In the month of November, we are going to be at it again. Join us at 5am each morning Monday - Friday. Bible Boot Camp is a morning devotional space to start o Download our app fullcircleministries and watch us on Biblebootcamp. Jump to.
Midway through the program, a three-year-old in a pink leotard breaks ranks with her classmates and runs back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, stopping at abrupt intervals to frown intently through the footlights into the audience. We laugh ourselves to tears. Out of nowhere, she slips her hand into ours. That is a perfect moment. We have those, too. It is a small comfort, but in your moment, your eyes are fixed on the ultrasound screen, so you are spared seeing the look on her face.
Those of us who are familiar with her hands know what a gift it is to hold them. Perfectly proportioned, beautifully tapered fingers. Strong, manicured nails. So even with your stomach lurching and your eyes burning, you at least have that privilege. This moment will not be the worst one. There will be moments when you and she will be apart. Ugly moments full of ugly thoughts that you will not speak of, even with each other. Here we are, not long after we met her. That week when, even though it was so soon it seemed like it should be a really bad idea, she stayed in our little basement apartment with us for five days.
Here we are, coming home from work and opening the door to her reclining on the couch, computer on her lap, hair turned up in a messy bun. What if the enormity of a single moment is too much for just one of us to grasp? Could the weight of that moment be shared, if every iteration of us were to somehow face the same direction and live it together? Because something strange happens in that moment, looking at her on the couch. Though we had practically just met her, in that moment we had seen her in this exact pose countless times.
We see the features of her face flicker through decades, millions of iterations of her, every one of them familiar. The reverberations of that moment are felt by all of us, but none more than by those of us who are alone.
The quiet echo of seeing her there on the couch is what gives so many of us hope. A tiny ripple of a feeling assuring us that, eventually, she would be there. At ten and a half weeks, the fetus is the shape of the two of us curled up together on the couch with our little dog, waiting for it to be over. We hold on to each other tight for days, trying to stitch ourselves together using all the same things that could just as easily tug us apart.
Trailing the dull rage comes resignation. You are not the first or the only one of us to feel that he is being justly deprived of a happiness he has not earned. You are not alone in your irrational certainty that this is a punishment meant for you, and that you should be ashamed for sharing it with her.
If I could, I would share another one with you. Try to imagine a moment when the doctor says something entirely different. A moment when her perfect hand-wrapped in yours once again-gives an excited, involuntary squeeze.
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Imagine that, in this moment, you are looking at her face. If you can imagine that moment, try to imagine the one that comes next. And the one after that. Do this over and over, for as long as you can, until suddenly here she is.
When you leave, you untether me - floating on an inland sea. Like all hollow vessels, I bob on the tide, dipping in and out of this alkali cocktail - dipping and drying like wax to wick, which tans my skin to crack-lin. Ox peckers descend, settling onto my blistering breast; they pass over my sea lice friends to blood-let the host instead. I bleed in salted cracker-crust white, and my eyes blink as hollow as Iamus before his descent.
Suspended in this saturated salinity - fuchsia dreams erupt like Matisse cut-outs and drift along beside me in the brine shrimp bloom. Where I think I see you along the shore, smeared in red heifer ash, caught mid-dive, and I await your purifying splash.
Which is what happened when I seard for my old secretary, who had moved to Florida before the Millennium, and saw that she had died seven years ago, and all this time I had not thought of her often. This time has passed, not seeming like years at all, unless a year becomes a day or an hour at this age. Now, when you have the memory of a person, you wonder whatever happened to them, and where did they move to, so, you search their name on your stupid phone or your laptop and you find out that they are not sipping a Rum and Coke in Pensacola but that they are dead and have been dead for years.
The unknowing of a death is gone: accessibility has destroyed tranquility.
Most strong and graceful men and women grow frail in their last years, and then are sometimes memorialized as cute and silly - which I always thought was unfortunate because they were so much more than that. Mom was still driving her own car late in life. One day at about age 90 she started mailing her letters at our South Dakota Magazine publishing office instead of driving to the nearby post office.
A wild mother sow nearly killed yet another son when he wandered upon her litter. So it went. One committed suicide. Mom was a strong woman with a heart softened by tragedies and death. She arrived in Yankton in after growing up in a family that had nothing in the Dirty Thirties in Iowa. Because of a nursing shortage in World War II, all tuition and board was paid. She got off the bus on Third Street at the bus station and walked west, up the hill toward the convent and the hospital with the big mosaic image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
She was always walking uphill - looking for a way to serve Jesus or anyone else who crossed her path. He had dashed under the wheels of a water truck that came into the farmyard to fill the cistern. Time does not heal all. I believe it softened her heart, maybe softer than a heart should be in a hard world. It seemed to us that she cared too much. A brotherin-law was working as a lineman when he was electrocuted a few days before he was to be married; the wedding feast became a funeral lunch.
One son was born with developmental disabilities; another was nearly killed while. She and Dad tried to befriend a lonely neighbor, who was inconsolable after his wife and daughter had left him. But Dad was sick in bed one Sunday afternoon when the neighbor came, so Mom asked the man to stop another time. He killed himself the next day. Two neighborhood boys found a pistol in a junk pile and played with it, thinking it was a toy, when it discharged. One of the boys was killed. Mom comforted the grieving mother and it freshened her own sorrows.
She and Dad were small farmers.
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They rented land for a share of the crops, and there was never much money left by the time they paid the bank and the landlord and fed their family, which eventually grew to seven sons. But poverty and hard work were minor headas. Mom was concerned about death and illness and pain. Writing and poetry kept her sane. Beginning in the s, she began a correspondence with Adeline Jenney, the South Dakota poet laureate. They exchanged many long letters.
Jenney advised the young farmwife from Yankton County and encouraged her to write about the bad and the good. Still, writing was a luxury. Every one she knew came first. She tended to the swelled and sore feet of a neighbor lady who suffered from in-grown toenails for many years. Not once or twice but for years. She was unselfish to a fault.
She could cut the heads off a dozen chickens, gut them and pluck them with blood and feathers flying, and put them in a sack and drop them off to a buyer in town. She filled our farmhouse with music and books.
We shared an accordion, a guitar and several harmonicas. One day she found a free piano and sent three of us to bring it home in the back of a pickup truck. Unfortunately, it rolled out onto the road when we made a sharp turn and it broke apart into a hundred pieces. When we got home, we told Mom the bad news. One particular day in our teen years, my brothers and I were jumping our junky motorcycle off our farmhouse porch when a visiting relative asked Mom why she allowed such a thing.
She replied that she thought it might be a valuable skill if we ever found ourselves in a war zone or some such place. Not her seven sons. Not her neighbors. And not a stranger.
She moved to Yankton after Dad died, mostly because she wanted to attend daily Mass at the Catholic church. In Yankton she found many more hungry and hurting people. She volunteered all over town. But she soon came home to South Dakota. The pain of losing Steven in never went away. We knew that as children and we knew it all through our lives. Mom penned her best poem 30 years later when Dad died.
Then she finished it like this:. Now the void she long endured, so deep, is finally bridged and she is home with Steven and Dad. However, for him, I do hope for photographs that never capture his good side. I hope for late buses, cold macaroni, shirts that are always a tinch too tight, and a radiator with a rattling screw.
I hope for him a lifetime of Monday mornings. I hope for many first dates, but not so many second ones. I hope for him a long-term relationship that breaks right around the time his buddies get hitd. Mine has ukulele and tuba. Mine pops in emerald, vermillion and blue, Stratocaster, surf guitar, Casio keyboard, violet, turquoise, silver and rust.
You get me, right? I could make lists till the cow metaphors come home. After a bit, she puts the phone down, click, stands up and asks these folks writing Husker football and bridge closings, This gentleman I was just speaking to, has anyone ever heard of a Bruce Springsteen?
Turns out they have.
So look out. I enter this as evidence: no matter what those other guys said, it all went down like this. Oh, the man was as handsome as that work of art with Aryan blue eyes that pierced from jet black browd. I stood there, curious, surprised, ignoring the bribe.
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He was bareheaded, taller, surrounded by standing, curious, robed elders in tan Pashtun hats. I paused. I pointed to my ek. The oil paints play in steady rhythm: the repeated chorus of the western cliff, the dazzling rifts of the valley, the bold intro of the lower left mesa, the long strets of instrumental sky, the flitting splots of staccato cacti. And the sides of the canyon dance together, anchoring each other like partners in a song.
To dance salsa is to dance boldly. Smooth, full-bodied twists. Arms and hips swaying in steady rhythm. Carry the swing low, then high. Smooth the sway at your belly. Each dancer a strong force, challenging the other. He anchors on the left, leaned forward with anticipation. His foundation, unshakeable. His steady rhythm, invincible. She answers his gentle call with countless, dizzying twirls. Her skirt flows in alluring circles, complementing his stoicism. The beauty of the dance manifests in her movements-from her head, to her arms, to her waist, to her legs.
Each body part dances to a rhythm found in some deep, painted lyrics of the song. His footwork parallels the quick rotations of her upper body. Back and forth. Swinging in a rhythm that both anchors and excites her.
Passion surges between them. And quickstep back. So work that rhythm up through your torso. Roll your right shoulder back. And again, in quick succession. Smooth the left back as well. Lift your arms like slow-working gears above your head. Closed fists, elbows out.
Remember that the down beats come on two and six. He must accessorize, not distract from her curving spins.
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He leads with hidden strength, unnoticed, as if every dip is her lengthening her own body, paralleling the ground, subverting gravity. Yet, her weightlessness is his design and he seamlessly guides her every move. His sturdy breath anchors her flowing right, his sanguine partner, adorned in endless valley curves.
They are entwined in red-hot salsa, a perpetual dance frozen in a moment of intensity. I close the blue drapes hanging in my living room and play a sequence of YouTube videos through dull laptop speakers, praying that the noise cancels out the thud of awkward feet and any internal reproves of my clumsiness. I push the computer screen away, stretch tall, scrunch my eyes closed just to feel the bass. The rhythm sinks into my body and I begin to dance, intuitively guided into every flowing spin, smooth step.
The opening doo-dum Bah! Repeat on eight. I imagine the snakelike contortions of my hips and my arms. My husband. My children. My grocery list. If I could recreate language, add a possessive adjective, I could just pick between mye or my and be done. Our, your, her, his, their. Wherever it goes. I slow down, think which I would use, stutter, stammer while talking about weather changes, yarn textures, onions with acquaintances at the grocery store where my list is lost beneath my French goat ese.
Tan leather clung to my pink skin, still damp with sunscreen and sweat. My son, my mother, and my sister and her two kids and I had spent our day posing for pictures with Santa, the seven dwarfs, the Cowardly Lion and the heartless Tin Man. Now the kids had wilted into sleep in their car seats, my mom and sister chatted in the front seat, and I sloud in the back, breathing slowly, nearing sleep. This was a sudden remembering that jolted me awake. I sank lower in the seat, closed my eyes again, and tried to find him, tried to transplant myself to another place where I could feel his presence.
I closed my eyes to inhale the smell of his uniform after a weekend of smoke breaks at drill, but my lungs filled with the disappointing chill of air-conditioning. My stomach lifted up into my throat as I realized that Blake had become something far off. Something uhondaatclub.comedictable. He had dissipated, slithered into the air in winding wafts of smoke. He had dissolved into memory and the dream of what a. In a month, he would begin his journey home from Iraq, but at that moment, he was still drifting.
Another soldier from his unit had died.
Blake called him by his first name, so I knew this one had hit closer to home. Closer to him than George and I, maybe.
My life was predictable. And after Greg died, Blake had begun calling even less. What had been weekly phone calls had stretd to every ten days. I told myself he called less because it was getting easier, because he was so close to coming home. It was the Army - it was war - and, in his words, you never knew what was going to happen until it actually happened. I was still terrified of the possibilities, but I was also tired of being afraid.
I hung somewhere between anxiety and relief, suspended between consciousness and sleep, storybook land and reality, numbness and feeling. I had experienced this numbness, this lack of feeling before-on October 17th, when our son was born.
A little pinch to your heel-just let me know if you feel it. Ready to go? But I had felt it. The pinch. I knew I had. And now they were preparing to begin? Preparing to cut through layers of skin and muscle, to peel back the layers of me, even though I felt that pinch.
The medical staff was blocked from my view, but my sister sat beside me, her head tilted toward mine. She held my hand. And yet, she smiled. She squeezed my hand. After all, she was a medical professional. An insider. She probably knew. I just lay there, unable to do anything other than imagine Blake.
I longed for him beside me, his thick eyebrows raised, full lips sucking in a deep breath, fingers extending anxiously, flat palm pounding his knee. I needed someone as unfamiliar with the procedures of childbirth and epidurals and c-sections as me.
Someone to believe me-to believe with me-that the anesthesia had not yet taken effect. I sucked in icy air, stared into the glaring white ceiling, and thought, Yeah, you can get started.
You can cut me open, but I really did feel that pinch. I closed my eyes, clend my teeth, and prepared to scream. I felt nothing. No slicing pain, no swelling scream. I lay on the table, my arms stretd out, crucifixion style, secured with Velcro straps. If I concentrated on the body I knew was still there, I could conjure up some sense of pressure, of skin pulling and stretching.
But really there was nothing. A void of sensation. A sort of limbo, suspended between two realities. I tore the paper slowly. Soundlessly, not to wake the kids. I stared out the window into pristine rows of corn, their vibrant green stripes angling toward the horizon, giving the illusion that they were growing closer and closer, that they might converge somewhere just beyond the.
I rolled and unrolled the paper around my index finger. When I recognized the four-mile corner, I laid the paper flat, folded it in fours. Once at home, I tucked the single sentence, the singular sentiment, into the drawer of my nightstand. When I discovered the paper three years later, I felt myself lifted into that dizzying emotion, that threat of pain and the guilty relief of falling into the void.
I remembered the epidural and its strange nothingness and I felt an urge to explain, to finish the letter I never sent. As if half of me has died. Then I would reach down and tug on that lead foot, drag it around for a while, until it gave in and started to wiggle and flex, then finally move freely.
I know you would want me to move on, maybe run into that guy I always flirted with in college, the one I bumped into the summer before we were married, the one who asked my uncle if I was still single just weeks before our wedding.
Because it is on the small farm I grew up on, I can easily see back through the years to my childhood- and I find myself puzzling over the sensation- the empty fields to the North are now packed with luxury condos and fancy houses. The barbed wire fences I helped stretch on hot summer days now sag next to asphalt walking paths. I find one hole that has beaten all odds and both trees that have survived- they look to be about 4 years old. But they are too close and will strangle each other.
He shrugs, takes a loppers and clips one of them off. I look at him. He shrugs again. This surreal feeling is heightened because I am helping my Dad plant trees- another task from my youth. Mom has just come out with lunch. Lunch is a farm term that means something to eat brought out to the workers in between times that they go inside to eat. In this case lunch was a thermos of coffee and a plate of apple pie bars. The pecking order of childhood is still there, I am a 16year old boy doing what my father is telling me to do, but instead of a man in full strength, my father has diminished to a year old with a staggering shuffle.
He is thirty years older than me. The last time I did any meaningful work on this hill was 30 years ago and I have become the father I remember. The process has changed but not in any sort of efficient or practi cal way. I take a planting shovel- a heavy T-handled tool that cuts a wedge in the soft ground. I stand on the shovel with both feet balancing myself as I rock back and forth, slowly sinking the shovel up to its hilt.
Then I heave the shovel out. The ground makes a small sucking sound. Dad is next to me; he has taken the job that involves less strength but more pain. He has a five-gallon bucket full of little trees about the size of a pencil. He sticks in two trees, one in each side of the 6-inch slot in the ground.
He gives me a nod and then I sink the shovel into the ground, making another slot a few ins away and parallel to the first. A painted stake is planted so no one mows over the trees, and the exercise is complete.
Now using the bucket as a crutch, Dad painfully lifts himself to his feet, picks up the bucket and limps to the next tree. It is an exercise in futility.
I have committed to planting trees this afternoon. I learn that only about 10 will survive the 15 years needed before some person from the condo next door cuts it down for Christmas.
It doubles the odds from astronomical to merely pathetic. Forgive this tangent: I cannot just mention apple pie bars in passing. Apple pie bars are a delicacy from my youth that I completely took for granted and have since forgotten. Made in a shallow rectangular pan, they featured lard crusts that my mom had rendered herself, about a peck of apples from the orchard and sweetened with honey from the bees they kept. Tart, sweet, crumbly- a portable version of apple pie- they were drizzled with just enough glaze to make you wipe your hands on the cold fall grass.
She smiles and nods. I stretch my back and think how good a nap in the grass would feel right now, but today is not for resting, it is for working. Dad had his hip replaced two years ago, and both his knees are shot. He also has neuropathy or loss of feeling in his feet, so the man I remember with the long legs and the 4-foot stride now shuffles painfully along from hole to hole.
If we push it, we will plant trees today, leaving Dad to plant himself. And why? They will have to leave this place when Mom can no longer function.
The tax laws which made such laborious work worthwhile have been changed. Now the trees must pay for themselves, and planting, pruning and upkeep no longer make it worthwhile. Yet he does it. And the obedient son that is in me helps and tries to understand why.
Fear too. If my math is correct they have lived there together 44 years. Certainly, any other place they would live would be drastically different. Better to live today than face tomorrow But positive emotions are at work that fine day as well. The apple pie bars help me remember - all things will come to pass, and when they are gone, they are gone - the bad and the good. My rush to leave adolescence also left behind the apple pie bars that I had completely forgotten about. I do not know if I will ever do this again.
Work side-by-side with my Dad, on a glorious fall afternoon, so I stand on the side of a hill in the middle of my life and help him plant Christmas trees. Surgery's tomorrow the insurance woman says. A pit in my center: cancer. She places a bar in the brown bag and beeps past the other items. In the car, my mom spreads salad on bread, holds her hand out to mine. We'll get through this she says. My stomach is already full of questions. We both know words only spill into the void.
I knelt reverently, brushing stiff pictures together, these perfectly preserved crisp cardboard ovals of stern prairie folk that could be my own. I walked away because, I told myself, they were not mine. But it was hard to be that guy with his face planted on the sidewalk, hands wrend up behind his back. It was early February, still the dead of winter in Iowa. His neck cramped as he ard away from the ground. A knot of onlookers gathered outside the conference center at Vult College, students and faculty lingering out of curiosity or support, who knew.
A paunchy officer stood nearby, his radiomcrackling in its holster. The cement chilled his st. Johnson turned away from the crowd and lowered the other ek to the ground, his face burning even in the cold. Claudia was expecting him at home any minute. He remembered howshe had bent over the quilt she was stitching from old cordu roy as he left, the way she often drew away from him when she was afraid.
The deputy loomed out of the dark, the street light gleaming on his shaved head. It was snowing now, a mesmeric cascade from the night sky into the red and blue strobe flashing on the sidewalk.
Johnson struggled up and walked to the squad car, his overcoat open, stocking cap askew. He lowered his head as he felt the deputy's glove on his neck. The door slammed shut, the warning lights clicked off, and the crowd began to disperse. One lingered, a tall man with the black beard of a coal miner. Dean Bradshaw stood with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his blue pea coat. They had been friends once, before Bradshaw applied for dean, when he still taught botany and field biology.
Bradshaw kept bees on a little acreage south of town, where he also tended a patch of restored prairie that he burned every spring and fall.
He'd grown up in the Kentucky Appalachians, and his roots in the coal mines went back three generations, back to Harlan County. Johnson was raised in a logging town in western Oregon where he saw college students chaining themselves to trees. They were just rich kids to him then. All these years later, protests still seemed petty to Johnson, small outbursts of angst that missed the point. He and Bradshaw had often spoken of it, and they agreed that the real beef was with.
Simon had risen from slopping hogs in northern Iowa as a child to national acclaim as the anchor of Plymouth Rock, an evening news program that leaned right of center.
She had the kind of face people trusted, soft at the edges and dimpled.
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Johnson laughed aloud when he read the message. Before long it will be Rockland College, he thought, and we will be required to hang a photograph of the Dear Leader in our offices. That sobered him up a bit. Vult College was founded by the Dutch Reformed Church but had come to be known for its environmental studies program, which Johnson chaired.
He had led the campaign to fund the Martin Center, the first platinum-certified building in the state, featuring a green roof, solar panels, and cabinets made of recycled paper currency and banana peels. When the college leveled a rental property, Johnson lobbied to expand the college garden. He now supervised student volunteers that delivered three thousand pounds of produce to the cafeteria each year.
Fundraising was underway to finance another first for Iowa: a kitn classroom that produced more energy than it consumed. Johnson had met with architects to design it, and he worked the phone bank of donors most evenings. Johnson had long dreamed of a place to break bread made of wheat grown on site. A crucible for folk arts like canning, ese making, beekeeping.
It would be a real step forward. But there was also a new engineering program in the works, and the thought of a Rockland Scholarship or a Rockland Laboratory was too real to laugh away. It would be the death of environmental studies at Vult, that was sure.
Whatever survived would then bow at the altar of engineering, which meant bowing at the altar of oil, and Johnson would be damned if came to that. He read the email again. The air in his office grew humid. Sweat broke in pihondaatclub.comicks of heat over his face. Strange mounds rose all over the field, some sloped and rounded at the top, others like little plateaus. And most of them dig deeper than that - ten, twelve feet - if they live underground.
Or the compass plant, known by arrow like leaves that were rumored to point north and south, whose taproot stretd as deep as sixteen feet. There was a steadiness in walking over ground where the roots sank well beyond the reach of fire and frost.
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There was a stiffness between them now, even though they had both come to Vult because they could see themselves in their first-generation students, the ones who weren't sure if they really belonged in the academy.
Maybe Bradshaw found himself in a new limbo now, ill at ease in the boardroom but no longer a colleague in the same way, perhaps no longer a friend. Even so, Johnson couldn't believe Bradshaw was on board with Rockland's visit.
They had to talk. Bradshaw stiffened when Johnson stormed through his door unannounced. He could feel the sweat beading on his nose. His mouth seemed to curl nastily, but Johnson saw that it was a nerve twitch. She and Mr. Rockland are our guests, and she is a Trustee of the college. It is not for us to demand that she follow a certain format. There was a click in the wall as the register switd off. Johnson felt the silence crawling like a tick along his scalp.
We could all walk out of there with bad information. The flag rattled on its pole, snapping in a southern wind. The sun baked his face, though it was late afternoon, and his shirt clung to his flesh as he walked back to his office. He would boycott the Rockland interview. That was all. Stay home with Claudia and Hector and let it blow over. He had been teaching at Vult College for nearly thirty years, and he had come to think of it as sacred space.
The university was one of the few places left in American life where scholarship still occupied the center of discourse. Not journalism, where clickbait brought even mainstream papers to the level of tabloids. Not churs, where sermons were so riddled with sitcom quotes that scripture seemed to be a metaphor for popular culture. If Sandra Simon brought Ed Rockland to campus for a television spectacle, even the classroom would have no more dignity than an athletic arena festooned with corporate advertisements.
To hell with Rockland. He could just stay home. But no one would notice a boycott. It would concede power absolutely. Maybe a petition to block the event? But Bradshaw had his orders and since Simon was a Trustee, no one outranked her, so there was no process left to follow.
A protest. That was all Johnson could imagine. He remembered the hippie kids in Oregon pissing their pants during their long vigils, singing and praying as they stood handcuffed to one another around the trunk of a Douglas Fir. It seemed so degrading, like a child kicking and wailing on the floor. Johnson knew he probably had oil bonds in his retirement portfolio. Half the products on his desk were oil products.
The plastic phone. The computer screen. The ballpoint pens. The varnish coating the desktop. He brought it up over dinner with Claudia that night. Hector left the table after powering through his mashed potatoes, and lay on the loveseat in the den, the sharp angles in his eks lit up by his phone.
Johnson turned back to Claudia. Johnson reddened. Her hair fell into her eyes, curly and streaked with gray, and Johnson felt a pang of tenderness even as he seethed. He had lost her at politics. But how could she not care? Her resignation was exactly what gave Rockland such power.
Johnson glanced toward his son. Hector's screen showed a steady rain of jelly beans, lemon drops, and peppermints, which he rearranged with his thumbs until he matd three of a kind. Then the screen flashed and a diamond appeared. No words, certainly.
Maybe an unconscious algorithm. Pattern recognition. Spatial orientation. It was like rewinding evolution, inhabiting the mind of a rodent or a snake. A way of vanishing. Claudia settled into the easy chair by the fireplace and bent over her quilting hoop, as unavailable in her own way as their son.
Johnson carried his dishes to the sink. He looked into the backyard through the kitn window, gazing at the sugar maple in the yard, now lit by the late day sun. The tree was native to Canada, where it often grew in pure stands.
Bradshaw had told Johnson once that maples could communicate with each other through their roots, rationing water and nutrients in hard times. Johnson wondered if his sugar maple shared water or stole from the red oak next door. Could a maple and spruce work together to survive? Maybe he was searching too hard. He wished for a moment that it were spring.
Ever since Hector could walk, they had tapped the maple when the nights saw a light frost and the days warmed to a thaw. This year they would do it again, stoking a wood fire in the yard and boiling buckets of sap down to syrup. They only finished a few pints each year, but the tradition was as important to Johnson as his own birthday.
He hoped someday, maybe when Hector bought his first home, the spring ritual would become his own, a memory that could anchor him to a new place. The semester mard on, and soon it was Thanksgiving. It was balmy for November, nearly sixty degrees and sunny. That weekend Johnson took Hector to the farm where they always bought their Christmas tree. Don apologized and said Johnson and Hector were welcome to walk the grounds and take a tree if they found one. Too much rain or not enough, and the beetles are killing everything else.
Johnson preferred fir for their soft needles and scent, but they had all turned orange. Hector found a spruce at the edge of the property, where a stand of oaks might have shaded it during the summer. Johnson gave him the hand saw and watd him go to work.
He watd Hector give himself wholly to his task, eyes fixed on the saw, arms pumping like levers. The farm was always filled with children shouting as they seard for the perfect tree. This year the empty grove felt more like Halloween than Christmas. The kerf widened behind the blade, the treetop shivered, and the spruce rolled away from the stump. Hector gripped the top, Johnson took the trunk, together they dragged it to the car.
As Johnson lashed it to the roof, his face was damp with sweat. Hector sat in the front seat, his head bent over his phone. Did the boy care that there might be no tree next year? Maybe he cared a great deal, but vanished into his screen the way a widower might seek oblivion through drink.
Johnson drove home with the window down, his arm outstretd to catch the breeze. He wondered if Hector feared the future, if in his private moments he felt alone, unable to speak of it to his father, who would be dead before the earth went to hell.
Whether there was a Christmas tree or whether they made their own syrup from the backyard might have been the least of his concerns. Bradshaw sent another email after the holidays about the Rockland visit. This is an extraordinary chance for Vult College to promote its new engineering program. Students would come to see a celebrity, maybe get their own five seconds on camera.
Environmental studies was as irrelevant as an ex-boyfriend at a baby shower. Johnson straightened on his exercise ball, drew his shoulders back, and felt his spine crack.
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He opened a new document on his computer and began typing. Why an event that excluded audience participation could only enable the relentless disinformation campaigns about climate change that contaminate media and politics. A peaceful protest, he concluded, was the only real learning opportunity for students. The bile had subsided by the time he finished writing. Johnson printed copies and took them door to door around campus like a campaign volunteer.
Sam Bennett, the young biologist who studied lizards, blushed when Johnson found him during office hours. Jill Rhoades in mistry, Eric Ritz in Religion, even Maggie Green, the athletic training director who dug recyclable bottles out of the trash at football games - they all agreed with Johnson.
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But a protest? Was it fair to his students who might be required to attend for another class? It was, Johnson said. If it were a Klan member being interviewed by a sympathetic host with no counterpart on stage, he hoped to Christ they would object. So this was really about good and evil? Leave it to Ritz to plumb the depths of his ethical well. Johnson had not used those words in his statement. But perhaps that was it, at bottom.
It was a question of good and evil. It was bitterly cold the day Rockland arrived on campus. The temperature dropped to zero overnight and remained in single digits through the afternoon.
Johnson taught his first class in the science building, where he preferred the new projectors for showing films. It had once been a run-of-the mill facility until a donor proposed a renovation that raised the code to gold efficiency standards. More windows for natural lighting, a vestibule with a second door inside each entrance to minimize heat loss. On cloudy days the fountain lay dry or wept into the drain, but by midafternoon on a clear day, jets of water surged nearly fifteen feet from the ground.
The campus lay buried in snow. A field of ice crystals swept down the long slope away from the science building, each shard translucent up close, but blinding as a whole. Johnson hund past the library, sliding carefully over frozen pats on the sidewalk.
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He glanced up in time to avoid colliding with an enormous figure in a black coat, the head of a phalanx of people surrounding the man himself, Ed Rockland. Johnson stood still for a moment, and the crowd flowed around him. Rockland was bare-headed and erful, his bald pate and eks reddening in the open air. He nodded and winked when he drew abreast of Johnson, then the group moved on, closing up like a bacterium that had swallowed and excreted a food particle.
Johnson watd them go, at least four bodyguards and three other suits disappearing into the building. His feet were numb by the time he read his office, where he had stashed a white piece of poster board. The bodyguards had him worried. But security could escort him out of the building.
He was prepared for that. Let them do their worst. Blue Shale, Incorporated. He added a few statistics below: Most oil spilled per gallon, Most fines for violations, Most sterilized farmland. He drew a question across the bottom half: Entrepreneurship or Exploitation?
It would be a protest of one. Johnson had been unable to recruit other faculty, and he felt he could not ask his own students to participate.
He left copies of his statement in the Student Center, near the lounge outside the coffee shop. But he knew that most of the young people at Vult were conservative.
They came from families that taught such respect for authority that he could scarcely get them to argue with him in class. More than half participated in a team sport and would have faced punishment for a conduct violation. And why should they risk their futures to stand with him? At their age he would have thought a protest meaningless, too. Johnson taught his afternoon class and walked home to make dinner. He tossed vegetables in a stir fry, a pot of brown rice cooling on a kitn towel.
Claudia poured herself some wine, and they sat down together. Johnson sprinkled peanuts over his food. Hector doused his with hot sauce. They ate in silence, eyes averted. Claudia caught his eye as she raised her glass, and Johnson saw the worry in her face. Hector finished, rinsed his plate, and sank into the couch with his phone. Johnson looked into the backyard as he loaded the dishwasher.
A stiff wind blew out of the north. Dried coneflower stalks rattled against the fence. A half-moon glowed behind the bare brans of the sugar maple like a heart within the ribs of the tree. The thought gave Johnson pleasure, though he knew this was his own way of vanishing.
Johnson dried his hands on a kitn towel, his knuckles scaly from the cold. The dishwasher hummed. They murmured a reply, and then he was out on the sidewalk striding toward campus, the wind raising gooseflesh along the back of his neck. Johnson stopped by his office to gather his poster and walked to the conference center to find the doors locked. Darkness had fallen, and light blazed from inside the building.
A velvet rope ran from the foyer to the opposite wall, blocking most of the lobby. He could make out two men, tall, black coats, the bodyguards he met that morning. They were huddled with Greg, the fat security guard who puttered around campus on a golf cart. Bradshaw sat down, and a light flickered over the screen on the stage.
Music swelled, soft guitar rock, and the logo for Blue Shale appeared, the words in enormous letters with cracks running through them. It was a biopic produced by the company, photos with a voiceover.
Little Ed with his toy dump truck, a cowlicked boy in a baseball uniform, then a young man standing in front of his first tanker truck, arms folded so the flesh of his forearms appeared chiseled and veined.
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