Learning to talk at the end of the world
Assembled from the Twitter feed of the
NC State University Campus Police
to reports of person
pretending to shoot
speaking in loud voice
Unable to locate
someone preaching loudly
Had a permit
caused by air
caused by hair
caused by curling
persons engaged in
behavior in Schenk
Told to leave
goats escaped from
goats were back
people moving cameras
in Free Speech Tunnel
No action taken
Was planting flowers
person using metal
Was advised of
person walking on
for safety reasons
Had not slept
Black or silver, it was shaped like a camel back trunk, with two chrome latches on the front. A swing arm locked the glass-lined thermos inside the domed lid. The metal “workingman’s” lunchbox—although plenty of women carried one, too—symbolized the can-do spirit of manual labor.
My dad carried a black metal lunchbox to a General Motors factory., where he worked the night shift as a machinist. Each weekday afternoon at around 3:30, my mother would lovingly stuff his lunchbox with enough food to feed the Donner Party: five sandwiches on white bread—two grape jelly, plus one each of bologna, pickle-pimento loaf and peanut butter—plus an apple and a thermos of whole milk.
The work was such that my father did not get fat. At 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds, he had forearms the size of rear axles, sculpted by years
of wrestling with borers and grinders, jig mills and lathes. He would stand all night at his workbench, his feet snug and sweating in leather boots that deflected sharp flakes of hot steel onto the oily concrete floor.
Meanwhile, in the cool cave of his lunchbox slept the sandwiches, which, like his toes, needed protecting.
In 1979, nearly 20 million men and women were working in factories and mills. A sturdy metal lunchbox could withstand the rigors of the harsh environments—heat, cold, falls from tables and benches.
Yet as the number of blue-collar workers declined so did the need for the metal lunchbox. My dad got a promotion and began wearing a tie and regular shoes to work. He carried his lunch in a plain brown sack.
Now we work at service or desk jobs. To bring a metal lunchbox into a such a workplace would be pretentious. What would we protect our lunch from? [2:00]
Falling megabytes? Paper cuts? Office gossip?
In the daily ritual of lunch making, my mother’s final touch was to write my father a note and then slip it among the sandwiches. I don’t know the contents of these letters—to read them would have been an unthinkable breach of my parents’ intimacy—but I always knew when she had finished one by the brisk strokes of her pen as she dashed a constellation of x’s and o’s at the bottom of the page.
My father took his lunch break at 8:30 each evening. I imagine him sitting at his workbench with his lunchbox agape and reading a love letter from his wife, who at that moment was readying their children for bed. Then he would neatly fold it and place it inside for safekeeping.
The City of Durham has a One Call app for smartphones that people can use to report issues in their neighborhood. This is a selection of complaints that have been lodged this summer.
The grass near the 7 GoDurham bus stop is wild.
Highway just cut grass
and ran over a mattress.
Please discard mattress.
We live next to a car wash
that has a dumpster.
A colony of rats seems
to have made this area
And there seems to be
quite a robust city
More than half the year
I beat the most efficient home.
And I have never used more energy
than other homes of similar size.
This is a point of pride for me.
I have no idea
how my water usage
compares to other homes.
Knowing that I am beating others
in water use,
is a great motivator.
Our whole street needs rocks.
Dog was bleeding profusely from his head.
Dead possum in back yard.
How do I dispose of it?
Do you need to test for rabies?
It’s going in the trash if I don’t hear back.
Might as well close this.
Dead animal is in
the city landfill by now.
I had just finished feeding the cats when Dennis stirred from a deep sleep with a request. His voice sounded urgent and firm.
“I want my glasses. I want my camera.”
His clarity surprised me. The combination of Morphine, Haldol, and the toxins building up in his brain had rendered him nearly inarticulate. The day before, he had spoken to me in tongues.
Dennis’s cancer had begun in his prostate. But over the last two years, his CT scans had lit up with black spots, as if his bones were becoming riddled with buckshot. Now the cancer had invaded his skull. In the most recent images, his entire head was black — a beret of cancer.
Dennis could barely hear; nor could he see well.
“Is it dark or blurry?” I had yelled a week earlier.
“Blurry,” he yelled back.
Well, at least he wasn’t blind.
I handed Dennis his glasses and his phone. At first, he held it in landscape and then turned the screen to portrait. He pointed it at a spot at the end of his hospital bed.
He took one picture.
He handed me his phone and his glasses. He went back to sleep.
I didn’t look, not then.
That evening, as Dennis slept, I pulled up the picture.
This is what I saw: A darkened TV screen, a ceiling fan. His feet beneath a sheet.
This is what he saw: Something I could not.
After Dennis died the next morning, his hospice nurse, Pat, told me she believed that he had seen his spirit guide. In their final days, she said, many people have visions of their loved ones — floating near the ceiling, sitting in a corner of the room, leaning over the bed. Pat believed in these guides. She had no doubt someone had come for him, and that he wanted to take their picture.
When I look at this photo now, I strain my eyes to detect what Dennis felt so desperate to capture: a shadow, an apparition, a kind face that will allow me to lift the veil between this plane and the next. But I can’t see anything. It’s not my time.
Dream No. 1, Wednesday
A stiff, raw breeze blew through the house. I had opened all of the windows because a strong storm was rolling in, and for the past two weeks, the air inside had felt heavy, stagnant. It was May, but the wind reminded me of March, when the atmosphere is unstable and indecisive and unsure of herself.
For three weeks, I had been sleeping on the couch. I had thrown our queen-size bed away, hauled the mattress and the box springs to the curb for the garbageman. I hadn’t decided what kind of replacement bed to buy. A twin would be large enough for me, but would foreclose on future possibilities. A twin would be too small to accommodate me and the cats. I was leaning toward a full-size, but I felt torn, so for now, I had settled on the couch.
I fell asleep without a blanket. I dreamt I was holding a cold, round object, perhaps a potato or a stone. But the texture was too supple, too smooth. I was holding your hand.
You were wearing your brown coat, your fall coat, the one that kept you warm when we traveled to Meat Cove, at the tip of Cape Breton, and watched the cormorants huddle in the mist on the pier.
“Wait, aren’t you dead?” I asked.
“What’s it like to be dead?”
“It’s OK, not too bad, about what I expected.”
You always had a gift for understatement.
We were quiet for a while, and then you said, “But I do like sitting here in the breeze with you.”
Suddenly, my hand was empty.
Dream No. 2, Thursday
First, I had to dig a trench. It needed to be square, its perimeter large enough for a bed and several vases of flowers. Then I had to stack and mortar concrete blocks to build your crematorium.
You lay dying on a hospital bed within the building’s footprint. The hospice nurse, Pat, said I had to finish it, timed perfectly, so that I placed the last block, the keystone, as you died.
Pat updated me every half hour.
“It won’t be long.”
“You should hurry.”
I had completed one wall when I realized I had mismeasured. I leaned on my shovel and began crying. You had always told me to slow down, to be methodical, especially when assembling things. You were right. You were always right.
I started over, measured — twice this time — dug another trench, took down the concrete blocks and stacked and mortared them in their new spots.
“He’s almost gone.”
I sat down, slumped against the one good wall and cried. I still had two and a half walls to go. There’s no way I would finish on time.
The blinds lift automatically.
I stand behind glass. You’re enclosed in a fiberboard box that from here looks like stone. Because by law you must be contained before you are rolled into the fire. As if you could escape.
Inside the box, you are dressed in a blue-and-white short-sleeved shirt that used to complement your skin tone. The same shirt you were wearing when we sat on the patio of the Mexican restaurant one summer afternoon long ago, drinking margaritas, half the rim salted, half not,
while knockout roses bloomed in nearby pots.
Inside the box, you are wearing khaki pants, but no socks. When Justin, the funeral director, came last week to pick up your body, I handed him a small pile of your clothing, topped by a ball of black socks. He said you didn’t need socks, so I must have returned them to the drawer. As if you could escape.
I read a Buddhist poem. The silver crematory door raises and the gears on the conveyor belt begin to roll. I’m so intent on reading the poem that I miss your going in.
At twenty-eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit, it still takes four and a half hours to cremate the average-size body. You went in at 1:30, which means you’ll be done by 6, so I go buy tomato plants and some cages. I take a late lunch, occasionally checking the time, and think of you as a stick of incense, orange and glowing.
After burning for four and half hours, the average-size body needs time to cool. The next morning at 11 I pick you up. Your urn is a handmade box of poplar, a tall and sturdy tree that is resistant to disease. I remove the lid and see that your cremains are encased in a clear plastic bag, which is tied off and secured with a silver tag. As if you could escape.
The bag is warm to the touch, the temperature of tortillas when they arrived at our table on the patio of the Mexican restaurant one summer afternoon long ago. I ladle out a portion of your ashes for your brother. Somewhere in here are your kind brown eyes, the constellation of moles that streaked across your left cheek, your blue-and-white short-sleeved shirt.