Win/Win

It was to be a win/win but not so perfect a one as to mean the same quality of win for each on each side of the ledger. It was to be not so lopsided a win/win either, as is often the case with wins of this nature, but would yoke together into a single standing one win from the past and one promised a future winner. The past winner, whose overly massaged ego exasperated the field on a constant basis, was not only used to winning, but she was a mature marksman and an environmental activist. As with all (what we used to call) Type A Personalities, and I sometimes think I’m one, she treated every stage of training and the contest itself like a fight to the death. One could say losing wore a target on its chest. Losing was a hunted runner. The future winner, who was the usual loser, and whose wins were somehow always lost before becoming part of the permanent record, expected the whole thing to be called off without warning, compounding her identity as someone who was not meant to win but to stand for defeat on a philosophical level. How ironic that the usual loser who was the future winner, who internalized loss like a tapeworm, appeared indifferent to the outcome of any given contest. Contrast this with the grandstanding of the usual winner, whose rise in the standings was regularly described in the media as “meteoric.” Whenever the usual loser saw this adjective, she admitted her clumsiness with a rifle relative to the usual winner’s composure, while simultaneously soothing herself with a soft fact: The secret everyone kept from her was that she was a legend of the heart and an introvert. She was neither Type A nor Type B but was stunned when occasionally she learned of someone having the same thought she’d had. Then she would wrap herself in green and lie back into greenery and weep there in the grass, but not really. Keeping her deep reserves of contentedness a secret, she energized her inner life with the person of not so much a martyr as a savior, who must berate herself for having such an icky complex. She was then a Citizen of the West who had not a lot but enough money. Her outward manifestation some called Game Face: She painted it a flesh tone with a little rouge for cheekbones and lips, while the usual winner, the media darling called Meteorite, decorated her nose, chin, and forehead with such intricate scenes as people doing yard work and pushing shopping carts and leaning down to tie a child’s shoelace. She applied this paint with the conviction that all actions had a spiritual motive behind them not unlike a soft hammer driving down on soft metal heads. This is not a praise-be-to-god thing I’m describing but something more elemental. If this poem, a speedy improvisation, has chosen a winner, it’s not me talking. I don’t follow the sport. I know not one contestant. If it seems like the usual loser (future winner) should be the one with the pretty tableaux painted on her face, I can see why you’d think that. If the past winner is off-putting for being egotistical, I will defend her to the hilt because she reminds me of my twin sister, Regina. She too is a champion chipping away at the myth of mediocrity. This is an important message, she says, even if you don’t know you’re sending it: Everyone is incredible. I may not always embrace this, but I stand in awe of both winners for their sheer athleticism. When I push myself up a snowy incline and lean on a pole to steady myself for a minute, every once in a while my shortness of breath reminds me of the brevity of life, when suddenly everything around me comes into sharp focus and every texture and odor intensifies. Of all possible sounds, the most beautiful in these rare moments are those of funny people bitterly complaining.

A Simple Observation

 
Just as a tulip is revealing to young Rory its upright stance, green stem, and yellow petals, Old Sis claims its color to mean “hopeless love.” The way she makes “hopeless” sound bugs him as much as the sound she makes of “love.” Anyone calling anything hopeless is hopeless anyway. As for love, it comes with its own quandaries.

Though he may have planted the same flower in the backyard two years ago as part of a biology experiment, Rory can bring no such flower to represent anything more than Little Brother’s personality, small and vibrant.

The word tulip, says Old Sis, comes from the Turkish pronunciation of a Persian word meaning “turban.” “For God’s sake,” says Rory. “Why is it always the sounds of things with you? What about the tulip itself? Where does it come from?”

For Rory, whether the tulip is supposed to match the shape of a turban or evoke the prettiness of bunches of bright turbans adorned with parading flowers, the love it means, though somehow meaningful, is neither hopeless nor romantic.

On the Litter

 

The secretary sits in his car outside Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, its Rosetta window reminiscent of the one inlaid in the gable wall at Otey, his boyhood parish. A drooping melaleuca languishes beneath the window, in the light of the entryway. Men smoke there, in this light, before flicking their butts into the wet street and entering the church in twos and threes to find their spots. Duty-bound, the secretary must join them, as he’s joined them a thousand times before—to read and record the minutes. Tonight, the grand poobah Max will open the floor to the men’s experiences with a recitation of Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,”

I have walked though many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being,
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray…

To coax himself inside to listen to his fellow men, the secretary makes a game of it: He will sit quietly and take notes more copiously than the anonymity of the members permits. He will quietly write out everyone’s remarks in the first person, parroting each guy’s voice to the best of his ability.

Kobe M.

I’ve rarely felt more intimate with my wife than when we went shopping for a couch. I was going to tell her this, but I know it doesn’t match her definition of intimacy. It takes two, you know, to be truly intimate.

Phil

When the various ways of getting an erection lowered my blood pressure too much, we tried alternative ways of sex. My wife likes them a lot, but I’m not sure she needs me for it.

Ace

Has anyone heard about this male platonic touch method for keeping a marriage interesting? My hugging you is supposed to make things better between Nance and me.

Hector

My ex told me she was still grieving after our divorce and I wondered if I was grieving too and just didn’t feel it. Is that possible? Can you grieve without feeling it?

Tariq N.

When I pee it dribbles out. I used to have a steady stream. My doctor tells me I have an enlarged prostate.

Paul W.

Tell me about my aspirational clutter. I’ve got camping gear, fishing gear, scuba gear, rock-climbing gear, a long board, a short board, wetsuit, a mountain bike, a road bike, a home-brew kit, never been touched, an untouched saxophone, a post-hole digger, a treadmill, a rowing machine, a Serbo-Croatian language course, a half dead bonsai tree, a camera with an endless array of lenses, and stacks of how-to’s and historical novels. My question: should I have a garage sale?

Hank

My daughter’s stepfather bought her a Prius. I can’t believe he bought her a Prius. I could never buy her a Prius.

Max F.

From Kunitz, I say again, “Live in the layers, men, not on the litter.”

 

Stanley Kunitz called his poem “a summing-up poem.” Max enriches the meetings with the summing-up poems of men and silently urges praise of his choices. This sounds judgmental. The secretary doesn’t mean to judge. He loves Max. Max checks in with him before he can slip out: “You good?” How can the secretary tell Max his wife’s biopsy has come back and, with it, news of an advanced stage of cancer? How can the secretary explain his wife’s insistence that he find someone new, only to turn around and say, “You’d better not, if you know what’s good for you”?

“I do,” the secretary has told her. “You do what?” “Know what’s good for me.” “Go see your friends,” she says. “I want to stay here with you.” “Go,” she says, “and don’t take it personally.” “I’m not taking it personally.” “Then go,” she says. “Tell them what’s happening to us and take down whatever advice they offer, so as not to forget. Come home afterwards, and crawl in bed, and try not to wake me, and please do wake me. You can if you want. I want to see you all the time now. It’s complicated, isn’t it? In the time we have left, our shared time, I’ll need more alone time than you’re used to. So go to your dumb ole meeting, Thomas, and come home quick and, yes, I think I do want to hear: tell me what the men say about us.”

 

Flowering Slugs

 

Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge

 

With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, Arkemy’s experimental film Bingo! features two-dozen old people playing the parlor game in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced into the film for thirty seconds every twelve minutes, footage of snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves.

Another of his tedious films, Topiary, some call “introspective.” Horticulturists shear shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. How is a view from a distant rooftop of abstract laborers silhouetted in glaring sunlight introspective? Every once in a while, a snail inches over tears in rancid linoleum.

In Terra Firma, his best for how short it is, we peer through openings in reflective glass at milling tourists who sometimes crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Look fast, though, at snail-infested grow bags!

In Interstate, a film shot like Formerly a Forest from a circling drone, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north out of town. In the clutter of a people-less picnic set in the shadow of an oak tree, a snail crests a rim, pouring itself into a Tupperware container.

Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. It’s hardly an act when a snail in the public garden below propels itself forward on a single, flat foot, secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” a mechanical voice announces, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, doesn’t he? He overdoes it with incidental noises. Human voices run together.

He’s made a name for himself filming strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. The mollusks he glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers. “Snails,” he tells me one afternoon, “are faceless.” So his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form lines around whole blocks, anticipating blockbusters. They wait at bus stops in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. “You’re going to have to help me with this,” I tell him. “Is not the mundane at some point just mundane? If your films are statements about the environment, why not send a more urgent message? If this is a spiritual thing, tell me about the spirit.”

Arkemy, whose real name is Glen Olson, smiles and asks me what I see when I walk through a wet park. I think of matted leaves. He says, “Get a whiff of it, young man. Scoop our share of soil.” He tells me in a tone that frankly I find condescending, typically Boomer, that like the snail we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to silence me, and it does (it disgusts me), he says triumphantly, “If you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”

At the Height of the Pandemic

 

A man called my wife a cunt today. It was at the height of the pandemic. She was jogging in the park when she pulled down her mask to take a breather. She wasn’t the only one to pull down her mask today, but she guesses she was oldest. Her gray hair, she guesses, made her an easy target. I said, “He fears the asymptomatic carrier.” She said, “He can’t bear the thought of a woman rule breaker.” I said, “If I could I would have a word with him,” and she said, “Why can’t you listen to what happened without wanting to punch someone?” “I’m not punching anyone,” I said. It was at the heart of the pandemic.

 

When a man living in and out of a box runs to catch a bus, at the very sight of him the bus driver not only accelerates but is seen to smile. The man running with his box in his hands yells over the traffic, “May your house burn down and all your children in it!”

 

A sacred pedestrian lies on a hospital bed, a bearded obstetrician reaching between her legs asks her to push. In place of a broken stirrup, a nursing student leans her shoulder into the flat of the foot of the birthing woman. This student’s perspective one place to start, when you look not out, but down a leg to a crowning child.

 

A child heard a man talking on his phone about fuck-you money. She didn’t know what kind of money this was or what you spent it on, only that this man spoke more and more angrily into his phone while walking his dog in his pajamas at noon.

 

Father Finley talks about grace as openness to the possibility that you could suddenly fall in love with everyone in the world. I used to think about this on crowded buses. I think about it now with empty buses passing.