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"Wellness, Check", excerpt

Monday 1/20/20

This is good. Big boy writing. Well, big girl writing. I stand at fifty-nine created and completed short stories since July 2019, a number that is likely to change today or tomorrow, and most--I'd ballpark it at forty--of those stories are about and/or narrated by women. Which is certainly something never done before by a male author. It is like there are frontiers, and I move from one to the next, I arrive, I master, I transform, I go to another. All of them, every kind. What happens is people in publishing see this and they say, "Shit...he does this now, too? He does this better than us? And wait, what about patriarchy? How does he write about women and girls like this? I can't come close, and I am a proper feminist, I have the right stickers on my lap top. We must hate him more."


Why can I just say all of that on here? Because I can do what is below. And there is no one who can argue with what that is. This story is about a young woman experiencing some changes in her life, though they may not be what she thinks. And it's about what she thinks, or needs to think, when she discovers an air conditioning unit on her street that is always on, even in the middle of the winter. The Minecraft/Kate stuff is good, the blood squirt stuff is good, the combustion stuff is good, the pizza/violet leaf stuff is good, the man/message stuff is good, all of the relationships we see so far are good and real and affecting and true. Morg and her mom, Morg and Kate, Morg and Rab, Morg and Morg, and Morg and the AC unit, even. "Conciliation"/magnanimity thing is funny, chickadee thing is good, Godiva bit is just profound and sweet and wise and makes me cry. There is something in every single line. "Dipshit" thing is funny. What we have here is just a part of a wonderful story. Would you rather read something like this, or would you rather read something like this in The New Yorker, which is so fucking boring, and Woke-pandering. It's not even close, is it? There is actual wisdom in the fiction I write. You do not get any wisdom from these people. You get artifice, what they call craft, what I call utterly meaningless bullshit. Fiction should be something, it should mean everything; if it means nothing, don't do it, do something else; weave a basket, call your mom, play the tin whistle, but do something else.


***


The warmest I ever dressed was when I was in eighth grade because that was when I spent the most time outdoors. I feel as if I should say on account I camped a lot, was adventurous and hardy—someone who cut down saplings in the woods for a fire, then powered the hatchet into the frozen ground to leave it there until it was needed again; someone who drank coffee from a blue metal pot without it needing to cool—because that is a better look, but a time arrives—or descends, ventures forth—when we do not care about looks. The earlier it comes the wiser you get to be faster, I think.


I layered up. Four socks for each of my feet. My foundation was important to me. “Warmth begins in the shoe” was a saying I heard a mountaineering man make on a nature show I liked to watch. We did not live in nature but in the middle of the city. The oldest neighborhood. I’d hear tour guides say it dated to the 1600s, which resonated to me as dubious, because what in America dates to the 1600s except maybe cow paths and foundation holes covered over by moss, where a kid with a metal detector sometimes finds a punch-stamped shilling?


But a lot of guides said it over a lot of years, and I accepted the chronology, another component of wisdom, at times, a sign of gullibility, in others.


“I like living right in the middle,” I told my parents when they asked if I would ever like to live in the suburbs or even the country, and they’d say, “the middle of what?” so I’d reply, “here, everything.”


They took that to mean I was happy. This was before I had entertained the theory, launched on account of an air conditioning unit that was always on in winter, that there was a miracle of a dead body in our neighborhood which did not smell. As all dead bodies do—I did lots of Google searches, read lots of testimonies, felt certain the odor of a dead body could not be missed for more than two or three days.


“I am only leaving in the living sense,” my told me at a restaurant we went to that was our place, where I never went with my dad, we never went with my dad. It was off of the Common, a restaurant that had the word “café” in its name, but it was a restaurant, not an establishment where you’d have lattes and biscotti. You could get panini and Sicilian pizza slices that had what looked like pieces of flower petals woven through the cheese, the occasional violet leaf sticking out, which I’d nibble off like a rabbit before getting to the good stuff. The phrase “Only leaving in the living sense” made me think of prefatory remarks a human might make—if they were granted the opportunity to make them—before officially becoming a ghost. Like if they were guaranteed a ghosthood, and it was seconds before the guillotine fell. You’d see them again soon—the same, but different. “We will be as happy as we always were,” my mother said. “Just not together as often. Nothing will change with you and your father. And, of course, you and me.”


One must be careful in trusting an “of course.” I used them when in doubt with my papers for school. Bullshitting because I wanted to go to bed. Or binge something. “And of course Charles Dickens understood that poverty could be purifying.” Did he? Is it? Didn’t matter—my “of course” would carry the day, I’d look damn confident. People bend to confidence. You can make them. Sometimes they bend to bluff. You don’t want your mother to make you bend that way, though.


I pulled one of the violet leaves out of a cheese slice with my fingers. The leaf was longer than I expected, purple-colored reinforcement beneath a mozzarella epidural layer. You ate more leaf than you would have thought with each bite, you just didn’t see it. Rabbits look pensive when they chew as if they are studying their digestive processes so as to make them more efficacious. I think I probably chewed like that as we sat. “We love each other very much,” my mother continued. “And we love you even more.”


“You love me more than you love dad?”


“I love you more than anything.”


“Is it close? Seems like it should be close between me and him?”


“You cannot measure these things.”


“Didn’t you just measure?”


“You’ll understand when you are older. You do not have to now. That’s what is great about being your age. Do you understand?”


“Of course.”


I didn’t understand at all. We can be so desperate for people to grasp the full range of what we are saying, all of the degrees of depth, the devils who inhabit the details—the circumference of their horns, the very bumps of their dicks (devil dicks never struck me as particularly smooth)—that we will belabor points again and again, come at them from different directions, promise ourselves we will write lengthy letters doing a better job of articulating an emotional Jupiter of specificity so that someone else can know exactly of what we speak.

Van Gogh did that a lot in his letters to his brother Theo. I didn’t have a sister or brother. I wasn’t sure if I should be writing my mom. And other times we simply wish for someone to agree with us. My mom probably wanted both, so long as they happened simultaneously. I think she was scared I would not be okay. I think she was confident she would be. And if she was and I was not, then she would have to not be as well.


My friend Rab gave me a lot to look up to because he was protective of me but he was also rude—crude—and that was his way of being funny, given that he was so smart everywhere else that when he acted like some bro idiot you laughed harder.


When I had my period he would take his fingers—two on each hand—and sort of shoot them into my sides, where my dad had love handles before he got rid of them, and Rab would shout, “Blood squirt!” as some blood did actually squirt out of me.


He was a foot and a half taller. When someone is that much taller than you are they can feel like a tree. It is just easier to take shelter there when you know they love you. Call it one of life’s mysteries, but I could feel that way about height. Almost all of our conversations centered on jokes, so when Rab was serious I knew someone needed help, and since Rab seemed to have everything figured out, I would be the one who needed help only I did not know it yet.


It was Rab who told me my mom lived with our old science teacher, Mr. Pickering. I knew she lived with somebody who was not my dad. She hadn’t left to get a studio apartment. She would have had something nicer anyway. She worked for the DA in downtown Boston. She walked to work when she lived with us. I think she probably drove now. Pickering used to drive to school. He gave me a ride home one day when I stayed after to help tutor my friend Kate. When I tried to do the blood sport game with her, because Kate was very serious and I thought we would be closer if she laughed more, she’d say, “Stop it, clown,” looking very dry overall, like burnt parchment, as if she defied nature and refused to squirt when my fingers went into her sides. She was the kind of person who got upset enough that you’d say “okay, okay,” telling yourself you would apologize later when she had cooled down but you would forget, which was probably better for our friendship anyway.


I asked Rab how he knew.


“Doesn’t matter,” he said.


“Was it Facebook?” I asked.


Rab had a strange Facebook habit. He could hack into private accounts, which he regularly did with teachers, current and past. It was one of his things. Like butterfly classification and Buster Keaton short films—not the features like The General, which we watched for our history class—but the two-reelers that lasted seventeen minutes. When a person’s interests are that specific, they tend to get less wrong.


He said it was. We were at Starbucks where we went often when he came over to our apartment, but now that it was me and my dad, “our” felt misleading, because even though it was technically true, it presented false information, gave no indication of considerable change, and I thought in these cases “our” should lose a letter, have some signifier, but “or apartment” and “ur apartment” weren’t especially useful, the former sounding like an additional option—“live in a dorm or apartment”—and the latter would make you come off like a quasi-illiterate dipshit. So it remained “our.”


“Pickering gives her a puckering,” Rab added when he saw I was going to cry, and he made me angry which stopped me from crying, then I laughed.


“If you want, you can blow me,” he offered by way of conciliation.


“Fuck you.”


But Rab was gay, so he was being somewhat magnanimous.


To get to the Starbucks you turned left out of the door of our building, took another left going down a street three blocks long—a stump-street—towards the harbor, where you could go no further unless you boarded a boat a boat, were Jesus and felt like stretching your legs some more, or going into the cafe. A thin strip of sidewalk—a harborwalk—separated the back wall of the Starbucks, where there were circular windows, as on a ship, from touching the sea. During storms the windows were sprayed with mist. The harbor never got particularly violent—sloshed rather than projectiled.


I went there alone a lot after my mother left that winter. If I saw her less, it was not by a drastic amount. She’d come by the apartment to visit after school; I would still walk to the courthouse and we would have a late lunch in her office or nearby at our guilty pleasure, the Wendy’s, which began when I was very young and had freckles like Wendy, though my mom said Morgan was such a nicer name, with which I did not agree. Rab called me Morg, and I liked when a single syllable doubled as the solitary musical note by which you were termed. Conversations with my mom did not change. The same words, same subjects, covered by the same people, but different. The regular cars, new kinds of gas.


I think I had heightened senses at the time. I may have been an auditory master. I do not think I saw better. I did not become like a hawk and I was too thin to be owlish. Being short it is hard to feel raptorial—you think you alight lightly, like a chickadee. Had I said that to Rab, he would have corrected me by remarking, “black-capped chickadee,” which is the technical term, but despite being taller and thus closer to the air conditioner sticking out of the window of someone else’s first floor apartment, it was not Rab who realized it was always on, even in the winter, turned up high, too, as we walked to the Starbucks together—it was me.


“I am pretty sure that someone in there is dead,” I said to Rab.


“Nobody’s dead. A lot of people are closet masochists.”


“There would be air conditioners up and down the block then.”


“A lot of people might just stab themselves. Some cut.”


Kate was a cutter. She had to go to the hospital one time. Rab brought her a box of Godiva chocolates, which I thought was ridiculous. Like he was some Valentine’s elf. She cried when he gave them to her and when she reached up from her bed to hug him, stretching out her arms, the strain in her muscles must have popped a stitch under her bandages because a trickle of blood came out. She looked at me, as if maybe I had something as well. “It’s from both of us,” Rab said. Then I said we could play Minecraft, which Kate was really good at, and my parents let me sleep that night at the hospital in a chair next to her.


I ate a cheese stick when Rab said his cutting theory. Some people peel the cheese into strings. I thought the strings looked like parts of a cobweb from a cow’s udder, so I bit the cheese as evenly as I could, in regimented bites of the same size, though they made me think of taking the head off a beetle from the carapace, again and again, and I set the cheese down on the table. I asked Rab about the despecialized version of the original Star Wars trilogy he had gotten on eBay. I did not want to talk about what was in the apartment with the air conditioner that was always on because it felt like a person would need our help and Rab would be the one helping and I wanted to instead of him but I was not ready. And if there was a person cutting in there, I understood that maybe they were not prepared either, they were probably naked and didn’t like surprises, and they might have had more skin to cut first, as if they had to find a leaf like the violet leaves in the pizza that went under the cheese. Or maybe a dog was eating a body that was like my mom’s or my dad’s, and it would be so much easier to see a dog eat a body like mine, but a kid would not have an apartment by themselves. And each day when I saw that the air conditioner was still on, I figured the person was still alive, and I liked seeing it, even yelled “Yes!” one morning when it was seven below and that fucker was still humming.


“It’s free of taint,” Rab said. If he could make something seem vaguely sexual he would. “It is as close to what we will ever get as what you saw in the theatres in 1977, 1980, 1983,” never mind that Rab would have been like -12 when the Return of the Jedi came out. My father talked to my mother on the phone often. They did a lot of joking. My dad used to tell me they were friends for a long time before anything happened. He talked about romantic love as if it were a surprising matter of spontaneous combustion.


“We were tight,” he’d invariably add at some point. He almost made the combustion come off as sad. Whereas I figured you wanted the combustion, if that was how romantic love worked, though it occurred to me that my father was also a kind of tour guide, and you can trust the man without trusting the message. His regular job was architect. He specialized in subterranean spaces. Three-quarters of a school he designed was underground, but that was in Connecticut.