Mental Contagion

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Rūs Mental Contagion
Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis

Person to Person

I pick her up at 6:17 p.m. and we drive around the block to the 331 Club. It’s easy—her neighborhood watering hole comfort zone. The drinks are cheap at happy hour, the lights are low and the appetizer we order arrives just as the alcohol begins stretching like a lazy cat into our bloodstreams. We don’t waste any time. We talk about love and resistance to love. We laugh at the pretense of control and the waste of time it is. I feel relief while she’s not so sure. The look on her face is an award-winning photograph not captured, still sweating the salt spray and sex of Savannah. She said she jumped up and down on the bed naked, like a girl. I walk to the back door for a cigarette. She walks to the bar to talk to a friend. Outside the air audibly crackles, my Northerner ears attuned to it only in subzero temperatures. Headlights bob around the corner towards me and then continue on, taillights trailing away from me down Marshall Avenue, destination unknown.

She pays our bill and we walk out together, pushing hard on the heavy oak door standing bravely between our comfort and the ferocious cold. I fumble for my keys through sloppy mittens and drive her to the door of her dark house a couple blocks away, an unlit string of Chinese lanterns tossing in the frigid wind on the second story porch. I watch them dance while we say goodbye. I need to travel to my South with this woman. We have each other’s stories tonight.

When I get home I hear music drifting in from another room. I watch my husband, whom I love, sitting just around the corner of this old table, in a dreamy yet driven state, typing. It gives me a false sense of security. Sitting down at my laptop next to him, I open my mail, clicking first on the latest from my darling girl in London and next, on the latest from her darling boy in Asia. I dive the depths of their intention for themselves and each other. I spend an hour reading stories and harvesting images from their recent days and nights. The geography between us ticks off the time zones. It is midnight where I sit, morning where she wakes while the sun sets in India. I think about the long journey a letter used to take from the old country to the New World, how precious those pages must have been upon arrival and how many other words were swallowed silently into the sea.

Tonight, I live forever. Tonight, I am certain of my death. Tonight, I feel my mother hovering like the wraith she has become. Tonight, I drink an Irish whiskey on the rocks in honor of my Irish mother who never tasted it. Tonight, I feel the presence of my children the way a womb recognizes the cloying insistence of life against its wall, cells multiplying, pressed inexplicably against each other, and against all odds. I look at photos from the World Press for 2006. Evolution is slow and each of us unique and all the while, the entire history of the earth as we know it is a mere blip on the cosmic radar screen. I pour another drink and sink into the sink of it all. I spend hours with violence around the globe. I take the violence to bed and roll around with it like a savage, implacable swain.

In the morning, I wake and lie in bed thinking about how I’ll prepare an egg. Every couple weeks I buy two dozen eggs from my neighbor down the road for four dollars, recycling the cartons with her from the previous weeks. Opening the carton, I view the pleasing shades of beige, blue, green and blue-green. Each egg is an individual and I take time choosing the one I’ll eat, a carnivorous ritual that feels gloriously self-indulgent and pleasing. This morning, I soft boil chosen egg and also choose the small, aqua Bakelite dish from the cupboard purposefully. I crack the egg with the edge of a spoon and scoop it lovingly from the green shell, which, emptied, presents a lovely, deeper silvery-green shade on its interior. I hesitate before tossing the shell into the garbage. The five-minute egg is lovely when it meets the dish—white egg white releasing from its rubbery clutches yellow yolk, pooling against aqua dish—and a small bit of butter, melting. I look up and watch tiny, sunlit snowflakes through the kitchen window above the sink, which appear suspended, having wafted off the tree boughs, held aloft. I carry my simple breakfast to the table.

“You wanna sign my blanket?” We’re standing outside on the corner of First Avenue and 7th Street. He holds up a black marker.

“Sign your blanket?” I ask, rhetorically. “Yeah…. but I have to think about what to write …do you have time?” I’ve put myself on the spot.

“Yes, baby, I have all the time in the world…” but he surveys the crowd like a salesman on a convention floor honing in on the next customer.

A comical rubber fish bobs up and down from the crook of his left arm and his locally famous walking stick is clamped under his right armpit. He’s sporting a black stocking cap pulled down low over his graying, wiry hair exploding maniaclly from its reaches. His skin is the sallow brown of old chocolate and he only has a few teeth left. He’s a fixture on this corner. Stick Man. He hits up the kids on smoke breaks between sets at First Ave Danceteria.

“Are you OK?” I ask. Do you have a place to sleep tonight?” grasping the marker from his gloved fingers.

“Maybe… but if I don’t, I’ve got this blanket and all these words.” He’s comforting me.

“OK.” I look into his cloudy eyes as if through binoculars scanning a horizon I want to see more clearly. I can smell the sweetness of whiskey escaping on his foggy breath. He is not so different from me. I examine the heavy canvas coat, which has been repeatedly addressed with marker strokes for years and possibly years more. It’s become a work of art. His newer blanket is crowded with words, quotes and names, like the plaster cast of a high school jock. I scribe “warm” on the fold nearest to his face.

“I’ll read that before I go to bed tonight and think about you… is this your daughter?”

“Yes…” we both turn to gaze at her. I say, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” as if I’m presenting her to royalty in another century, and I feel instantly embarrassed for having said it when there are so many other words I might have chosen that would have done her and myself more justice. He reaches out, gently takes her hand and kisses it with princely charm. She smiles and giggles, looking at me for reassurance. My eyes fill with confusing tears and I turn to him instead.

“Make sure this adds up to some good whiskey tonight, okay? Not that rot-gut shit.” I slip him a few dollar bills. He had me. I wanted to give him much more and would have felt holy for it.

“Yes. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Don’t you worry.” His eyes wander again to my youngest child, almost nineteen, a shy smirk on her lips; he drinks her down like tonic or poison. We both covet beauty tonight.

“Hey… Tall Man … you wanna sign my blanket?” And so it goes until we retreat from the cold through glass double doors lined with tattooed bouncers and back into the dark, cavernous room for Sparklehorse.

This morning I woke at 8 a.m. to heavy snow falling, the forecasted weekend storm finally arriving in full force. If I was on a highway between somewhere and here, I might have felt anxious, but in the safety of my country house with nowhere to go, I descended the stairs and opened the door, releasing my dogs into the blinding white of a Minnesota blizzard. They disappeared into it and didn’t return for hours. If dogs would talk they might have daring stories to tell. Instead they return home, nonchalantly shake off the snow and sleep.

Mental Contagion
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