When the radiators overheat we try to turn the knobs wearing oven mitts. At night it’s too hot to sleep, and we open the windows to the cold December air. My nose bleeds intermittently, suddenly, all winter long. I wake in the night to the hot rushing smell of iron, or, elbow-deep in dishwater suds, feel the blood coming too quick to stop.
There exists a certain splendor in the protestations of the electorate on the grounds of the Elected. Here, in the southern wing of the Nebraska State Capitol, roughly 75 farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans and other dissidents have gathered to oppose construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and more specifically, the Governor’s authority to approve the pipeline’s path through Nebraska. They’ve come wearing belt buckles and Wrangler jeans, bolo ties and t-shirts that scream “Pipeline Fighter” and “#NOKXL.” But it’s difficult, in these marbled and dimly lit halls, not to feel awed by the stature of it all, the history cast in bronze and embossed beneath your feet. Even the atheist may be overcome by the grandeur of a cathedral.
When I was growing up, my family was in Long Beach regularly visiting my aunt Carol and uncle Rocco, friends of my parents who lived blocks from the ocean. My memory insists that it was always summer when we were there: barbecues, somebody’s birthday. And the Fourth of July parties, all-day affairs the adults would spend on the stoop eating burgers and macaroni salad while us kids—myself, my older brother, Carol and Rocco’s son, Matt, some neighborhood kids—played basketball in the street.
Today was on fire. I drove under a mountain on fire, the sun red in winter trees.
The cars on the two-lane highway stopped to watch the sun and smoke. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the traffic usually just stops for bears, which you might see far off, a black rustle in leaves or branches, or not at all.
Right now in heaven, Tolstoy is playing with his dumbbells, even those little rounded weights he kept in his study at Yasnaya Polyana have come up with him into the cloud-city of the afterlife. In the spring of 2016, I toured his old house and the estate on which he lived, walked out through the green trees and the precision mosquitoes to his burial mound, a grass covered box-shaped hill on the ground where the great man went in. But why was he great, when so much of his life was spent—that little account of time we all bank on—in little rooms sitting in a chair made for children, propped up on a pillow, his waning eyesight pulling his face in ever closer to the page?
Tesoro, a blood-bay quarter horse, galloped toward me across the fall grass. The temperature had dipped 25 degrees from a few hours before, the wind’s sharp whine outside the barn colder still. Weather changed that fast in Texas, locals using the expression bluenorther to describe Arctic air charging from the north without stopping.
It’s a mess down here, a goddamn mess. Such a mess that Israelis have a special word for it, balagan, a word invalidated unless accompanied by frantically gesticulating hands and a scornful glance as if to say I know it’s a mess, I’m smart enough to know that and that makes me better than the mess.
Fair roof, dripping hall—these are names for sky where there should be only helmets left in the sand. We waste words mapping distance from one church to another, when religiosity is Fenrir in the north, and fresh birthed inkings, rooted in south sea brine. This is the way with us: Pythagorean stubbornness while we square the same four city blocks and discuss, too fast, our respective shames, walnuts quick meeting fire, and our first model ships.
Conversations from Luquillo to Boston, Following the Wrong Dog Home
Every summer, we boarded the sleeper-train from Shanghai to Jiangxi and I squeezed through the crowds to claim the top bunk in a tight compartment shared with two strangers. The train always smelled of feet and instant noodles, and I loved the 16-hour journey because it was the only time I was allowed to have the MSG-flavored noodles. I rolled onto the scratchy bleached sheets that stuck to my sweaty body, and pressed my head against the cool metal bar to peek out the window, upside-down. Rocking to the train’s steady sway, I felt the soft, comforting crease of the cash my mother had sewn into my underwear against my thighs, in case of pickpockets. Meanwhile, she sat bent on the bottom bunk, purse clutched to chest, glancing up at my dangling head and legs, muttering, “Behave, you are a city girl.”
When we were young, white, and poor, we were handed dull machetes. At first light, in the back of half-ton grain trucks, we rode past the peppermint fields and the pear orchards of southern Oregon. We were strangers thrown together like dice in a cup. Some of us smoked quietly or blew the steam off the tops of take-out coffee containers. Others sipped whiskey from dented flasks or spit tobacco into plastic bottles. In ratty plaid shirts, torn dungarees, and worn out boots we looked the part of migrant workers. We would work twelve hours with half-hour lunch breaks that felt like no break at all. At the end of our shift we were older, more broken, and still in debt.