to their migration. The building is ugly, its cinderblocks every bit as bland as the day they were cobbled together so that passersby could relieve themselves with a shred of decency (but only just). The state department abandoned responsibility for upkeep long ago — a new road was built and traffic redirected toward bigger cities and broader horizons and gleaming stations that were more remote-strip-mall-with-bathrooms than this pop-machine-and-outhouse combo plopped amid a rare stand of trees.

A few shrubs spring from the earth, a bit too earnestly, perhaps; it’s unclear whether they were planted or an accident disguised as a wandering deer’s droppings. Overhead, a light whines. It’s miraculous, really, the glowing orb. Its filaments should’ve burned up years ago. Maybe it’s solar-powered — there’s a thought! This grousing bulb, a piece of nighttime sunlight just hanging over the gray bricks and curling brambles and cracked-asphalt parking lot like a lost lamb in a clearing brimming with wolves.

The bathrooms themselves reek of misuse. The only toilet paper that lingers are the bits sticking to suspect pools of liquid on the floor — is it urine? toilet water? liquified worm remains? — and the stall doors that remain are peppered with angular graffiti dug into the metal with knives.

Call Shanel for a wild time! 555-0872

F*ck you b*tch

The biggest poser in the world is the one who reads these words and thinks “not I”

Out front, where the open-doored entryways gape, a water fountain marks the divide. Water trickles from the spigot whether it’s in use or not, and it’s one of those impotent structures that teases children with a burble so slight they must press their lips to the lukewarm metal or face the consequences of inconceivable thirst.

The rest stop is miles away from the nearest town, but no katydids chirp tonight. There is only the buzz of the light, the soft gurgling of the fountain, the occasional zooooosh of a car.

* * *

It’s been hours, she thinks. Possibly years. The sun shimmied south of the horizon long ago, temperatures sinking right alongside her, but the woman’s sweat pools at the center of her lower back before gliding downward to fester.

She should’ve never come out here, she thinks. Should’ve never agreed to the job, or its constricting terms, or dinner with a man who claimed he helped surly teenagers comprehend the complexities of hibernating tree frogs and the deteriorating ozone. Should’ve never.

* * *

The sun hangs high in the sky, its brilliance off-putting against the cracked hopeless earth. A bird trills nearby, in one of the shrub-trees planted so long ago; the sound is a dirge. Nothing lives here, that much is clear.

The grass crepitates underfoot: a child explores, looking for cicada shells and ground squirrels while her family stretches at the car. Her father glances in her direction — a sliding of the eyes, quick and brief — and calls to her. Amelia, don’t go too far! Her brother squints toward her, freckles one hand shading his brow like a scout searching for enemies on the horizon. Shrugging, he pops the tab on a Coke; she can hear the fizzing from thirty feet away, she thinks. It’s that silent here.

A line parts the dirt path — is it a path if it’s wider than it is long? — and she crouches to peer more closely. The middle, a gully, edged on either side by ridges of crumbling dirt. Little ridges in the middle, here and there, teeny mountainous peaks. The girl looks back, where it began, and forward again — aha! A trail! She shimmies with joy and tramps farther from the ugly gray building. This line is like a treasure map, she decides.

Her father can only just see the blue of her cap soon; but he does not worry. There’s nobody around for miles. Let the girl stretch her legs a bit — after all, they’ve still got hours to drive. There’s no one as far as the eye can see.

* * *

In the side of the small hill, the girl finds a hollow spot where the earth makes a cup, or a little bowl. If she sits in it she’ll get her shorts dusty, but she’s certain her mom won’t mind too long. The ground is crumbly and little clods tumble down when she sits. From here, no one can see her, anyway.

The girl is just beginning to think how lovely it would be if a fairy popped out of that tree stomp over yonder, or a wild Sioux chief piled over the top of the dried knoll on his painted horse, when something does appear.

There, at the edge of the hill-cup, is a lump. A something, but what sort of something, she can’t quite be certain. In a duck-like waddle, she scoots closer, dag-blasting herself for forgetting the plastic magnifying glass in the car. It’s not great (it did come from one of those mail-in thingies on the back of a box of Wheaties, after all), but even the scratched eyepiece would’ve come in handy on this Real Exploratory Hunt.

The girl probes the dirt gently. Delicate fingertips brush aside dirt-crumbs, wisps of dried grass, a hard-shelled beetle with malevolent pincers atop his head. The thing she’s found is stiff, and it’s hard to tell beneath the cover of grime, but she thinks — is it possible? — it must be a fingertip!

She presses her tiny, peach-padded pointer to the filth-crusted one. It is the size of a nickel, she thinks; maybe a quarter. Her fingertip is much smaller, a pencil eraser. She cannot stop marveling at this disparity — large to small, small to large — or the good fortune of stumbling upon this treasure. It’s like a button, pushing up from the earth, and she has always loved buttons.

When she hears her father’s holler come careening over the hilltop, really, too close for comfort, the girl goes running.

The button is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

* * *

The woman is hours away from the rest stop. Her car runs hot, no good on a day like today, so she drives without the luxury of air conditioning. Blue-black strands stick to her temples, dotted here and there with sweat that beads up before running down her jawline and carving a path to her seat, where it pools. Dirt crowds beneath her fingernails, pushing in so that she can feel the nail longing to lay against flesh again. She digs a toothpick under the nails of her left hand and her shoulders rise a bit at the excised grime. She looks up, habitually; shudders.

The rearview mirror has been torn from its place at the helm.

The rest stop is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

To My Husband

Almost exactly eight years ago, we met the first time. Your roommates lured me in under the pretense of studying — they wanted answers, I had them — and you were the only unknown among three others. In a sweeping act of bravado, you greeted me with embittered musings on the nature of females; that is, that there wasn’t a good one of us among the lot. I pretended my too-round eyes were a reaction to your speechifying; in truth, I’d never seen another human I so desperately wanted to know.

As you wallowed in the sort of self-pity that comes with a break-up, I prepped your roommates for inevitable testing success and left without another moment shared between the two of us. Until —

It was October, and somehow I’d been dragged back to the apartment — by our mutual friends, by your request, by my own compulsion — and you no longer rambled angrily at your misfortune. We were both doe-eyed, you moreso than I (of course, ahem). Your obsession with Legos and the messages you left on the whiteboard wall behind your living room couch became my selling point when I mentioned you to friends (So original! So strange! So lovely!) and I made it my objective to convince you you needed me.

Somehow, miraculously, it’s eight years later and you have been in my life for a quarter of my time — almost half of what I can remember — and there have been more sunshiney days than Eeyore ones; a gift. Your eyes crinkle at the outside corners when you laugh, still my favorite feature. And I find myself thinking how utterly fortuitous it was, discovering you, the boy who shares a birthday with my beloved autumn.

To the man who bought a forty of Corona Familiar last night to take to a BYOB gathering and still says things like, “Let’s eat Ramen noodles and watch tv on the nest in the basement,” — happy birthday. I love you best.

2018-06-17 11.33.13-3

The Neighbor (Part 2)

Part 1: Read here.

I just spoke to the dispatcher. About the boards in her window.

For several moments, there is nothing at all — not even the irritating thrill of three dots appearing and disappearing. Lottie’s nothing if she’s not a drama hog, and we all know she won’t offer anything else until someone takes the bait.

…and?

Almost immediately, the dots appear . . . and as quickly, they disappear. Nothing. Just as we’re all uttering the first syllable of a curse under our breaths, Lottie pulls through. A gray mass of words appears in our Messages, a torrent of gossip she’s surely had typed and saved into her notes for the seven minutes since that call to the dispatcher ended.

Leon figures he saw the husband late last night, says he saw the truck roll in around one. Who works that late?! I clock out the minute that second hand hits five. Anyway, the neighbors called in a noise complaint around four this morning — heard some loud banging — and the sheriff drove by for a look. He said boards were going up, sure enough, but couldn’t tell who was doing the hammering. And since it’s on the inside, and there’s no current noise problems, there’s nothing he can do at the moment. I bet it’s that woman. She’s always been…different.

We absorb this noninformation: a disappointment. In the moments before the message came through, our breath hung suspended at the doorways of our mouths — lips parted softly, stagnant air drowsing in a relieving moment of inaction. I would say that nobody hopes for bad news, but that seems a bit idealistic for this day and age, doesn’t it? We, each of us, salivated over fantasies of doors being broken down by bomb squads and the woman being led from the cracked steps of the front porch, hands cuffed behind her back.

The wanting, the buzzing need for a dramatic denouement: I’m sure it’s a genetic mutation that’s occurred over lifetimes, since humankind reached a state of existence that didn’t demand constant vigilance against the dark of night.

***

The woman slumps against the living room wall, fingers curled around her phone. The screen betrays nothing, no one. Slivers of daylight pierce the drab room, highlighting floating particles of DNA and who-knows-what-else as they drift toward destinations unknown. She can smell the boards, their scent unnatural in the room manufactured by machinery rather than soil, and she hates them for that.

While she sits, the house sings its daily score: from the hallway, the methodic thrumming of the dryer; from the kitchen, a here-and-gone-again hum from the refrigerator; a startling groan from shifting joists every so often. It’s as though the woman is hearing this music for the first time — she sinks into the chorus, allowing her head to tilt back as she considers the rustling nature of silence. How can it be possible to occupy a still space and encounter ceaseless chatter?

When she was a teenager, the woman had an affair with a married man. He’d capitalized on her naïveté, snaking an arm around her shoulders seemingly haphazardly at first; later, with the confidence that accompanies ownership. Quick side-armed hugs goodbye lazily transitioned into embraces that lingered moments longer each time — she was never sure when it was okay to pull away — and then one day, he pointed at his cheek and said Can I have a little kiss? and then seven weeks had passed and she was holed up in the bathroom at the Kwik Stop in town with a box at her feet and cellophane littering the floor nearby and a room full of silence bearing down on her with the weight of ten thousand hands. She remembers, now, that the silence had had a vibrancy then, too: the fluorescent fixture whined at an unreasonably low pitch while the cellophane crinkled in a slow unfurling on the floor, independent of human contact.

Three weeks later, she’d experienced silence for the last time she could remember, in the front seat of her car while it idled in a parking lot she never thought she’d call a resting place. The engine prrrrrrr-ed in alternating levels of high- and low-volume as she retched into a McDonald’s cup — formerly host to sweet iced tea — and moaned into the emptiness around her.

Yes, the woman decided now: silence was alive, and just like her son, incapable of keeping still.

***

From the corner of Elm and Hyacinth, the house looks abandoned. The boarded-up windows are dark, and when the sun hits just right, it’s almost impossible to tell if the windows have been covered or if the house is merely vacant.

Almost.

The garden is a dead giveaway: a healthy growth of weeds dominate, with two or three marigold bushes sprinkled throughout and a miraculous patch of zinnias shouting “Look at me!” to passersby. If the house were abandoned, the zinnias would have wilted long ago, while dandelions and clover and other pests sprouted upright and starved the flowers of sunlight and moisture. The garden would look a bit like Jumanji, after the kids have opened Pandora’s box and they’ve floundered about helplessly for a day or two. An observant neighbor will notice the zinnias, tended — albeit, haphazardly — and know: someone lives there.

***

A phone rings in another room — her daughter’s, she thinks — and its chirpy proclamation is shrill and unwieldy in the heavy near-silence of the house. The woman quivers imperceptibly. The tune plays two, three, four times before cutting off abruptly mid-ring; the stillness returns, the call a brief (but jarring) ripple already fast dissolving.

To be continued.

The Neighbor (Part 1)

A woman sits on the edge of her cracked-cement porch. It is evening, after eight, and the sky has grown dim as the promise of day fades into muted blues. There is nothing in her hands; usually, she grips her cell phone like a life raft to the world Beyond. Tonight, her hands are clasped loosely, elbows propped on ample thighs, eyes boring into the nothingness that looms on the horizon. Two houses down, a child shrieks with ecstasy — his father is teasing him on the front lawn, his mother looking onward with approval; a Proctor & Gamble advertisement in the flesh.

The woman doesn’t bat an eye at the startling squeals. She doesn’t budge an inch, either, when a mower roars to life across the street. She is impervious to sound; maybe to life.

The garage door at her house gapes in a nighttime yawn: the man has not returned. He’s a phantom: we rarely see him, and when we do, it is as though he only exists when the man looks you straight in the eye. At all other times, he is a silent wisp, ethereally gliding about in the background. We don’t know the man at all.

We watch the woman, sometimes. Usually at night, when she’s put the children to bed. When it’s temperate, she moseys out to the porch to stare blankly at whatever fantasy smothers the reality before her. When it’s not, she idles in the front room, every light glaring at full force in the house, even the ones in the basement. We watch her absently grasp the remote, but her face remains unembellished by the glow of the television. She picks up a few items from the floor — probably stray children’s socks and colorful wooden blocks and discarded Cheerios — only to move the things elsewhere in the front room.

Most of us draw the shades in the evening, in search for a bit of privacy; but not the woman.

She leaves them gaping into the night, lets the dark seep into the house in its familiar prowl, until the lights from her house gleam brightest on the block.

***

At dusk, the garage door is still agape. We rub crust from the corners of our eyes, dash our coffee with possibly-sour milk from the back corner of the fridge, and grumble about our Monday agendas. Perhaps the Sandman dosed us extra heavy last night, or perhaps we’ve become immune to caffeine; either way, none of us notice the heavy boards nailed to the insides of the window frames.

It’s gone ten o’clock when the whispering begins. It starts with a text:

Did you see the Garbler place this a.m.?

And then the flood begins; a practically community-wide group chat devoted to unearthing the truth.

No — but I heard the house is all boarded up! WTF?

It’s from THE INSIDE. I just know that woman is holding her kids hostage…

LOL right?! She’s always been a bit unhinged.

I always thought she seemed nice…a little sad, maybe, but not violent.

That’s what’cha get for thinkin’, June.

GUYS. Back to the issue at hand: who’s gonna knock on her door and find out what’s going on?

The silence is characteristic of small towns: we want to know our neighbors’ business, but we damn sure don’t want to know it from their mouths. Most certainly not when that business involves five-inch nails and two-by-fours. Especially not when it involves the woman.

There are several minutes of silence, several dot-dot-dots hovering in the group message, several collective moments of held breath and nervous chuckles — How could they seriously expect me to knock on her door? I don’t even know the woman! — before the ping comes through.

***

She knows they’re whispering this morning. She can sense their fear, can feel its vibration on the air that is curling up from the gap beneath the back door. People are always suspicious of unknown women.

The boards are an ominous addition to her living room; they’re a pale fir, which shouldn’t seem looming, but the absence of light makes the woman shudder. She can hear nothing beyond the walls of her house; truthfully, nothing more than ten inches from where she sits. The boards have blanketed all sound.

It’s only a matter of time, she reminds herself. Only a matter of time before someone comes knocking.

Outside, the sun continues its ascent.

The Mother

Brown strands of hair clung to the corners of her mouth before the wind blew them free, whipping her choppy locks into tangles that could pass for bedhead (if the person scrutinizing her hair had just crawled out of bed, and had yet to put in their contacts, she thought). The woman sighed. There is no such thing as “wind-tousled” hair when one lives on the plains of the Midwest; rather, there are fifty-mile-per-hour wind gusts that render combs useless and tease manes into something resembling the wildling ‘do of Disney Tarzan.

Why bother? She tucked a few errant strands back behind her left ear — not for the first or last time, to be sure — and pushed the screen door open. As the woman surveyed the horizon for the first time this evening, she kept a firm grip on the door. It had been opened against the unrelenting wind, but in Kansas, one could never be too careful. At any given moment, the breeze would shift its course, pulling the door from her grasp and slamming it back against the siding — bending the inadequately spring-loaded door closer and forever rendering it somewhat-less-useful.

The sky was bleached a milky white, as odd a color she’d ever seen it. There was no hint of blue, nor sign of the sinking sun (it was, after all, nearly eight) — only the faintest trace of umber mingled in with the white. Tomorrow, the forecast showed yet another wind advisory; it was likely the dust particles that were whipped into a froth today wouldn’t even settle overnight, and tomorrow’s sunrise would be obscured behind a haze of filth. It was impossible to accomplish anything significant with the wind battering you at every turn; even breathing seemed inadvisable on days like this.

The woman’s shoulders slumped as the screen door banged shut behind her. The house loomed behind her, its ghastly shingled siding an eyesore against what would otherwise be a relatively unblemished (albeit dry and sparse) horizon. From within the walls, she could just barely hear the whimpering cries — her son’s Bedtime Blues, as she’d mentally dubbed them. Every night, without fail: the crying. She wondered if he would ever outgrow it. Surely, the woman thought, surely someday he would fall asleep without the wounded cries of a child whose mother refused to rock him to sleep every night. Surely.

I could just go, she whispered to no one, not even herself (who’d know she was lying). She took a step, toes crunching blades of grass long-dead. The cries were fainter — was the baby still crying, or was this her imagination at work? Often, she didn’t know; especially in bed at night, when the pitch black seemed to play tricks on her ears. How was that possible? It was as though the darkness blanketed sounds, muffled everything except the whirring of her thoughts. Definitely fainter. Probably her imagination.

The woman took another step, and then fifteen more, stopping only at the cool bite of the barbed-wire fence. Now she could hear nothing of her life inside the barracks house, only the trilling of some bird that didn’t know it was bedtime and the distant thrum of tires on the highway.

She turned to her right, holding the top wire of the fence loosely in her fist — sometimes, the wire grazed the inside of her palm, other times it was as though she were grasping air — and closed her eyes. Methodically, probing the ground for holes and pinecones with her tentative steps, the woman made her way to the end of the line. Now the white of the sky had given way to a murky blue-brown, and a hazy blob of orange lingered where sky met earth. The woman definitely could not hear crying, not the child’s or her own. There was only the sound of daylight dying in the arms of Night. And the sound of her pulse, which had grown louder as she walked along the fence, as though the barbs that had torn open her flesh had also unleashed a voice: her heartsong.

Eyes open, she trotted to the car that sat miserably where she’d neglected it the last time she had left the house (six days ago), blanketed in chalky dust and roasting inside — hot air belched into her face when she jerked the handle, it rolled over her like a wave of ocean born in the bowels of an oven.

The baby was still inside. He would be sleeping now, the woman knew. His father would be home in a few hours; before midnight, most likely.

I could just go. There it was again! That lie.

With a grunt, the car came to life at the twist of the key.

He’ll be home in a couple of hours. Maybe even earlier, she reasoned. Sometimes he’s home earlier. The sun was no longer visible at all, the sky now nearly-indigo. The car’s air conditioner had sprung to life immediately, bathing the woman at first in a warm wash of air; but now, her arms were chilled, an odd sensation coupled with the slimy warmth of her thighs against the leather seats. She flicked the lights on, bumped the gearshift into drive. Slowly, slowly, the woman released pressure on the brake, allowing the vehicle to move forward of its own accord. It creeped maddeningly slowly toward the gravel road, but she could not depress the gas pedal. The instinct was there — press down — but somewhere the neurons that transmitted the message from brain to foot were misfiring, or not firing at all, the lazy little bastards.

They rolled onward, the woman and the car, neither in much of a hurry. She wondered if the baby still slept; sometimes, he woke up after an hour or two looking for his mother. They could spend all their waking hours together and he still needed the woman in his sleep, she mused. How magnificent, the needing! — she wasn’t sure that any other creature on the earth required so much from their mothers as infant humans. She knew for certain that calves could be weaned from their mothers within a handful of months, and of course by then, they were already foraging for the greenest shoots of grass and wandering farther from the herd every day. She crawled to a stop several yards before the road, the car idling tiredly at the woman’s indecision.

I could just go, she repeated. I could just go. But — the thought hung in the air before her, and her stomach lurched at the rest of the statement. The woman sighed — it felt like her first breath since she’d exited the house — and shifted the car into reverse. She didn’t quite run the handful of steps up the sidewalk and back to the door, but there was a renewed sense of urgency. Was that the baby, crying, or were her ears playing tricks on her again?

Her palm grasped the smooth metal of the door handle as headlights swept over the yard.

Everyone was home, now.

Motherhood, No. 3

You are playing on the shag carpet, the fat of your milky thighs spread luxuriously while you sit erect, spine rigid, arms waving erratically. It’s great fun to your ten-month-old self, this arm flapping extravaganza: every so often, a shrieking squeal tumbles up from your throat and you look at me with glittering eyes — See what I did, Mama?

You’ve begun to suck your thumb at odd times — no longer just for naps and bedtime — and as I watch you examine a battered wooden block, you suddenly pop your right thumb between your pink lips and begin slurping while the other fingers of your hand reach up toward your nose, feeling, and your left hand immediately floats up to your hair. With an open palm, you sweep your left hand across your scalp, ruffling wispy silver-blonde locks in that comfort-seeking manner of small children. Our eyes lock — your unfathomably navy blues trained on my deep chocolate browns — and you slurp a few more times, content. I’m suddenly struck: there is no greater stage in life, I am certain of it. Your every moment is somehow both remarkably simple and exhilarating. Children must be so generally joyous because they live in a constant state of discovery.

Still watching me, your lips part and curve upward, thumb sliding out as you break into a toothy beam. I smirk back at you, incapable of resisting your wily charms. I brush aside the faint echo of a thought I’ve had more than once: we’ll have to fend off teenage girls with a stick, someday.

“Henry-boy, hello! Can you wave hi to Mama?”

At the lilt of my voice, your face takes on a look of concentration and you wave your left fist in my direction.

“Hi there! Hello, baby!” I proclaim, wiggling my hands to your delight. You raise the right arm now, fingers spread wide, and flap at me. I think, not for the first — or last — time: I would give ten years of my life to preserve these unremarkable moments forever. 

In a blink, you’ve twisted around, back to me, as you blaze a trail to something more interesting and stimulating than just plain ‘ole Mama.

March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue — I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.

Reflections on a Life Unlived

I sat down last night and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t pick up a book or fiddle with my planner (to make myself feel as though I’m far more productive, busy, and important than I actually am). I just kind of sat there, eyes glazed over with the exhaustion that sometimes comes at the end of a day with Henry. And I thought, Hey. You. You haven’t written anything in a long while. Not even a book review. Not even a reflective idea.

And then I thought —  You haven’t even acknowledged your thoughts for a while.

Sadly, I had to admit, these revelations are accurate. I’ve always been fairly adept at deflecting inquiries as to how I’m really doing — I’m fine; I’m busy; I’m doing okay, no complaints here — so it should come as no surprise that I am not always entirely honest with myself. But still. Sometimes, I am surprised. Like, whoa — there’s that dark place again; how did we get here, Renee?

I’m not sure what’s changed, or what’s spurred the recent self-evaluations that have become so all-consuming in my world, but suddenly I am considering my self and my place daily. It’s an absentminded sort of pastime, admittedly; and I’ve deflected my realizations a bit so that they haven’t arrived fully at the forefront of my mind until just last evening. But here we are, in a place of wonderment where I have begun to ponder —

who are you?

what are you even doing with this solitary life of yours?

and

when you die, what the hell will you leave behind?

When I was ten, I could’ve told any old stranger, without hesitation, that by the time I was twenty-eight I’d be a novelist. People would be reading my stories and they would be smiling and laughing and crying at all the right places; they would be touched in their souls by these words that somehow evoked feelings they didn’t even know could be held in common with a complete stranger from some remote home in a state called Kansas.

I would be special. I’d be a writer. My name would be on the cover of a book, people would speak of my ideas, they would press copies of my work into their friends’ hands saying You have to read this really great book, it’s amazing —

I would be somebody.

But I am twenty-eight, and I am not a writer, and I am not an author, and I do not have an editor or a publisher, and I have not done

anything

remarkable

at all.

And all that I can think of is — how very disappointed ten-year-old me would be to discover this version of myself.

I don’t even have to imagine.

She is still within.

Motherhood, No. 1

You’re clambering across the wood floor now, undoubtedly picking up stray hairs and particles of God-knows-what as you slap your hands down and drag your belly forward — the undusted floor beneath a bookcase teetering with stacks of beloved prose beckons you. It’s just you and me, all day every day, and you turn as you hitch your rump to one side and tuck your hips up underneath you, propping yourself up on one arm to look at me with a wry grin before resuming your destructive path to a Not-Play Area.

Two teeth jut up from your lower gums, neat and perfect and unchipped by any sort of toddler disaster, tiny white Chiclets in an otherwise gum-and-tongue world. Slap, swish, slap, swish, slap, swish — this is the music of my days, the thudding bass of your tiny body exploring the corners of our increasingly crowded living room. Peppered in among the thuds and scrapes, the excited pant and grunt of Baby Magellan en route to the Strait of Unclean Floor.

You watch me for a moment, lying on your back in all that filth that accumulates in forgotten corners beneath furniture, your head twisted to stare at me as you gnaw on a big toe with the dexterity of a contortionist. Saliva is pooling on the floor near your soft cheeks, and I think briefly — I should attach my microfiber mop to you, take advantage of this perpetual state of slobbering exploration. My own personal Roomba. I shake my head at the thought, and at you, with your body twisted in some sort of unnatural pretzel-ball while you make the kind of sucking sounds that would drive your father crazy if it were coming from someone at the dinner table.

Eyes still locked on mine — so steely blue, so unlike my chocolate browns — you release the foot from your firm grasp and purse your lips together, the tip of your tongue just barely visible before — pffffthhhhffffft — a raspberry, your favorite. Now I can’t help but laugh aloud, a quick Ha! that only encourages you to blow another and another. In these moments, I cannot deny the thought that you want to bring me joy, that you desire my happiness; and the very generosity of that from a seven-month-old baby is startling to my untrained self.

You turn your attention back to the dust-furred floor for the sparest of moments before the edge of a blanket hanging down from the couch captures your attention and you’re off again, thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. Through the belly of the coffee table, not around — So smart, I think — and in the blink of an eye, you’ve crossed the room and the purple blanket has an eggplant corner, already soaked in your saliva. As you examine the possibilities of this Other Region, I edge closer on my hands and knees, bellying up to you on the floor, placing my face nearby your fattened feet. Di-uh-beet-us feet, your father calls them; swollen and pudgy like mine were when you’d been in my belly for nine months. I know it’s likely I’ll take a foot to the face, but I want to be near. I want to be able to breathe the air that you expel, as if there is some sort of magic in just that — the act of breathing. I suppose there is. I suppose I had a hand in making that magic, now that I think of it.

While you fumble with the yarn in the deep red shag rug, I marvel at the callused pads on the tips of your toes which you maintain with regular intervals of kicking the floor in your belly-down position. At the whorls twisting inward on either side of the crown of your head, forming a spiky peak of silvery blonde. At the fingernails that never seem to be short enough, despite several weekly trims. You emit another string of raspberries, tongue proudly thrust forward as bubbles form and rivulets of spit follow the curve of your chins toward the base of your throat.

I wonder, not for the first time — is it possible that I love you too much?

The Plains: A Vignette

Out here, people are fiercely loyal to a land that has no love for any thing or any man.

The desertlike plains of southwestern Kansas are fiercely unforgiving; on any given day, you can expect to hear the relentless and mournful howl of a wrathful wind, uncorked from some mythical bottle that refuses to be stoppered until all its air has pushed forth. The wind charges furiously across open fields, encouraging earth to rise and seek refuge in every available crevice — the corner of an eyeball, a crease behind the ear, a long-neglected crack beneath a front door, a hole in the wall of a barn. The dust rises like powder into the endless sky and creates a galaxy of its own volition, daring any and all to enter its massive expanse and come out the other side.

It’s a trick, though.

Everybody knows that it is impossible to do such a thing — challenge the earth and emerge unscathed.

The furious wind and living, breathing organism that is dirt in the southwestern plains are maddening on their own; impossible to endure when they join forces. And just when the elements seem powerful enough to rob you of the most human things you are comprised of, the plains layer on another element of abysmal self-destruction: the drought.

One can live for months without a single cleansing drop of rain, it is true. But physical survival is not a close relative to spiritual continuance. As the earth shrivels and withers in the fiery kiln that is southwest Kansas, so, too, does the soul beat a hasty retreat. There is something primitive in our souls that can only be nourished by the pattering of rain upon dirt, and I often find myself wondering if I am the only one that feels mine rattling around within me like a tab in an empty pop can — or if the indigenous peoples have evolved over time to function with just a wisp, nestled securely inside the pinky finger.

I must remember to nurture my pop-tab spirit, to water it with something life-sustaining. It will not find a knuckle to burrow in safely until the sky opens up next; I am not a native. My soul will skitter about until it finds my mouth open at just the right time and whffft! — it will flee east, or north, witching water all the way.