Tuesday 12 September 2023

You’ll Find Out One Day by J. Bradley Minnick, coffee will keep you going

I’m trying to describe the black fog to my granddaughter—26—who wears short skirts, buys expensive shoes with the little money she makes as a book clerk, and carries around tiny purses in which she might be able to fit a dime. She’s talking to me on the phone as I stand looking at the clouds through my window at the Henrytown Home for the Elderly and Infirm. The clouds march by like elegant soldiers.
     My granddaughter lives in a small one-bedroom walk-up, and she took me in for a while after the fog descended the last time, but she didn’t quite know what to do with me. There are only so many eggy-bread sandwiches one can make in that small galley kitchen. There are only so many blouses to iron. Her air conditioner blew warm air—I was always cold anyway—and there was a big window where, like now, I watch the soldiers march through the sky.
    At Henrytown she calls me on the phone to tell me she is home, and I tell her that when the black fog descends, watch out, Lord! You’ll find out one day. My granddaughter says she has no doubt that she will find out one day but that day is not today.
     I think I’m pretty much just wasting my breath, and then, right as I’m telling her about the elegant soldiers, the black fog descends, and I end up on the floor and nearly rattle my bones.

The doctor is very young and treats me with kid gloves—asks me questions about the year and the month and the President’s name that any idiot could answer. He sits hunched over, pecking, not really looking at me.
    I’m not much of a talker until I get going, and by the time I’m ready, the conversation has moved on. Then, when I do speak, what I have to say comes out disjointed, gets away from me. I say, ‘I won’t complain but would prefer a handsome roommate to keep me company.’

With this doctor, there is much silence and a lot of typing. I try to answer his questions about the black fog: I tell him how the first time it descended I was watching a baseball game on television. The game—pressure packed—bottom of the 9th—man on third—score tied—a little blooper to left—the throw down the baseline—that big lumbering man began his slide— SAFE! and then the black fog descended.
    I tell the doctor I could feel it coming, hurried toward the phone to call my granddaughter, but woke up on the floor with the phone still in my hand. That black fog I tell him is like the big wind that came through one night and blew over my standing garage. When I looked out the window the next morning, the garage had turned upside down.
    ‘I feel like that garage right now, toppled,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve gotten into this thinking loop lately—start thinking about the black fog, and get to feeling sorrowful for myself; start thinking about the black fog, and say to my granddaughter and to the elegant soldiers and to you: You’ll find out one day.’

The doctor has stopped typing completely, like he’s watching the black fog descend. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’m sure I will find out one day.’ He adds, ‘The black fog is something we can study as it’s happening,’ and did he mention, ‘there’s a Sleep Lab on the top floor of this very hospital. Thought about putting it in the basement,’ he laughs, ‘but that’s too predictable. You like unpredictability, right?” he asks as if the fog is right in front of him not me; yet, he can’t see it, and there is no time to explain, and as it descends, the last thing he says is ‘I’m sure I’ll find out one day, but today is not that day.’
    When I wake up with a crick in my neck, my granddaughter is by my side, holding my hand, giving little love squeezes: I—love—you; I—love—you; I—love—you. I squeeze back ‘more than anything in the world—more than anything in the world.’
    ‘Gran,’ she says, ‘you passed out again and this time right in front of the doctor. What are we going to do with you?’ She means this ironically, more as a joke, but I can’t seem to muster up so much as a sniffle.

After the black fog, I have trouble with my tongue. It feels rather too large and swollen. I can’t seem to put words together—in fact everything becomes a kind of shape. For instance, I know that it’s my granddaughter standing wide-eyed in front of me, but she looks like a raincoat with nothing to fill it and suddenly there’s an umbrella that snaps open above my head. I want to tell my granddaughter that this is bad luck—terrible luck, so I close my eyes and tell myself I’m resting them.
    Then, it’s early morning and my granddaughter is gone and my words are back and the shapes are gone. Don’t feel bad for me, really—you’ll find out one day. It just won’t be today, and it probably won’t be tomorrow or the day after, but it’ll be someday. The world will keep sideling by, and the clouds overhead will keep marking our days. We might pick out one we want: we might pick one out of the dawn; we might pull one down into our palms and hold whatever it is we have selected—something we find that we want: there—a pair of shoes with frayed laces, and I wonder where they may take me; there, a bundle of bouquets whose petals fall into my hair as the flowers settle in bunches around my feet; there, a hotdog, and if I was hungry, I’d eat it, but there is no bun; there, a desk with an old fashioned ink well, and if I choose to, I could sit in it and be back in elementary school; there, a white sports car—my granddaughter’s, with a sunroof, and if I asked her, she would take me back home. This is what I pull down from the sky.
    The sports car is too large for this room, and too big to fit back out through the door, but it is not too difficult to find my feet, which I worry will slip out from under me. I pull down the shoes and put them on. I find my way to the sports car. I open the door and sit inside and play with the radio. I turn to a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the 9th, a blooper to left, the lumbering runner, the slow slide, the play at the plate.
    I think about being in my granddaughter’s one-room apartment, about eggy bread sandwiches, about dusting, about ironing, about being forever cold.
    Maybe if I pick more carefully, things will turn out alright this time. I look at the clouds, and there is the shape of my husband, who worked his whole life in a glass factory. His hands were so padded, they felt like cushions when he touched the sides of my face—so I pick him, and he is suddenly there beside me—not saying anything, just wringing his hands, looking at me; there is one cloud that looks like my son, the chemist, whose lungs finally gave out and who loved me the most, I think—so I pick him, too, and he’s there in the back seat of the sports car, coughing, looking back at me; there is the shape of my garage blown over during the terrible wind (What did the insurance adjuster say? ‘Irrecoverable.’) I pick it because it has been turned upside down and needs to be put right, covering this sports car; there is my sister, who loved to dance and was the prettiest of all, and never let anyone trample her dreams—so I pick her, and there she is in front of us, and she does a little dance through the windshield like the one she performed at my wedding instead of a toast. Everyone marveled and clapped and asked her to perform the dance again, but she refused and said that dance was only for the one time; and, there’s my brother so I pick him. My brother, who had nothing to say about the war, only opened his stamp collection with all of the places where he had fought as if to say, ‘send me a letter, and I’ll write one back’; finally, I there is me—just as I looked at 15 on my wedding day, in my dress and the wreath around my head and my buckle-shoes covered with flowers. The photographer tells me to stand waiting, waiting, waiting—so I pick myself, and suddenly there I am standing right next to my husband to be and my sister and my brother; standing inside my garage, waiting— and I am still waiting and they are waiting and have been waiting, since.
    Maybe, I could start over. Maybe I can make things right. I could tell my husband how he shouldn’t rake leaves on that cold November day; I could tell my son how he shouldn’t mow the grass with his lungs the way they are; I could ask my sister to dance one more time just for me. I could tell the wind not to blow. I could tell my brother’s hands to stop shaking so he could fix watches again. I could tell myself about the future.
    I am looking at them and they at me, curious about how I turned out; curious about why I picked them out of the sky—curious about why I lined them up like this, one-by-one in front of me, curious why the phone keeps ringing, and I don’t answer it. 

About the author

J. Bradley Minnick is a writer, public radio host and producer, and a Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is the Executive Producer of artsandlettersradio.org and has published in Cleaver, Burningword Literary Journal, Literally Stories, and the Toad Suck Review

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