Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Eagle over the Alaska Highway

She comes into the Starbucks every morning between 9 and 10. Never dressed for a job at an office or a restaurant or a store. (Today: a maroon denim miniskirt, a tattoo-print T-shirt although her skin is bare of ink, four-year-old Skechers sandals.) Not harried and checking the time on her cell phone like the other people on their way into work and dreading the traffic. Orders the same frozen blended coffee drink ("Same as always?" the cashier or barista says; "Yes, please"). Picks up the topmost copy of The New York Times from the newspaper rack. (Always the liberal mainstay The New York Times, never the more conservative and business-oriented Wall Street Journal, never even the hometown Washington Post, and definitely never the lowest-common-denominator and color-graphic-happy USA Today.)

Sits at a table alone and reads the paper somewhat systematically, all of the front page, first the local weather blurb in the upper-right corner, then the main photo and its caption, then the stories, left to right, top to bottom. Sometimes unfolds and pages ahead to the to-be-continued break on an inconvenient inner page, realizing this gesture propels her from the category of more casual news-skimmer to more serious news-processor. Skims the front of the Arts section for stray book reviews not being held for the more prestigious book-review newsprint magazine in the Sunday edition. Occasionally taps mini notes to herself on an iPod Touch encased in a protective red-jelly shell.

She is obviously unemployed, or at best under-employed. Walks in with a thick library book -- telltale plastic wrapping around its hard cover -- that she usually sets down to stake her claim on a table if the line is long (if not a table by one of the leather armchairs in an alcove full of windows, then the one way at the back near the restrooms; if not comfort, then privacy). Never pays for the paper -- always puts it back when she's done, taking care not to unduly crease it as she's reading -- but savors it slow, furrowed brow, takes an hour or so to digest it, reviews it with a lingering glance across the front page when she's done.

She gets up and puts on a canvas hat with a brim and aviator-style sunglasses, because she's walked a mile or so over here in the sun or the rain or whatever weather that the blurb in the upper-right corner of the newspaper either has or hasn't gotten right; no rush, reading her big book as she goes. She reads on her way home, not caring that the cars stopped at the crosswalk can see her lips moving, because she likes to whisper the words aloud, likes to hear them as well as see them. (Is she a crazy lady already? Does that happen to a person so gradually that it escapes her notice, as she acclimates to what just feels like a new kind of normal?)

On the iPod Touch are reminders of the things she has learned from the paper today, that she might not have learned were she fully employed:

-There is a garbageman in New York City who has made a museum out of treasures he has rescued from the trash.
-At the University of Virginia there is something called the Rare Book School that basically houses pornography for librarians and librarian aspirants, of which she knows several and is in a relationship with one.
-Out of Serbia there recently came a movie about a homosexual veterinarian and his former-paramilitary friend traveling across the former Yugoslavia in a pink Mini to enlist war veterans as security guards for a gay parade.
-The Alaska Highway, which runs from British Columbia through the Yukon Territory and up to Fairbanks, built in haste under orders from FDR during World War II to keep the Japanese from encroaching, is crumbling because the so-called permafrost underneath is melting.

She wants to drive the length of the Alaska Highway, to leave this East Coast suburb behind and go toward the jagged mountains and the pine trees, into the effacing space. She wants to go to the Burnt Toast Cafe in the Yukon, and see a lone bison grazing by the side of the road and an eagle flying in a sky empty of the past, or empty of her past at least.

This is partly why she has not planted roots here: home, job, family. Part of her still wants to follow that eagle forever.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I’m walking in the morning mist, uphill through tall grass and weeds. A brown leaf is stuck to my boot. I look down at it pasted there, making an out-of-season autumn tableau, some still-life scene you'd paint at summer camp. I bought these black galoshes for $19 at Kohl’s for the Cinco De Mayo camping party at my friend’s house out in the country. I’m walking to the house, to go to the bathroom. The boots are clunky; I’m wearing them without socks because I threw them on in the tent just now after my sneakers and socks got soaked in the overnight rain. I’m wearing a loose brown skirt over a neon-coral bikini, and my boyfriend’s black undershirt made from a special tight-knit silk. He was in the Army and has garments like this in his closet. At home he sleeps with a gun nearby. He’s done this since the first time in Iraq. The wet grass has polished the boots shiny, squeaky, reflective. I clunk along in a somnolent fog.

The brown skirt has a history. It has to do with New Orleans, and the first time I had sex, and the first time I got drunk, which happened to be the same night. One happened and then the other, and there I was, dancing in Harrah’s Casino to “Hollaback Girl,” a song I’d heard on the radio many times that summer but whose beat hadn’t roused me until that night. The guy I was with sat playing a slot machine and murmured for me to tone it down so I didn’t get us kicked out. There was the hotel room afterward (Room 315, tattooed on my brain), and there was the pipe painted white to blend in with the wall. I used the pipe for a stripper pole, the clock radio tuned to classic rock, wearing nothing except for this skirt, dancing for him, because he liked strip clubs -- he had taken me to one earlier in the night. “Fate… up against your will… you will wait until… you give yourself to him.” That was several lifetimes ago.
Sometimes I feel like an old onion, lifetimes wrapped around lifetimes.
I wonder whether anyone is really knowable, to anyone.

Monday, July 9, 2012


The "hatchback-sized" meteorite slammed down into the Gobi Desert in China. Scientists cut it open and found amber-colored olivine in a silvery nickel-iron honeycomb inside. They cut it into sheets that looked like stained-glass windows. Amateur jewelry designers created necklaces and earrings inspired by the geode from space and sold them on Etsy. Amateur poets like me, entranced by words like "olivine" and "honeycomb," struggled to articulate why everyone found the rock so beautiful, why everyone wanted to take the mythical object and fit it into our known framework of sacred places, personal adornments, written odes. We felt as if we'd summoned the meteorite, drawn it home. It was as if we'd gone fishing, had reeled in a creature silvery and gleaming and agape in the sun of its new world, and we couldn't stand it; we had to gut it, we had to cut its head off, we had to cook it, and we had to eat it.
Photo by Arizona Meteorite Laboratory