By KAT GARDINER
Sunlight and Shadows
The sunlight filtered through the window of our cafe. Golden sweet, it wove around the trees, the garden, over the stage, through the window and onto the railroad tie floor. I didn’t mind sweeping, because I got to dip my feet in it.
There was music on, and in the late spring air, it sounded perfect. Gram Parson’s Brass Buttons. Like it was made for right there right then, even though we all knew it was made a long time ago, back when parents were young and happy and we were only a microscopic part of them.
Ceramic salt shakers on the shelf, two eggs with socks and feet. My millet muffins almost ready in the oven. I smiled across the room at Dave and Anna, a small town gallery owner and his wife, the painter. They drank their coffee over newsprint at the wooden table with the wobbly leg. We were their kitchen table and they were our family, summer of ’07.
We would never see them again after we closed.
Life seemed so perfect in that moment, that it was easy to forget how miserable I was and how much worse it would get from there.
The plan was simple. Move from Seattle to that small town up north. Anacortes, Washington. The town by the sea made of boats and chords and rain. Reopen the coffee shop in the back of the record store that birthed Knw-Yr-Own Records. Karl Blau and Phil Elverum and Kyle Field and so many other people I didn’t know yet but had already spent hours imagining. The Department of Safety was there, too—an artist’s collective that took over the old fire station in town and turned it into a DIY punk house of art and inclusivity. They had an artist-in-residency program and a darkroom and a recording studio and shows. Misfit artists not interested in consumeristic demands. That would be the place for us, I thought. I could teach a writing class there. My husband could run a workshop on how to make zines.
Utopia, we thought.
At that cafe in the back of the record store, we’d make coffee. Great coffee. And food made of real, whole ingredients. Local when possible, and organic, too. We’d use family recipes, and recipes from The Cheese Board Collective and The Soup Peddler of Austin. Slow and from scratch, we’d pre-make everything in the morning so we could run it small. Just me and my husband and one or two people who could work on the weekend. We’d serve hollowed-out baguette sandwiches, easy to carry. Two soups, one always vegan. Biscuits and gravy. Quiche. Muffins and scones and whoopie pies and cookies and locally made bread. We’d make that space an all-ages music venue again.
We could make it our hometown there.
We could make it our home.
The Reason I Moved There, Maybe
Years before all that, I was a teenager sitting cross-legged on the floor of the old Anacortes fire station. The newly minted Department of Safety. We were in a circle, facing in. Gangly legs and pocky skin and skinned knees and green hair, greasy and growing out. I felt the browning confetti under my hand and wondered how much fun it must have been to throw it.
I didn’t live there, but wished I did. Around me, the debris of art. Old pianos, synths, drum kit pieces along the wall. Canvases domino stacked against each other, hidden in the corners.
Then, in the middle, she started to sing. Mirah. The reason I drove the three hours to get there.
The clear honesty of her voice. Her quiet, big stick words and all of us in a circle, listening. I held everything she said tight to my chest and in that moment, I thought, I finally found my tribe.
The Art of Right Timing
My mom taught me how to bake. Her hands in the dough. Slow and steady and methodical. She taught me when to stir and when to stop, how to gauge the right size by the shape of my hand, the feel of the dough. To know the right time, the right color, right smell. Baking is a science, but it’s also intuition. Muscle memory and love. The trick is for all the elements to feel perfect together in their imperfection.
I stood in the kitchen, behind the cut-out wall, my hands covered in unformed scones. Between my fingers, the butter dots were still cold, gritty with sugar and flour and bits of lemon zest. Past my husband’s shoulder, a small line of people gathered in front of the counter. My husband talked to Jake the boatbuilder. Jake came in every morning for his Americano and to make my husband laugh. His laugh and Jake’s low steady string of words I couldn’t hear. The whir of espresso grind and the tang of tamping it down, the percussive note of hot water as it hit a cup and the bars of a song I didn’t know yet, but loved. Everything right there perfect together in its imperfection.
Croatian Soul Food
If there was a heart of Anacortes, one that beat blood and life and warmth through its cold granite body, it was located in the basement of the old Catholic church, behind layers of wood paneling and underneath fluorescent bulbs. The Croatian Club. Linoleum floors and drop panel ceilings. Gray and white relatives on each hallway wall that reflected back a concrete, familial sense of history.
The Babaroviches were the ones that invited us—Aimee and Josie and Mike— but Renee and Clint, were glad to see us there, too. Around us in that room, families and neighbors who had been families and neighbors for centuries, over continents, sat around pink-edged iceberg salads, white dinner rolls and the hero of the meal. Small slippery deep fried fish.
It was smelt night. You could smell it. That salty oily umami breath. Anacortes had been known for a hundred years as the king of canned salmon, the Croatian fishermen, the ones who made it so. But the salmon, that was for everyone else. The smelt was for just for them.
Aimee stood behind the wine bar. For the old men, she poured water into red to make bevanda, and for the women sparkling into white to make gemišt. In the kitchen, Josie formed chivapis from ground lamb and beef and pork and Renee made a blitva of potatoes and greens. Clint and Mike ferried chairs for their babas and djeds and my husband and I stood there, mesmerized, surrounded by family of a kind we knew we’d never have.
I stood next to the window, next to the rain, close as I could get without getting wet. It was quiet in the coffee shop that afternoon, and already dark. Jana Hunter murmured soft on the stereo behind me. Offered me little slivers of wisdom when I could make out her words. In my reflection, the shadows of raindrops moved down my face.
I thought this place would be different.
On the other side of the window, the bright lights of corporations. Walgreens, Blockbuster, KFC. Taco Bell, Papa John’s, Motherfucking Starbucks. The whole town littered with busy stores owned by people far away who did not give one fuck about any of us.
All alone, I gave so many fucks.
I wanted to destroy them. Ignore them. Cover them all up on my side of the glass with electrical tape so I’d never have to see them again. I’d make silhouettes of their glow. Little houses and mountains and castles and bears. Monsters, even. Anything was better than seeing what was really on the other side of that glass.
The problem with that plan, though, is you stepped to one side, there they were again. If you were a little taller than me, shorter, then it wouldn’t work. Truth was, there was no escape. There was no running. They were the human race and I was the nature in their path.
The Luxury of Home
“Why stay and fight?” Clint said, “This will never be your hometown.”
Clint’s kitchen table was made of one solid slab of wood, worn smooth. It was both soft and hard under my hand. The tree must have been ancient when it died, by storm or by axe. Its roots so deep only devils knew how far it went.
Across the table from us, Clint sat with his wife, Renee. Our landlords, mentors, friends. She, so soft with her gray white hair worn loose and long, earth on her fingers, grass on her jeans. He, harder, tall and lean with only the weather around the edges of his eyes to tell his age.
I don’t think they meant to crush us like they did. I don’t think they meant to break our hearts.
Beneath my feet, the floor was worn. The stones laid a century ago. Longer than my family had ever lived in one place.
Some of us don’t have a hometown—some of us don’t have a home—so we have to try and make our own. That’s why we wanted to stay, to fight.
This is the reason we never did.
We had the day off—the whole day—so we walked to Little Cranberry Lake to remind ourselves of why we moved there, out of the city and into the country.
Holy hot damn.
The blues and greens and sunshine whites. Boombox on the granite boulder with us made me want to dance and no one else was there, so I did. I clapped along, sang along with the singer’s rusty voice. My husband laughed and I did, too. My toes on the hard rock, the boulder jutting into the water. I stripped off all my clothes, as many at a time as I could—shirt and bra in one motion, jeans and socks and underwear in another. Sun on my bare skin. The wind. The water, fresh and clear and blue beneath me, it reflected the bright light of the sun. My breath full of almost jumping, but not jumping yet. And then fast, I ran and leapt. The air beneath my legs gave me a fragile moment of flight before I was inside the water, part of it. Ice crystals up my arms, my breasts, my face in little bubbles. Muffled sound. And then head up, out, shiver and shout and right there, right then, the world was perfect as it ever would be.
This is an excerpt from Kat Gardiner’s collection of microfiction, Little Wonder, out from Father / Daughter Records. Purchase it here.
Born in Oklahoma, raised in the Pacific Northwest, and currently based in Detroit, Kat Gardiner carries a restlessness through her writing that’s been honed by a lifelong search for roots. Gardiner studied creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and later studied with Tom Spanbauer in Portland, Oregon. Her debut collection of microfiction, Little Wonder, springs from the year she spent in Anacortes, Washington.