Stocking the Pond
500 bluegill in a tank
on the back of a truck,
parked on the bank,
pouring them out. Fifth grade,
early spring. The year
I was taught there were right
and wrong ways to be
a man. I watched
the waterfalling bodies
of the fish, our pond
like a holding cell.
When the valve closed,
one got caught and cut
in half, the top fin and tail
just sat there in the grass,
separated from the head
still floating in the tank.
We caught them
all summer, kept them
on a line strung through
the gills. I hooked one
through the eye, snagged it
through that soft
and lidless spot, and the barb
came out through the front
of its face. I cried while
my father removed it.
I watched while he filleted
our catch, when he nailed
a catfish to a board
and skinned it with pliers.
What else can I say
about my cicada-sung
childhood, when I learned to do
things I didn’t want to—
years later when I danced
with a girl at prom,
when I did not kiss
the boy I drove home
from school, when he
offered. But when
I was nine my trembling
hands were asked to hold
the handle of a thin blade
and cut. So I did—
and for what? A quarter-inch
thick fillet, small victory.
We ate the fish
with our hands, battered
and fried on a camp stove.
When we stocked the pond,
a mist came off
the cascade of water
and fish, the surface
of the pond was iridescent
with some runoff
or exhaust—all so I could sit
in a camp chair,
months later, picking
little bones from my teeth.
And suddenly the ground opened
so I could fall in. The hard clay
opening its arms to feel like safety,
holding my body like a bulb,
mother’s irises in the garden. The air thick
with cicada calls, the air hanging
on skin. She’s at the window calling out
the varieties of corn in the field like
calling in children for dinner.
But I am her only, her runaway.
At the table she reminds me
my blood runs red because it’s full
of iron, red like the banks of the creekbed
I fell down as a child, flat on my back,
eyes and palms to the sky, gasping.
My body remembers
that labored breath, these old pollens.
In the cabinet I find a cream
to prevent scars from new wounds,
another to reduce scars already set in.
But as a child I had no scars,
only musical names in my head before sleep,
saying them aloud under the spinning fan,
Ambrosia, True Platinum, Silver Queen.
After I gave him my dented hands which in any case were still valuable
in the way that ruins can be,
I leave him for myself.
I spin-drunk en la sala, a spiraling summer,
I talk to my homegirls in the language of tomorrow –
girl, finally. I invite them to die with me
at the club.
I pick a man to wine into, until the dance is an interrogation. The last man was loving me wrong. My
hands crawl close enough to his face to feel his breath the moment right before he regrets me. You know
how ya’ll do, love a girl only when she is the brightest version of her pain. The way a shadow loves the
pavement only when the sun shines. Have you ever been the shadow? I mean have you splayed your body
so flat against a woman that you didn’t notice she was concrete? I dance for him the way worms dance in
honor of devouring a body.
My homegirls laugh until they are ghosts.
Sometimes what kills me is serene
as snowfall. Proliferating frozen,
soft inundation, the ceaseless
and so many ways of wanting
to die. I can’t sleep
for the 2 a.m. murmur
of the plows, making their rounds
for hours now, unseeing
metal sweeping and salting.
Rusted chrome in near collision,
compelled by the Sisyphean
labor of cold. To roam
the black in the absolute
zero before dawn;
gathering and gathering and gathering the ice.
I’m a Kick-Ass Woman
Ask anybody. This ass has never been kicked
to the curb. I do the kicking. I’m a nasty-ass woman
drinking chamomile tea at dusk. I know what I’ve got
& it’s a throne for an ass. Grab it. Kiss it. Pop
the pimple on that ass. See what happens when you
disagree with my ass. I’ve got a bad-ass ass. A kick-ass ass.
A good-pair-of-jeans-is-hard-to-find-type ass. Cue Flannery’s
ass, as broad & innocent as a cabbage. I’m getting literary
on your ass. Listen: you can’t have passion
without ass. Or Parnassus. Make way for my poetic ass,
as essential & enduring as your thesaurus
but sexier. I’d tattoo the Cantos on my ass
if it would make it less boring. This Is Just to Say: A Carafe Is a Blind
Ass, or: I’m no Modernist. I’m the future
of The Poetics of Kick-Ass—the voice of a nation
from the mouth of a woman with the keys
to the van that fits all of your sweet asses. Climb in.
We’re bound for the coast. Bet your ass
we’ll be there before dawn. Sit back & watch
my Walt-Whitman-dashboard-hula-girl shake his ass
all the way across the American desert
we’ll make an oasis of by the time we’re through.
Poem From the Mouth of God
There is a reason
I have yet to let anyone
see my face. I am a lonely man
& socially inept. I send angels
into women’s rooms
because I never mastered the art
of non-offensive pick up lines
& even with a wingman
only one woman’s ever said yes.
She is tired of me.
Who can blame her
when I spend my days
at every window in the house
shuttering & unshuttering myself
from the view I created
& grew afraid of. My son
doesn’t visit anymore
& you’re not surprised.
Me neither. After centuries,
the first miracle I performed
was this morning
when I raised myself
out of bed & lifted a razor
to my horrible face.
What advice do I have left
except that you should make things
& keep them closer to you than ethers away.
Do not be like me.
This light is the only good
I’ve offered you,
but even light, too often, dies
in a furious burst.
How each one is taken
with care from car
to school doorstep, each one
hand-in-hand with an adult.
How the mothers
and fathers kiss
their foreheads, first
pushing aside their bangs
a stray wisp. One
her daughter’s velvet
headband; another wipes
from his son’s pink lips.
each child is guided
around the bumpers
of cars. How some turn
to wave goodbye
one last time while others,
drawn to friends
by an invisible cord,
move together, first left
then right, with
of fish. How even the child
with tears in his lashes
who cowers near a teacher
knows that in a matter of hours,
a loved one will return
to him, to return him
to the facts of home:
for trapping monarchs.
from a space museum.
charms on a chain.
ANOTHER FORM OF SKIN
Hiding us all the times we prefer to stay hidden.
Piled by the door
in offering: burnt mittens,
torn shoes, bloodied handkerchief.
I have hung on a clothesline
shirts so white that I
felt surrounded by clouds
or by the impossible words
of God. Sometimes the wind
blows through me
as though I do not exist,
as though all form
could go formless without notice.
Think, for example, of the way
no one stands at the door
offering a cabled sweater, saying
here you might need this
it’s cold out today no one
except me, for example.
there is no one, now,
inside the sweater
here I am securing each button
all the way to the top,
imagined lint from a sleeve.
IN THE HOURS JUST AFTER, IN THE HOURS BETWEEN
Caught between one world
and the next, between the buzzing actual
of air breathed, streets crossed,
food chosen, prepared,
consumed. Of sleep slept
again and again into waking—
caught between the easy language
of regret and viscous words of loss,
words that, like timid creatures,
have tunneled deep into caves
for the long winter, and may never
emerge again, such is the lure
of the darkness
and the mind & the mouth hollowed out.
Caught between laughing
about what he would’ve said
about attending to his own death
Easy now, easy, take it easy now now now
and absorbing the infinite chill
of seeing he could
no longer say it—
we speak of him, still, in the present
tense. Caught between calling, first,
the one who’d prepare his body
for the grave or the one who’d
tend to his soul as he’d wished.
Morgue or mosque, we ask
him, mosque or morgue we ask
ourselves. Again and again,
the sound of no voice,
just the specter of one nurse
and then another
shuffling down the hall in scrubs,
doctors in angel-white gowns
and shoes, their hairnets
like deflated haloes
clinging to their heads.
Oh the g-d in you. Thank you for what g-d you did today
g-d as gold g-d as gone You believe there’s g-d out there somewhere
among trash heaps that smell less these days because the plastics in them
no g-d old organics
you know it’s g-d because it smells as it rots most g-d things don’t last long
What kind of g-d don’t you believe in
My word is g-d He’s a g-d egg No news is g-d news
You don’t want to hear how g-d you are It’s not that anyone actually knows
but you look g-d, Girl, really g-d
Take a look in the mirror
you see nothing at all
That’s gotta be g-d
or at least the image of g-dliness
At least you’re in g-d hands
You don’t want to be g-d
because if you’re g-d that means g-d can have cracked nails
with sky blue polish in the cuticles
g-d can have mistweezed eyebrows
g-d might be wearing dirty underwear never as g-d as you hoped for
under a sundress that’s a bit too short no g-d at all
A g-d way to go A chapped kiss g-dbye
my lips weren’t chapped. the candles: unburned.
what if they’d stayed like that all year: whole, slender
sticks, separate & shy. what if the ants didn’t
run in slow lines across the table, didn’t crush
to dark soot beneath a stray thumb.
if I hadn’t touched the cake: unghost
the icing slipping through a fork. if I’d crammed
sugar into a plastic box instead. if I’d gone to bed
on time, if I’d showered, if I’d combed
through each strand of my wet & blackest hair.
would I have seen what I saw that night?
across my phone screen, those grains of salt
& rosemary rubbed into the roast chicken?
your hands and her hands curled
across the knife? slash, slash. cut
me up. if I hadn’t known you or that year
we plucked apples from the branch, I
would’ve laughed. chicken thigh
on a blue plate in the kitchen I’d once
loved you in. the candles lit. your hands
and her hands. flashing knife. and ants.
damn, those ants. scuttling beneath.
black as bolts. craving whatever: grease,
the hurry of lips over skin.
a single, stupid crumb.
respect me. you slim,
slimy insect I try to trap
first with a jar, but you
glint, real sly, then slide
beneath the ratty blue
rug. you slinky spasm.
make me squirm
‘til I grab the lavender
spray, lift the rug,
then spray a ferocious
cloud for minutes,
wetting your antennae
to the linoleum floor.
still, you live.
body bigger than
a nickel, pointed
like a stick of lead,
stuck beneath my
glare. Just use
your clog, my sister
texts, yet something
about your whip-
thin body I cannot
once, in a public park, I watched
the man I loved pare a fuji apple
with a knife. skins curled and fell,
lazy ribbons onto a lap. months
later, I stood at the intersection
where green trees erupted
& the park began, grief in me
whirring like a pest. o, old
love. I cannot smush you
with a shoe or douse
you in a clean scent. try to
violence you out yet still,
you stay. a silverfish atop
my bathroom floor, shiny as
scrap metal. pulsing with
the dust, & stuck.
in this poem one sec for Pearl Vision
and an optometrist who looks exactly
like an uncle who died two years ago.
He’s saying quick puff of air and hot air
balloon in the distance look through
here see it see it now? and now?
But this, this is the good part: He asks
out of the blue, out of thin, thin air—
Do you still read books? I’ve never
laid eyes on this man before. I just
moved here. Still like pond water. Like—
wait—lift the moratorium on deer too,
one brief moment—still like the ears
of the mother and her fawn behind
the privacy fence. It’s only been two
years. Of course I read books. Still.
How much time has passed in his nebula
of wings? I say yes. Yes, I read. And
get this: He smiles. He smiles and nods
and adjusts the lenses in the phoropter.
Since my lease is one year, and I won’t
ever return for my follow-up, I ask him
if he’s happy, if where he is now is
better. He chuckles but stays behind
the machine: Tell me which one is less
blurry. A or B. A or B. Here. Or here.
A limber pine wave gives way to woodsmoke.
I am deeply interrogated
and I am not understood.
The sun hits the logs
and plays with their legs and shoulders,
pushing away their modesty.
The man who boxes my firewood
has eyes three blue meters deep.
His birthday has come with the snow in July.
There are forceful creatures here
and I will not surprise in the dusk.
I swing my broken locket for a bell.
In the tent village, a woman is bending off her jeans
on the warm side of the canvas.
My hands rise like two consuls to my lips.
Spring in Aqaba
Something far away handles
the instruments of my death.
But the wine is cold and dry,
and upon my leg
I make my hand into your own,
leaning back to receive my arrogance.
When this wild grip visits me
there is a vast silk sail
tied to the sky.
The train that passes is three songs long.
It’s pulling fruits and tractors
to sow a paradise with.
Into the sun and the heat the dirt rises
and dresses the weeds
with its sweetness.
Everything I can remember here
is a shape that cuts itself into the light
behind it, turning lie into form.
The tender mountains make a cup
around all this. The kindness
of limiting the eye’s greed.
I try to drag a line from my mind
into this blistered sweep
but it is tangled in the vernal pool
in its watchful surround.
To my surprise what comes
is a bud so fragile
that blades clip its stem in the dark.
Daughter, you make me shudder, make music of my bones, don’t you?
Yes, like castanets. The best blood of my blood, soft blood, boiled
blood of not knowing, bright blood is still in you now, blushing
scarlet cells blossoming in your face, plasma rich as juicy figs, cut
open & gleaming. Muscling that dark abyss, I am the jumbo starfish
skimming and slurping the wounded deep-sea floor. To get close
enough—I came to Nashville once. I wanted to feel the friction
and fiction of having a daughter there. I watched you working
at the restaurant near the replica of the Parthenon with the massive
statue of Athena burning hot and fat and gold inside like a secret sun.
I didn’t sit in your section, but near it. I saw your almond eyes
(my eyes). I saw your nose (my nose). The pressure of my face
in your face, barometric. The first words I could not gather
were on your cheeks, passerines perched on telephone wires,
soundless black ovals and lines like unsaid musical notes on a scale.
I said nothing as you passed by swaying dirty martinis in your hands
aglow like a censer, perfume of blue cheese & briny olive juice, murky
as the memory, strained as the jade distance between us. I was the last
guest at the bar, still pushing my slick steak across the white china,
knife clinking, carving the wet meat into smaller pieces of meat: dark
animal juice, gristle tug, tough then delicate tearing—I was stalling.
I didn’t want to eat it. I didn’t want another reason to get up & leave
you. You walked by me again, I whispered & mouthed slowly: olive juice.
Didn’t you watch my greasy lips as I said it? Almost looked like I said it,
huh? Dear Daughter, say it in the mirror & that’s me saying it, ok?
Would that, could that mouthing (of silent love or persona love
or mimetic love or epistolary love, or your pain-is-misplaced-here
kind of love or even the dinging repetition of daddyless love
or any kind of damn love love ever be enough? Or, I didn’t know
how to finish this poem love and I’ve been editing it for years love
until Jessica Jacobs made me rip it up love across a table until I could
see the scaffolding until I could see the secret of my poem love, which
is—father, daughter, reader, lover—I don’t have to tell you everything.
*The title is borrowed from a line in Terrance Hayes’ poem “ARSPOETICA# 789.”
Ode to When the Music Video Doesn’t Match the Song
After Ryan Burton and Noah Taitano
What isn’t lovely
about a group of men
moshing to a slow song
whose notes drip
around their bodies
like a halo of sweat
the way I drive through
suburbia blasting Beethoven’s
6th in a silver Honda as each traffic light
closes its fist and I must stop
and Elder’s Bookshop
where a friend’s brother
used to sell stolen goods to buy
heroin and the owner was hip
to the scheme would give him
just enough for the merchandise
lifted from a rich friend’s house
and if that is a kind of mercy
then it is also a mercy
when my husband says
“why don’t you take some time for you”
meaning “you need to go take care of your shit”
because I have that look in my eye
that says I need to be far away from people
including/especially my own family
I need to wear my heaviest coat
and skulk in the cold
pretending I’m a person
who has the luxury of such things
as solitude and avoiding eye contact
I make my own sanctuary
I listen to “The Wind Cries Mary”
while actual wind
tosses a plastic bag down the middle of the street
following me two whole blocks
and I don’t believe in angels
but if I did it would be one
foolish or bored
enough to do nothing
but play pranks
I would believe in the angel
who is out of mercy
and only wants to mess
with us into a silly kind of mirth
while god isn’t looking
who says: who are you
to be this sad
with us to the roughest anthem
under a street light
that sputters in time
with our two-step
before it burns out
I Could Write a Poem about Electric Scooters
the ones self-described disruptors
created and left scattered
in the touristy districts
of Nashville— which is to say white—
which is to say I don’t know
how to travel and not be grotesque
as the blonde bachelorette parties
on their booze wagons that leave me breathless—
the desire to sprawl and achieve
just like Jesus himself who must have said
thou shalt fuck
over thy neighbor if it makes a profit—
I could write the scooters are lime green
and today I saw a woman riding one
in a tattered wedding dress
she found in Good Will— the kind of slip
I was never tough enough to wear
but envied the girls who could, the ones
who channeled Kathleen Hannah
and Courtney Love and gave
blow jobs behind the bleachers—Oh
to be at home like that in my own body—
to be in the world like a tech
entrepreneur and possess so little
consideration for the world
I can glide right through it
like the frat boy who bought
the historical home next door
and turned it into a bicycle shop
who also rides a red pick-up
with a sticker of an AR-15 that says
“come and take it”
which is another way of saying
“who’s going to stop me”
which is the smirk of Kavanaugh
which is the smirk of a every man
who’s been stockpiling
alibis since he was 17—
thou shall not—
I want to be the girl
burning down this street at rush hour,
dress like the iridescence
of an oil-soaked wing—
“come and get this pussy”
written on her forehead
ready to take down
who tries to grab her next.
Most Blindkey Point locals thought the help-line stickers were enough. Tilda disagreed.
Without answers to the strange phenomenon, they built the Here For You Center. It was a building full of skylights. There were four round tables, varnished wood. The backs of the white chairs were curved like swans’ necks. In the center of each table were notepads of serene blue. Also, a mason jar filled with gray aluminum pens, in the event the visitor needed to re-write, jot ideas, brainstorm. A water fountain with decorative rocks. Moss-green plastic cups. Four tutors sat around a larger table on the opposite side of the room. On the wall behind them was the clearly marked Exit.
Four tutors, of whom Tilda counted herself the most eager to help.
A thirty-something scribbled his name on a blank card and plinked it into the tin box.
“I’ve got this one,” she said.
They sat at one of the round tables and he said his name was Tim. He wore thin wire frame glasses and had an Eastern European accent. Tilda introduced herself and asked how far along he was in the writing process.
“It’s finished,” Tim said, pushing his note across the table.
He made startling eye contact. To describe Tim’s eyes as soft? They were flickering lightbulbs, probably should change that soon. His voice was dim, too. Quiet? No. He smiled a lot, which was always a troubling sign. She’d bring him back to earth.
To whom it may concern, the note started. Last night I thought so long about what album to play on my headphones as I walked into this sea that I ended up swallowing the pills and passing out on a bench instead. I couldn’t make up my mind between albums. It was Iggy Pop for Ian Curtis. But really that’s not the album I want to go to, the water sloshing as I sit on the cinderblock tied to my ankles. Waiting for high tide. It is between Boxer and Either/Or. The truth is I’ll throw my phone away long before the tide gets up to my nose, but I want you to know it was one of those two albums. God, the sunset is lovely. I could live with it.
Tilda glanced at the guy after she was finished. She had marked up the note with her pen, and she went in with the starter questions.
“So, Tim,” she asked. “Who’s the letter for?”
He spoke so softly he might have been talking to someone sitting closer. His hair was thinning adorably, like snow flurries unsure of their sticking power. He was funny with his “s” sounds, not quite slurring them but not quite rolling them, either. Czech, Hungarian, maybe?
“It’s for my brother and my parents,” Tim said. Sounding more like it’sch.
“Right,” said Tilda, “so there’s the audience you want to impact, which leads to my first question. Would they be familiar with these two albums? Or with Ian Curtis?”
From behind the thin frame glasses, Tim blinked.
“Because I’ll admit,” Tilda continued, “the references fell a bit flat for me. Not that I am not familiar with these two albums. But by using them as your main device to elicit emotion, you might be missing out on a real opportunity here.”
Tim crossed his arms and leaned forward.
He asked: “Do you get a kick out of working here?”
Tilda put her head down, pretending she was busy editing his note.
“This line about the sunset at the end is nice,” she said. “Same with the bit about your phone. What is on there, anyway? Secret text messages. Voicemails. Emails full of the real you, the real Tim. But the real Tim they will never know. That is nice. But the album thing seems like a wasted opportunity to me. You’ve only got an index card to work with here.”
Tim spoke quietly. Tilda leaned forward.
“Music was my brother and me, the way we spoke.”
He pronounced music like mushick, and spoke sounded less like part of a bicycle and more like the sound the waves made below the Blindkey Point overlook.
Tilda flickered her pen over the notecard.
“And my family,” Tim said. “None of them are alive. That is why it says, to whom it may concern. I am going to tape it to a bench, so that someone who does not know me can talk with me through those albums.”
Tilda suggested that if it was such a personal knowledge, Tim should revise so that the music felt a little more significant in the note. Was there a way to make it as important as the line about the sunset? She passed him another index card.
“But I do not know how to speak, unless it is with music,” Tim said. “That is why I came here.”
“I am not going to write this note for you,” Tilda said. “But I do have some suggestions.”
She stood, walking to the tutor’s table and grabbing a handout from the stack in a plastic tray. She went through it with Tim, some commonly used rhetorical devices, turns of phrase, techniques. Tim stood. They shook hands.
“How old were you when your brother died?” she asked.
Tilda ushered him toward the door marked Exit. It shut behind him. She slumped into her office chair at the tutor’s table.
Tilda measured her workday in the lock-clicks of the Exit door. Good at psychiatric work, history, music therapy, soccer, sailing, the completion of extensive jigsaw puzzles, getting better than average grades in more than an average number of subjects, Tilda knew herself well enough to know that she was an F student at goodbyes. Flunked them after Thanksgivings: “Goodbye, take care.” Flunked them when parents had left. “Goodbye: Tilda, have a good day at school.” Flunked them after semester’s end: “Goodbye, see you in the fall, stay in touch.”
Her great aunt Meon never went to family funerals. Her extended family was large, so as a kid there had been many—grandfather, great aunt, great uncle, that uncle who wasn’t really an uncle but that she called uncle anyway, grandfather, grandmother. Meon had watched the toddlers while everyone else went to the services and burials; Tilda had wished she could stay and babysit.
After her grandmother’s funeral she’d driven away before the wake, in absolute shame for not going, but thinking: I will not attend another one. The only way she could handle goodbyes was when she did the leaving herself.
Tilda never checked on the people she tutored, once they were down the hallway and into the hospital. She’d gone down the hallway herself with the newly hired staff, before the hospital opened, when it was absolutely empty, sterilized, bright. There was an underground garage where cars were ready to drive the released patients to the airport or train station.
“Could you tell the difference between the hallways if you didn’t know?”
“They are identical.”
A patient who went through the Exit door entered a hallway that looked identical to the Entrance. The difference, though, was that the hallway out the Exit door led to an attached psychiatric hospital. The Exit door locked automatically behind whoever entered. The hospital employees took over from there, beginning the admission process. The walls to this second, disguised hallway were sound proof, so as to give those still at the tables no clue about the truth behind the Exit door. Tilda often wondered what noises they made in there, thinking they were stepping back onto the streets of Blindkey Point.
She watched the Exit door click shut behind two more sets of hunched shoulders before Here For You closed at five. She ate and had drinks at a sea-food restaurant with Charlie, Jack and Allie, Parker, Chandler, and Morgan, then window shopped her way home, walking her mom’s Trek racing bike beside her.
Chubbs and Rosenthal—who did the award winning Blindkey Point documentary—did not know the building’s secret. They lambasted Here For You as some sick joke, under the pretense of self-expression therapy. Following the instructions of Doctor Marian O’Brien, each of the tutors gave the same story: it was therapy through writing. The process of editing one’s own suicide note was actually a life-saving activity. The awareness of death offered a weird hope. Anyway, it was more than help-line stickers on the benches at the overlook.
“Why here? Why don’t other towns along the coast experience this phenomenon? What factor does the wind contribute?” Doctor O’Brien asked, wringing the sleeve of her lab coat. “There is no explaining why Blindkey Point attracts so many suicides. But because this place does, it needs to offer more than just a phone number.”
Here For You was Doctor O’Brien’s career idea. She was a leader in the research and implementation of alternate treatments, especially those which circumvented medication. Marian O’Brien had also been Tilda’s family doctor growing up. Tilda graduated in the same month that construction of Here For You was completed and was among the first hires. A year after opening, and Here For You was busy. Those in the community help-line office, who had always been a little bored, started a sudoku league.
The boardwalk went from the golf course at one end of the bay to the rocky outcrop at the other. The town of Blindkey Point took its name from this dangerous outcrop, which was marked by warning buoys. There was a small park area on the cliffs with a monument to each shipwreck from the 1800s to the 2000s. The links course on the south end of the beach had particularly low greens fees, due to the wind. It funneled into the bay and through the course with such ferocity that touristing golfers in search of the authentic links experience usually abandoned play by the ninth hole and drove down the coast for the better designed courses.
Overlooking the golf course were enormous prehistoric sand dunes. These dunes looked more like hills and were four, five stories high at their tallest. The Waterfront Commission was in perpetual conservation efforts. Tilda and her older sister Jenna had named the largest dune the Big Castle after the sand-fort they dug into its peak one summer. It would feel silly to claim that a town’s main attraction were old piles of sand if it weren’t true.
Tilda answered questions for a tourist family outside the ice cream shop. They shielded cups of soft-serve from the wind and sand grit. Their little boys wandered among the evening beach-walkers and the parade of dogs. Their noses were red from the cold, their lips chapped from the wind.
“Some people use the dunes for exercise,” she said. “There’s a thick rope that goes from bottom to top, attached with stakes.”
“Want to race?” one of the boys asked his brother.
“Can dogs make it to the top?” asked the youngest of the three, pointing at a sand-struggling terrier.
The three boys glanced at their parents, sprinted away, then ran back, waiting for a reaction; getting none, they sprinted off again, this time a little farther away, before returning. The youngest boy pulled at his dad’s coat-sleeve.
Tilda waved and continued along the boardwalk by herself. When it ended she took off her shoes and placed them in the grass by the golf course fence. She stepped into the cold sand. Transferring the cup of coffee to her left hand, she grabbed the rope in her right and began climbing the dune. She reached the wooden stake near the dune’s top. Below her the three boys played loudly. They climbed uphill, feet pointed outward like ducks.
People were spread out across the dune, taking selfies, having picnics, watching the ocean. Tilda wore a heavy windbreaker over a white fleece. She grabbed her phone from the windbreaker’s pocket and laid on a patch of grass. She scrolled through texts from friends, a parent, a friend who hated his job, the other parent, a relative she should call, the group thread. She scrolled through the older texts down to the very bottom, to the text from her sister.
Hey Tilda, I know you’re busy today, but just saw this free concert and thought you might like to go if you’re not too busy.
She sat up and let the phone drop into her lap. Rock beach (gray, darker gray), golf course, the inland fields (green), the sand in her bare feet (cold, dun), the sea pushing, battering, licking townward (silver and white with sundown blue).
“Excuse me,” the boy asked. “Do you get a lot sand in your eyes if you try to roll all the way down?”
“Keep them closed,” she said.
The boy’s brother kicked a cluster of grass. All three ran across the top of the dune with their arms spread, holding their polar fleeces out behind them as parachutes. They looked inquisitively over the edge.
An old man yelled at the kids to be careful.
“It’s only sand,” one of the boys yelled back.
That was exactly what she or Jenna had said every time an old person yelled at them to be careful when they’d played up here.
“There really is enough wind up here,” one of the boys yelled.
“It feels like a tornado!”
“We need bigger jackets,” said the youngest.
Tilda stood and brushed sand off her pants. She threw her heavy white windbreaker to the boys so they could use it as a parachute.
After they flew down from the dune, the tourist children walked, tired, toward their parents at the ice cream shop. The lights in the hotel flicked on behind the shops at the edge of the golf course. The youngest boy tripped on his heels and fell backward off the curb. The moment he tripped, Tilda could just see him falling and hitting the back of his head on the cement. But a woman stuck her arm out and caught the kid. He rolled away from her and darted through the parking lot after his brothers.
The woman wore a green sweater, burgundy hiking boots, and stood beside a lead-gray truck. She joked that she’d just saved a few stitches, then grabbed a jacket from the rolled-down window of her car. She was tall with dark hair, in her late 50s.
“So many tiny, fluffy dogs,” she said. “A surprise more birds don’t go after them. I’ve seen an osprey take the ear right off a dachshund.” She pointed to a gaggle of Pekinese pulling an old tracksuit along the boardwalk.
Tilda laughed, but the woman held a stern grimace. Tilda stopped laughing and straightened her face. But then the woman winked and walked past her toward the beach.
She followed the stranger along boardwalk, then down onto the beach and up toward the point, trailing her by fifty yards. Would the woman turn and see she was being followed?
Tilda admired the nonchalance and lazy purpose of the woman’s stroll. Being a small town, it was easy to recognize the difference between residents (a slow gait, a familiar face), happy vacationers (weird, sometimes aggressive stares, with cameras, louder and in groups), and the suicides (alone, either sluggish or quite fast). The woman’s pace was relaxed and her demeanor was purposeful, yet she was no one recognizable.
Tilda ran into a group of friends who were having happy hour on the beach and in the bluster of conversation, she lost sight of the stranger. She went with her friends to Jack and Allie’s apartment and stayed for a while, until Amber gave her a lift home.
Before bed she went through the house, turning off the lights. The clicks from the lamps echoed off the hardwood floor like racquetball. Again, she thought about putting some of the rooms on AirBnB.
The old home was way too big and empty for a single person. Tilda’s parents had taken the furniture when they moved away after Jenna died. It was the same house she and her sister had grown up in. The summer after college, Dad was into his hand-made sailing skiff project, Mom was into her triathlon training, Jenna was home between semesters of her PhD program, and Tilda was applying for her first real job.
The two rooms in the house that were not empty were Tilda’s bedroom and Jenna’s bedroom. Jenna had been killed by a distracted driver a week before the triathlon. She had been cycling with mom back into town on the two-lane highway.
Her parents had left Blindkey Point for good. But Tilda convinced them not to sell the house, and to let her rent it. She did not harbor any weird superstitions about keeping her sister’s room the way she left it. Sometimes she went through Jenna’s drawers, borrowed a CD from her collection, or stole a sweatshirt. However, she did keep the lights on all night so that when she fell asleep or when she woke in the dark, she could see the strip of light shining under the closed door to Jenna’s room.
Tilda set her alarm for work. In the ridiculous way that pre-sleep silly dreams evolve, she had the urge to throw on a jacket, put on her boots, and see if the gray truck was still parked in the beachfront lot. Or had the woman driven out to the point?
The next day, two minutes before five, the stranger walked into Here For You. Gyles, the receptionist, asked her to put her name on a card and drop it into the box.
She picked up a card, pretended to write on it, and dropped it into the box. Gyles did not notice this. She wore a hunter green sweater with two white stripes around the sleeves and hem. She sat at a table and put a piece of folded paper down in front of her.
The three other writing tutors were basically ready to leave. They flicked the zippers on their bags and screwed tops onto their travel mugs. Who would volunteer to take this last one? It had not been a terrible day, but it had been more difficult than usual. Not busy. Just heavy, tough.
“I got this one,” Tilda said, nodding to the others.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Bye. See you later.”
They walked out the Entrance door. Gyles did not seem to notice that the center was about to close. He was doing something on his computer.
“This will not take long,” the woman said. Her voice and expression had a deadpan absence of inflection.
Tilda thought: She must be, like, an aunt who tells her niece or nephew to suck it up and get the first aid kit, right after they’ve sliced their thumb open on a pineapple can. She knows how to stitch back skin to skin.
Tilda said it was no trouble, sat down at the table, and asked: “What stage of the writing process are you at with this note?”
The windows flooded the room on all sides the color of runny egg yolk. The skylights overhead filled the ceiling with pink, orange, and dark streaking clouds.
“This is what I have written,” the woman said.
“Right, well, I’ll read this, and then we can talk about it. Suggestions to make it better.”
Pulling the folded paper across the wood-grain table toward her, Tilda got the distinct impression that there were no suggestions she could offer this woman. She unfolded the wide-ruled tan paper, which had been torn out of a notebook. The paper felt so thin, divorced from its binding, which clung in remnants to the un-trimmed edge. Tilda wanted to turn the slip of paper on its side and examine it from that direction. But that’s not how you read a page.
Dear you, the note started. The internet is not real. In this regard it is much like a dream. There are wires and cables under the ocean, apparently, but are they the internet? I have been led to believe it is a cloud. A reality which I can access with a computer or phone, a fancy block of metal. In this regard it is like a dream. Closing my eyes I dream. I access a place which, does it exist? Going somewhere, but not really. If one dies in one’s sleep, does one just keep on dreaming? In the past I was afraid, sometimes, to close my eyes before bed. I told myself that keeping them open would mean I’d stay alive. When I stick my face in wet grass, then I feel alive. I have stuck my face in the grass after rain. I have gone to find the under-ocean internet cables.
“What have you got?” the woman asked.
Tilda had stared at the note for longer than it took to read it through. Instead of making any marks with her pen, Tilda had pressed it into the note so that a blotch of ink had formed in the corner of the page.
She is being polite, now, Tilda thought. Of course she would be polite.
She put the note back on the table. She could not think of how to say it. The woman’s face, wrinkles, and eyes said: Get on with it. But, in a supportive way. Can you give stitches out of love?
“In parts the logic of it is a bit disconnected,” Tilda said. “Specifically between the last sentence and the one before it.”
The woman murmured acknowledgement.
“If you could do more to establish the logical connection between wet grass, ocean, internet cables, and”—Tilda choked, cleared her throat, and continued—“death, well, it might make the note’s end even more powerful.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, glancing at the nametag, “Tilda.”
She took her note, pushed back her chair, stood, and left.
Tilda put her head in her hands. She had not written a thing on the note. Not one mark, besides the bleedy ink blot.
Does she know I followed her last night? How was she there at the right moment to stop the boy from cracking his skull open in the parking lot? Did she know I worked here? How did she say goodbye like that? She just pushed her chair back and left. How do you tell the person who has just brought you their suicide note for grammar help not to do it?
Lifting her head, Tilda hoped to catch a last glance of the woman walking through the Exit door. She wanted to remember her. What would the woman’s reaction be when she found herself in a psych hospital? In that moment Tilda, was relieved, thankful for the presence of the hidden hospital.
“Forty-eight patients,” Dr. O’Brien had told the four tutors at the end of the previous week.
Forty-eight bodies that the police did not have to lift off the rocky beach and bring to the morgue. Forty-eight bodies that did not interrupt a fishing trip, requiring a phone call to the coast guard. Forty-eight times a child would not be scared to peeing himself because his foot, while swimming, was touched by a lifeless hand.
Tilda cursed at herself and told herself to get on with it. She reached for her backpack just as she saw the woman walking out the Entrance door, instead of the Exit.
“Gyles!” she shouted. “Stop her!”
The Entrance door thudded shut. She wanted to punch Gyles on the nose for not paying attention. Through the window she caught a glimpse of the white stripes on the hunter green sweater disappear around the corner.
She told Gyles to buzz a code yellow. She swung out the door frame and sprinted down the hall. She threw open the front door. She popped the kickstand on her mom’s Trek road bike, then bent it to her and stepped over the frame. Where would the woman go?
Tilda’s feet circled fast, then slowed as she clicked down into a lower gear. She swung a wide turn onto the road that led up to the point. A pair of snappy terriers yapped at a boy who tried to pet them. He leaned too far and fell off the edge of the picnic table bench. A car without headlights sped past her, veering into the other lane. Another with its headlights on coasted slowly around her.
The grey truck was in the gravel lot, along with four other cars. To the front: ocean, wind roaring in. Two hundred yards out to sea, a surfer in a wetsuit. To the right: farmland, grass brushed down and trees that tilted inland. To the left: the town, the golf course, the school and homes, stores and restaurants, cars and people. At the overlook, an elderly couple sat on a bench. Beside another bench was a man in a wheelchair, vaping.
The woman stood at the edge. The onshore wind stung Tilda’s contacts. She shut her eyes tight, and when she opened them, she saw that the woman had one leg raised, as if to step off the edge.
Should she run forward and grab her? What could she yell?
The woman put her foot back down.
Tilda went for her. The gravel crunch-runched.
The woman lifted her knee again as if to walk right over.
The woman set her foot back down, then turned.
Tilda hid. From behind the information board she watched the woman walk back from the overlook, sit on a bench, and take a notepad from her back pocket. She set it on her lap, hunched over, and wrote against her thigh.
In the gloaming, all the people at the overlook became dark shapes. A canvas was propped against another bench. The painting was a sunset in acrylic, except there were two suns, and the ocean was purple. It looked like something a kid would paint.
The white stripes on the woman’s sweater were barely visible as she ripped the page out, placed it under the bench, and covered it with a handful of gravel.
She got in her truck. The headlights partially illuminated where Tilda stood, so she walked around the other side of the info board. The truck backed up and drove away.
Tilda went to the bench and grabbed the letter from under the rock. It nearly tore away in the wind, but she folded it and put it in her jeans pocket, then got on the bike.
A dry leaf rattled over the concrete on the road next to her. A fallen branch in a lawn reared up, looking like a cobra. As she passed each streetlight, the shadow of herself on her bike raced up from behind, then rode level with her, then raced past. She knew that whatever the letter said, she would have to get better at saying goodbye, so as she clicked along with the bike chain she practiced it—goodbye, goodbye.