Mental Contagion

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Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis


I’ve just finished doing the dishes… again.  We don’t have a dishwasher. I get so sick and tired of doing dishes. I can’t explain the disappointment when I walk through the kitchen and there are more dishes piled there… again. I turn on the water, scrub the large stainless sink, washing down remnants of dried food and coffee grounds and plug the drain. I reach under the sink for the soap, squirting a stream of it into the hot water cascading from the tall, curving faucet. The soap bubbles multiply in gestational splendor, exuding the scent of lemon. Now, I am caught up in alchemy; the massaging of surfaces, the slosh of water, the final rinse and when the last dish or fork or glass is placed tenderly in the rack, I experience an embarrassing, secret nirvana—every time. I gaze out the window over my sink while opening the drain, and listen to the dingy water and languishing suds gurgle down the pipes, away from my hands—these hands—attached to me. My thoughts are detached, drifting. A hushed, ancient sensation of grief drags through me—innumerable fingers, quotidian utility, pulling gently at my internal organs. I miss something, someone. I inhale and turn from it, wiping down the countertops in wide determined swaths, rinse the sponge and return it to the small wire basket on the ledge of the sink where it belongs. It belongs there now. I dry my hands on a dishcloth threaded through the drawer pull. Something is finished. I’ve achieved a brief moment of nothingness. But I never remember any of this when I’m looking at another loathsome stack of dirty dishes.  

This morning I stood in queue at the old post office in Redwing. The elderly man in front of me was stooped, leaning on a cane, still as marble. He shuffled carefully forward when the next person finished their business at the window and then resumed his patient stillness. He was dressed in blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a big, blue jean, fleece-lined jacket. His clothes had gone through the wash hundreds of times. He smelled of fabric softener and something else, his kitchen or pipe tobacco. Finally it was his turn. He carried a slightly mangled package under his free arm that he had obviously struggled to prepare for its journey. He leaned his cane against his right leg, freeing his hands. The clerk at the counter spoke too loudly in deference to his quiet questions and answers.  I was uncomfortable listening to her shrill voice echo through the lobby, shattering the privacy of his transaction and assuming he was hard of hearing. She weighed his package and applied the appropriate postage. He needed stamps too, please. A roll of 100 is $39 she roared. Your total is $47.03. I flinched.  

His black and red checked wool cap had the earflaps turned down and fit his head snugly. The scrawny nape of his crosshatched neck was exposed and moving between his downy hairline and the threadbare collar of his faded jacket. He fished in his pocket stealthily with long fingers, procuring a floppy, beloved wallet he flipped open with his thumb, removing a crisp $50 dollar bill. The clerk went to her cash drawer and gathered his change; two $1 bills and some coins. He grasped the bills like a praying mantis and inserted them deftly into his wallet, smoothly folding it and slid it into the sheath of his left pocket. The frowning clerk was staring hard at him and fidgeting with the change, anxious to complete his transaction. He offered his right hand, which opened like a lily, and she poured the coins into his wide palm. His fingers angled shut and his arm angled back and down to his right pocket. I heard the dimes, pennies and quarters cascade in a muffled jingle to the bottom, bouncing against his thin leg as he released them.

Watching him, my heart rate had slowed and my peripheral vision had sharpened. The sun slanted through the post office windows, creating long ochre rectangles on the floor, the glitter of infinitesimal dust particles floating across the light and into our lungs. The room was warm. He made a slow quarter turn with his body and then turned his head another to look behind him—at me.  I smiled.  The wrinkles on his face were epic, his skin both rugged and translucent with short whiskers peppering his cheeks and chin. He wore no glasses and his eyes were a cloudy brown. He didn’t react but lingered, gazing steadily into my eyes, finally realigning his head to his body and saying to the clerk, as if she had moved stage right, “Thank you for your help.”   He reset his gyroscope and began a molasses approach towards the door.

My movement to the counter and my transaction felt as if they were made at warp speed. By the time I finished my business, shoved the receipt and stamps into my bag and descended the long, stone steps outside, the old T’ai Chi farmer had navigated down the sidewalk and was addressing a small snowdrift at the curb. I got into my car and watched him in my rear view mirror. He made his way around the bright red Ford Fiesta parked behind me and to the driver’s door. He pulled keys out of his jacket pocket and sorted through them, finally inserting one into the lock. The sun was too bright, the sky too blue, the snow too white, his car too red, the Doric pillars on the post office too large and looming. I felt woozy and uncertain about everything. My stomach growled. I turned the ignition, revved the engine, disengaged the clutch and pulled away from the curb into rush hour traffic.

Mental Contagion
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