You’re the wayward one, aren’t you, said the teacher. I was sitting on my yoga mat, distracted by a magazine. I think everyone in this room is offering you respect, I said to her. I meant to give it. In a Little Free Library near my house, I found three Adrienne Rich books. A woman who knits miniature elfin sweaters as Christmas tree decorations offered to trade a bauble with me in exchange for poetry. There has been less rain this summer, and many fields have dried out so deeply that the laser readers from airplanes reveal hidden ancient pathways and stone circles no one knew were there.
While I was reading, one word in Rich’s poem flung me off like a piece of limestone skidding from a speeding tire. Startled, I held my skull plates, let disturbance fall, and climbed back up. But the wrong word was still there, and left me distrustful, hesitant to slide back into the lines.
I read that every creature if it lives long enough gets cancerous tumors, except elephants, naked mole rats, clams, and bats. I cannot keep up with learning new software. Three people I know have abnormal brain scans. Their doctors disagree about what the images mean. The boy across the street dyed his hair with bleach so it stood up like a bunchgrass hummock. He was taken out of school for poor social behavior. A lab test showed I had a bacterial disease, and the drug for it turned my urine orange.
I want to go back and say, Please change the word, but that poet is gone. I sat on my porch wearing a parka, waiting for my feral cat to appear and play eye-blinking games with me. She and I have been chatting like this for seven years. Insects carry bones on the outside of their bodies. Some beings, even if they have no brain, like sea anemones, seem to know they have a right and left side. The aorta shoots tributaries for blood out throughout the chest, in a pattern unique to each person. A friend who writes mystical stories told me there is a tall pink angel standing next to me. It has no sex. I haven’t decided whether to let it guide me.
We were at the Window Motel putting on our pajamas and Dad was yelling that Mom didn’t help him back up right and he hit a big rock that broke the muffler and it was all noisy and there would be a bill. On the radio a lady was singing Help me I think I’m falling, and I slipped out the door. It was misty, like smog but with water in it. It was our California vacation and I never saw smog like that before. Maybe it would kill the fish which we were going to catch the next day. We were going to pay to catch fish. There were dead leaves all around the parking lot edge, wet from the mist, and I picked them up and covered my feet with them like I was a statue in winter. Maybe I could pile them high up and dig a tunnel inside and no one would remember me and I could stay in the mist and find my own fish. Maybe I could dress like a pelican. I was ready to fly.
Up a forest road, cut to stop fires. Off trail, a flag scrap pointed a turn behind a pine stand. But what about night, I said. Memorize, he said. Learn the angles. Storms and disease have cracked limbs, twisted growth, leaving every tree turned its own way. We lay on a tarp over needles. He walked into town days, to tell horoscopes. My editing jobs busied me till late. Soon I could follow twilighted Ys and Xs and Ls of crossways twigs toward the camp. He ranted on about how his wife cast him out, his craggy face red with angry blooms. Sometimes his eyes froze into glass. He never spoke of the war. One evening I slid my hips against his hard muscles. Oyez! he cried. Begone voluptuary, hot-blooded Jezebel! I stumbled out, breaking branches under my feet.
It’s good he didn’t know the jacket was originally my mother’s. He flinched at the pink fragrance of that Polartec zip-up. Where is my leather valise, I want my top coat from Woolf Brothers, Gary Cooper would have worn a hat, don’t give me those Velcro plastic slippers. Luckily someone stole his eyeglasses, which I’ve heard happens a lot here.
Applesauce! said Fat Boy. That meant it was time for me to leave. When I got back his butt would be cleaned up. I found a plastic chair in the fluorescent microwave room– I was always carrying a New Yorker for these intermezzos–but broken salt packets and spilled ketchup skipped across the dinette. I dragged the chair to another table, judding its rubber feet. That mess is my fault, said a guy leaning against the baby fridge. He had rosacea and slurry-sleepy eyes. My wife doesn’t pick up after herself when she customizes her meals. They’re talking about a taro root diet next, like congee only Hawaiian, so maybe she’ll vomit less. Oh, you didn’t need to hear that. It’s fortunate I’m unemployed at the moment—it’s perfect for taking care of her as she is. I probably know what you mean, I said. We’re pushing through the constrictions here. That thing with the glass and the sand running through the tiny hole.
I liked the guy because he wasn’t good-looking at all–I threw off the sheen of being blow-dry styled, ready with a quip and a clever project to pitch. They say you should get comfortable before making other people comfortable, he said. That’s why I do yoga in her room next to the hospital bed. I wear a clown nose sometimes—it keeps her surprised. Hey, I’m behind on my own practice since my father got like this, I said. Maybe you could guide me back into a routine, however simple? Thank God for you, he said. That’s just what I need—a basic kitchen exercise!
I slipped my shoes aside and pushed furniture away. The floor was slippery fake linoleum—a petroleum-made thing to imitate an older petroleum-made thing—so I took off my wool socks. I wasn’t cold. It’s always hot in these places—people who live here have turned back into fish. They get slow. I flipped frontward placing my palms flat, Uttasana, then my elbows to the floor, Dolphin. But there I was—as always, trying to impress. Naw! said the guy. This is your scam. Camel! Assume the position, he ordered. That scared me. I can’t do Camel, I said. No time like the present, he said. Then Fat Boy strode in pushing the applesauce trays. Shoulder blades back and down, said Rosacea Guy, and I knelt on the floor and prepared to arch. This is lovely, I said. You’re out of uniform—off you go, said Boy to Guy. I pressed my neck open, my shoulders back like a necklace model preparing to meet death.
Susan Nordmark’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, New World Writing, Tupelo Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Bellingham Review, and many other journals. She lives in Oakland, California.