A Fog Will Press Forever at Your Shoulders
I stole a donkey. This was a Saturday, the day I make flapjacks for Colette, so I loaded the donkey down with a colander full of pancake batter and set off for where Colette lives.
Like it had tacks in its hooves, the donkey hopped and tumbled and grunted. To soothe it, I took a handful of the batter and offered it up. It licked for a few minutes, then looked away and began chewing grass from my neglected yard. I’d picked a bad donkey to steal. So I hitched it against a light post and hotwired a car instead. One with the dimensions of a refrigerator, but with no air conditioning, causing me and the batter to begin bubbling over right after belting in. That summer had been so lousy with heat.
I turned the ignition and the car went right up into the air. Unexpected, but the velocity was fine and my ears never popped.
I arched miles over the sun and worried of basal cell carcinoma. As protection, I scooped out more batter and smeared it over the length of me. It caked like a desert, pressing a corn maze tan into my skin. I watched the clouds dissipate as I passed through them.
The car landed minutes later in True, Wisconsin, population 291. Still a good distance from where Colette lived, but I thanked the car and set to walking.
Four miles out of True, I came across a Boy Scout troop standing beside a forest that was fully ablaze, acres of it.
“Where is your scoutmaster?” I asked them all as a group.
A boy named Clarence responded using American Standard Sign Language: “Down that trail, pissing on an oak.” I looked and saw no oak. No trail or master either, in fact, just flames and a sea of red and gray ashes.
“You kids look hungry,” I signed back.
Clarence promptly extracted a skillet from under his hat and began warming it on the ashes. I served flapjacks to that whole battalion of kids. I’d never reared kids and never even been one myself, so I didn’t know the grotesqueness of their hunger. There is perhaps nothing so frightening in all the world.
After the last sizzle of batter erupted in the pan, Clarence signed, “Look, I’ve been talking with the other fellas and we want you to stay at our camp as cook, permanently. Our scoutmaster agrees.”
I looked around. Still no master.
I told the troop I had to return to Colette. I signed too much, all the details. She played cello. Her hair had the color, density, and shape of a cast iron pan. We’d met on a catamaran and consummated on a pier. I divulged the brief, tortured affair she’d had with her butler, Pitty Pat, a Manx cat who’d been born on a shipwreck off the Ireland coast. Maybe Colette’s love can only be buoyed by water, I hypothesized to those eighth graders as we stood surrounded by that dense landscape of flames. Never before had I made the connection.
During nap time, I quietly grabbed my empty colander and started walking in any direction. There was just fire, fire, fire, as far as I could see. Eventually I came to the end of it and there I saw Old Hippernoles, hacking at his tractor with a hatchet. His spelt field was lush, with a crisp river cutting through it.
“Old Hippernoles!” I greeted him, then set into explaining my situation. I’d run completely out of flapjack batter due to the donkey, the sun, and the scouts. I explained how Colette would re-catch consumption without the healing properties of my flapjacks.
“What do you say?” I asked him, looking out at his field, which stretched so far it eventually dropped into the sky’s gutter.
“No can do,” Old Hipperoles said, “It’s all been account for.”
He brought his walkie-talkie to his mouth and said three words in code.
“It’ll be just a sec,” Old Hipperoles told me as he waited for a reply.
Six years passed, years of fallow and fruition. After a final snowfall sifted through the land, a reply came back, just a single word. Old Hipperoles talkied back his thanks, turning to me: “My associate granted permission for me to grind this down for you.” Old Hipperoles patted his green tractor, which had by now rusted in the spots where he’d inflicted wounds upon it with his hatchet.
“It’ll have to do, but I need it ground down fine. Very fine, indeed.” I told him. “Nine times finer than you’d grind the spelt. That’s where the healing properties are derived - from the fineness. Don’t tell anyone. That’s my greatest secret in life.”
The river was still frozen solid, so he handed me a plastic bottle filled with rare glacier runoff. He also handed me an oversized wooden spoon. I thanked him as I combined the flour and water in my colander, then offered him the spoon to lick. He held his tongue out where he stood; I moved toward him.
“Lord almighty!” he said, licking like a dog at its sore paws.
“I must go go go,” I said as the flour slowly began to gob out of the colandar’s holes.
The next field over, Georg’s wife Sandy was in the pear tree, polishing the fruit, as she does, so perpetually mindful of the impression she casts.
Before Colette, I’d almost loved Sandy, and now, seeing her un-stockinged legs up in that tree, I wondered why I hadn’t. “Sandy,” I hollered up at her. She looked down, almost losing her balance on the branch. She pointed up a little hill and said, “Georg is at work on his moonshine still. You can join him or you can climb up and help me!” she battered her eyes in a way that suggested weariness rather than desperation. I should have been nicer to her from the start, I thought. She was whistling now, a song from our youth that went Mmmmm, Bop! Ba do.
At that moment, I thought of Colette and the mournful sounds her cello made, not so much beauty as rotten notes played badly, a reflection, I saw honestly now in the gold light of day, of her very innermost being. I moved more into the shade, put my hand up to block out the sun. Sandy’s face was as pure and clear as if it’d been sandblasted. The old feelings clawed their way rabidly back into me.
How many of my healing pancakes had I made for Colette, I wondered? Always, I’d mixed the elixir with such care and rushed it to her over the fields and dales that our occupations forced between us, only to have her drench it in syrup and butter, to terrorize it with a steak knife, then leave it half-eaten and a few hours later complain to me about the first stirrings of consumption aches.
When I’d arrive, Colette ask me, “Why have you taken so long, errand boy? I am hungry, chef!” Always these different names for me. Never my love, my pet, my one and only or even just Chet.
Suddenly a fog rose and I could no longer see Georg over the hill. His nose by this point in life had bloomed like a boozy rose, obstructing his ability to kiss Sandy as it was.
Would he really mind me doing so in his stead, I wondered? I wanted the kiss to vacuum all desire I had for Colette out my very being. I knew it could.
If Georg came for a second out of his own sodden fog and saw us, I’d right then kidnap Sandy from under him and we’d hide forever like bandits in downtown True, living out our lives in the modest bustle of that place. The idea ran through me like an icy stream. The fog was so thick, Sandy was invisible, but I heard her humming the lyrical melody from another song of our youth:
I used to think I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
But now I know the meaning of true love
I’m leaning on these everlasting arms
I decided on Sandy’s weariness over Colette’s bad notes and began feeling for the branches, thinking Sandy, Oh Sandy. I thought of the lazy donkey, the scouts, and Old Hipperoles’s ground up tractor. As I pulled myself up Sandy’s body began falling toward me, weighed down by longing, I knew. She was screaming my name. Love is many things, but it is never an accident.
Sandy lay motionless on the ground, death giving her a look only describable as “ancestral.” I was still holding the colander. Flapjack batter was dripping all around. I felt like a priest at a baptism. I knew her soul would be ok to make its journey, so I continued on mine, toward Colette. I pictured the indescribable look on her beautiful face when she woke to the ineffable smell of my flapjacks coming alive in the pan.
We found our former boss dumping a heavy body into lip of the lake. He said his classic line: “These are good problems to have!” and threw us thumbs-up. Good for the boss or body it was unclear. One had no life, the other no body. For once he may have been right.
I have a new story online, published by Housefire. Have a read.
Sal woke in a war zone wearing sweatpants & a mesh shirt. He’d used his machine gun as a pillow. On his face, sleep lines like heavy scars.
In the globe of a body we put our flag in the spleen & look up. A neck’s an awful sky, tangled by veins like shadows from branches of trees.
The moon=butter. Ralph lifts a knife up, scrapes it & spreads it on toast. It melts over his slacks. How to remove moon stains from slacks!?
A plumber built a suit of armor out of scraps. Then welded himself into it, a new steel skin. “Wife! You like?” “Oh you look awful in gray.”
A lazy clown sealed real animals inside balloons. Doggies, lions, monkeys! The children squealed w/ delight. Then they discovered the teeth.
Scraps from an abandoned travel journal
- Got a late start.
- It was cold and my hands hurt and started cracking with dryness.
- Bought muffins and returned a library book.
- Hit some Badger/accident traffic.
- Served lunch by a chipper, excited Spaniard.
- His descriptions made my burrito sound so delicate and refined.
- Fell asleep behind the wheel.
- Drummed on the top of the roof and jiggled the dream catcher.
- A black bear sprawled as roadkill along the side of the road.
- Free at last!
- Fell asleep to a show about violence in Mexican prisons.
- 5:45am: She opened glass cabinets and tried to play with the minuscule pieces from board games.
- The opposite of baby-proofed.
- Loaded guns and uncovered wells everywhere.
- Packed into warm gear before the sun come up.
- Over the lake.
- Sky clouded over.
- It slowly turned less black, becoming eventually a cancerous gray.
- Black bear.
- Other dogs that may be loose.
- We didn’t over-stress her hip.
- It was only 7am.
- We’d missed the fall back.
- Not noticed.
- Nap. 8:15am.
- Hungry for lunch. 8:35am.
Unibrow: A Confessional
I wanted to write a confessional poem about my unibrow, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymed with “unibrow” except Tsing Tao, which is a brand of Chinese beer, so instead of tongue-kissing poesy, I lost myself on that stuff a while. A month, maybe. Many headaches.
I emerged wanting water and I learned that it’s sometimes called a monobrow & in many Eastern cultures is considered a sign of beauty on women. But I’m not a woman, I’m a man, and I learned too that in England, uni/monos were once perceived as an external manifestation of a criminal mind in men. So I started to feel at all times like a brute at heart. It is a good feeling.
There are many way to get rid of unibrow: tweezers; thread (usually administered in shopping malls); lasers, which are sophisticated and expensive; razors. My wife taught me the razor method and it’s the one I use most. A quick swipe makes my brow-space baby-smooth, using her technique. But they’ve begun packing so many blades on a razor cartridge, you now basically have to extirpate hair with something the thickness of the Bible. Which, come to think of it, if God does see everything, means he watches me as I’m shaving right over the bridge of my nose. How boring. I wonder if he ever mistakes me for a beautiful woman from the Orient or somewhere? I hope not.
Sometimes I nick myself and say “Jesus Christ!” and the light over the bathroom mirror dims perceptibly. I guess that I’m being watched from above might be true. That or the wiring’s just bad. The house’s or mine, I’m not sure.
Once, in my twenties, I let my unibrow grow back for a year or so. I’d read somewhere that a caterpillar reclining over your eyes is indication of genius. I’m 33 now and my brows are separated by creative force and blazing pridefulness, and I’m well aware of my own limitations.
I may let it grow back though. That’s what I’m writing this to say, the confession I originally wanted to make. I’d wear it full and proud like a good beard. Stroking the fuzzy expanse gently, I’d consider words being said to me, staring off, feeling the pride of someone who has stabbed propriety in the gut and gotten away with it.
End of Chapter Questions for an Imaginary Textbook
1. Describe how like or unlike a vagina a peach pit is, using no anatomical words.
2. How did Tito cook couscous without any water, and in fact, no couscous. (Extra credit: Did it taste any good?)
3. How prosperous is your father, monetarily? Please provide an exact figure so we know to either laugh or to ask to borrow “sum.”
4. If, in a saloon, the door a cowboy enters through swings both way, can we assume that the door is mostly homosexual?
5. True or false: 4 out of 5 of Yugoslavia’s most prosperous farmers are unaware that Yugoslavia is no longer a country.
1. As Dimitrije’s father says, “Life is as much possibility as it is impossibility as it is missed possibility.” What can we possibly assume the father is referring to? How long had he been in prison at the point when he had said this? How did the pencil thin mustache he’d grown at the point of saying it fit into his overall existential mood? Give reasons for your answers.
2. Will South Dakota ever cede from the union? When will this happen? Will anyone notice? Why, or why not?
3. What effect, if any, might the large tourism industry in our country have on my home life? Why is there such an influx of Macedonians in my rumpus room and how will their visit effect their worldview when they return home? Will they lug my bed bugs back in their hair and decimate their own Macedonian furniture? True or False: Macedonian Furniture sounds like a good band name.
1. A committee of housewives may get together to protest the existence of the the word “housewives.” That these women are both homeless and unmarried is an unessential fact. They should prepare oral reports, computer rendered presentations, and sculpture (singular) to explain their message. Extra credit will be given for each neologism used (ex: jam tomorrow, seeing the elephant).
2. Some pairs of students in the class may get more involved with each other than with their studies. Admit it - it happens.
3. Write about writing your final diary entry. Specifically, speculate in words about what you think will happen to your diary when you die. Will you feel ashamed for your mother to read through it? Your father? The editor of Details magazine? The FBI? What if this written speculation is, in fact, your last diary entry? Woah.
Use the answers provided above and information in Chapter 11 of your text to answer the following questions.
1. What percentage of teachers are women?
2. What percentage of women are teachers?
3. Does the percentage of teachers who are female increase or decrease depending on subject matter? Objectively, does leading a “girly” subject like Cryptography: Math and Codes make a female teacher more womanly than a markedly “macho” subject, such as Chinese Character Writing?
4. Who has been asking these questions?
a) a child in Peacock Country, dressed in finery, squinting into a fire pit b) a man in a tank c) Bread is Expensive (née, Richard Caspian) d) all the above f) all the above with the exception of d)
5. For what year is this information accurate?
Clowns, Panthers, White Clouds
My car stopped working on a one-way street. This was Chicago, way past the dead of winter, when the body of cold had already began to decompose around us and made our heads fertile with well-fed worms of hysteria. Rudy was with me, wearing her cape. She kept waving her phone, saying, Who should I call, huh? as I turned the key to expel more hallowed out sounds.
I ran down a list of the few car-related words I knew: Battery? Gas tank? It was an admittedly short list.
Rudy was texting Marin, who was in the venue still, waiting in line to use the bathroom before she herself entered the cold and forgot where she lived.
“Does Marin know what’s wrong?” I asked
“She found out that guy she was talking to works in finance in the Loop,” Rudy responded.
That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but already I was desperate for any possibility. I thought it over, watching how the screen lit up Rudy’s face in a way that made her look much younger. Maybe as young as when we’d just met and I’d glance over at her in the movie theater or someplace and think this could be my future. And it was, but the elements of what that future became had gotten mixed up somehow, soured. Our relationship had grown a puckered look about it, generally. Our apartment, for example, took the appearance of a hut with a dirt floor and a table spilling towers of mail. At night, two different beds held us in the same room, only partially because we both punched things in our sleep. We’d grown so polite, collapsing like mice as we passed each other in our one narrow hallway.
Back in the car, I kept the heat off, so we were bundled and clenching ourselves. It was a conservation measure—the battery had to be the culprit, I was certain. But I didn’t know anything, so I asked Ruby to hand me the manual from the glove box. I used any available light to find unfamiliar terms in the index and turned to the appropriate pages.
I’d read a few sentences, then get out the car to shake a wire or hand-tighten a bolt. Then I’d run back in and turn to the index again.
Ruby had met Marin in a class where they’d learned to knit washcloths. They used their time in class to stitch gifts for each other, infinite washcloths of sundry shapes and colors. Weekends, they’d meet for brunch, which would turn into stores and coffee and pre-dinner drinks, and dinner, and post-dinner drinks, and cab doors closing shut late below our apartment. Then there were the weekdays. Granted, they’d invite me along sometimes, but the names and situations they’d laugh over were as alien to me as baryonic matter. I’d stare at my Pad See Ew and mentally strategize my pending 401-k rollover. I was ready for change.
An hour passed. Or what felt like an hour.
“What time is it?” I asked Ruby, rubbing the grease from a lug nut on a Taco Bell napkin left over from our most recent road trip to her parents’ Kansas townhouse.
“Hold on a sec,” she said, laughing at the illuminated rectangle.
“I said hold…wait. What? Oh, it’s 12:47.”
Twelve minutes was all that had passed. Already I couldn’t feel my fingers, but Ruby’s were moving fast against the surface of her phone. Maybe the screen was warming them, the activity, the motion. She’d press a message in, then the phone would go dim for a second, then glow again. It was like a strobe light, I thought, stuck in an oil spill.
Never in the histories of strobe lights or oil spills has any strobe light ever gotten stuck in an oil spill, but the dumb connection in my head made me jump out of the car again, the manual spilling into slush. The oil! I’d never checked the oil.
I told Ruby I was going to check it quick, and if it wasn’t that, we could call a cab to take us home and worry about it all tomorrow.
The cap took some effort to get off, thanks to the Puerto Rican brothers I paid to change my oil every 9,000 miles. The streetlamps were wholly ineffective to check the level, so I bent my head down and placed my eye right against the hole. I expected some colony of darkness, some species of emptiness, but I saw bright cool blue water. There were red rocks at the bottom of it, in which sat neon green and fuchsia coral that looked like feathers and brains. Moving around in the water were oversized tropical fish: skinny Bichir, albino Angelfish, delicate Molies, gemmed Danios. More and more kept appearing, different kinds, all rubbing past each other. Golden White Clouds and Clown Loaches. The water became all scintillation and fins. Bubbles collected rapidly at the surface.
I stood staring in for a while, moving my feet, tapping the numbness out. The horn exploded right next to my head. Curving around the raised hood, I saw Ruby with her phone lit again, or still, then it went black. I walked over to the passenger side and said through the closed window, “It’s not that. I checked. That seems just fine. Something else must be wrong. I don’t know what it could be.”
She started to respond, but the phone brightened. The light deafened her expression and took command of her eyes. I walked back to check the oil again, to make sure I hadn’t been seeing things wrong.
Open letter to my son, 3 days old
Dear Sheldon Victor Seidel,
As we were leaving for the hospital so you could be born, we saw—I’m not making this up—a cicada molting on our walkway. It was obvious symbolism: Something vibrantly green and lively emerging from a blood-rust “shell.”
You were stubborn and held in the womb for a while. Even after you began emerging, your head stuck out while the rest of your body stayed in your mom for good two minutes. (Graphic but true.) Your color wasn’t exactly vibrant, but that’s ok—vibrancy comes with time and you’re now three days on the right path.
When your sister was born, I wrote for her 50 Thoughts on Living. In the last weeks, I’ve been anguishing over what to add for you. Again and again, I came up empty.
But seeing your head there, all I could think to give you in the way of advice is this: Never never take your mother for granted.
She spent 9+ months letting you grow healthy skin and limbs and eyes and all the rest inside her, all the while working what seemed effortlessly at her job, around the house, and with your sister. She never complained about any of it.
Then it took her 17 hours to release you. Seventeen. One day you’ll learn the significance of so much time. She got you out of her body completely naturally, without so much as an aspirin to stopper the pain. As a dude, this is a fact you’ll never understand wholly but will it blow your mind regardless, just the mystery of it.
As she gave birth to you, your mom imagined our dog, Lucy, who has ruined hips, but who nonetheless overcomes her constant pain with exuberance. In return, whenever things get hard and crappy for you, I want you to think of your mom, and how weird it looked with your head sticking out like that. And think of what that must have felt like for her. And everything she went through to get you out into the world whole. The pain. Christ, the pain.
To recap: You must never take your mom for granted. Work at that. And then everything else good in life, I’m sure, will flow easily for you.
my almost last thought
On my headphones on my bike ride home, I was listening to somber solo cello music. Passing the abandoned video store, seagulls filled the air above me, making their noises. It was as if a naturalist had overdubbed her field recordings onto the cello music. Or like someone had released gulls into a concert hall.
It sounded nice, rich and vital, the recorded and natural worlds fusing like that.
A few blocks later a big red car came barreling down the middle of the narrow side street, not moving out of the way of my bike’s headlight. As it passed, missing me by not much, I thought how it wouldn’t have been so bad having my last thought focused on how synchronized and melodious the world can be.
Of course I thought this only after the fact, when I was still alive and thinking about what that final thought may have been. But when I considered it more, still still alive, I realized that my actual last thought would have been, Oh shit* god shit** it’s not moving no I’m going to die no!
Though it’s possible it could have been a hit and run and that I wouldn’t have died immediately. In that case, both those thoughts, melody and terror, could have mingled together as my last breath filled my lungs and the gulls swooped down noisily to see if any part of my insides was exposed enough to make a late dinner of.
So in that case, my last thought probably would have been Fucking*** seagulls! Because seagulls are gross, right?
Or maybe I would have snatched a few extra seconds between gurgles! and ouches! to eke out one extra thought after that. One more! In which case I would have thought, ‘Fucking**** seagulls’ was a waste of a last thought - it would have been better if my last thought had been this, that….
And it would have ended right there, with me not knowing what to think next.
* & ** & *** & **** Sorry for so many expletives. Please don’t be offended. You can’t censor a dying man.
eat the cicada
“Do you see that?” my father-in-law asked, pointing. On the cement was a cicada, on its back, covered by dozens of moving ants.
He kept pointing, slow in his usual way, and said, “Look, it’s still alive. See? Its legs are still moving.”
Then, not out of malice, but just to get it off the walkway, my father-in-law kicked the cicada. It landed on the grass, which drought has turned hard and blond. We stared a moment where it landed, directly in the searing afternoon sun.
“Oh, I should probably move it to the shade, where it’s cooler.” He said this so calmly that the idea of getting eaten alive under shade being preferable to getting eaten alive under sun immediately seemed a universally indisputable fact.
Again he scooted the cicada over a few feet with his boot. Even lighter this time.
The ants had latched on tight during the flight from the walkway to the lawn. Now, in the cool shade, they continued traipsing over the bug’s body, taking persistent abdominal bites.
Above us, in the shade-throwing tree, another cicada was making its cicada noise, a noise you don’t notice much until you do notice it and then you can pay attention to nothing else.