Counting forward exponentially during these pandemic days of late March: from small-town-suburbia, it’s still all on-screen and in-the-news and not yet at my door (though one known case—just down the street). From here in March, it’s still all data. But still the days march on.
A lifetime of anxiety prepped me, made me resiliently panic-adept. I never did know how many days I would have. How many birthday blues, how many New Year reboots, how many sleeps, how many words, how many breaths. Who knows? Counting forward from square one engages uncertainty but for the square I’m on.
But I can count the orange juice bottles in the fridge, the loaves of bread in the bin, the toilet paper rolls in the closet.
Counting backward: one glass of juice each early quiet morning at a time, one sacred-lonely-morning-before-the-rest-of-my-close-and-captive-household-wakes at a time.
Counting backward: by fours, two slices per sandwich, one sandwich per kid, each one here losing educational traction. PB and J, PB and honey. Peanut butter doesn’t prompt a count—multiple massive Costco jars stowed beneath the kitchen counter in a deep and unfinished cupboard space—yet I know that sense of infinite supply is an illusion, an untruth. Dual-mega-pack-Jif hubris.
Counting backward: square by square, barely into April. “I don’t have a square to spare,” Seinfeld Elaine says on a TV in Kansas in the nineties a lifetime ago.
Then it’s back through the open doors of QFC down the street with hope for more, but who knows?—just down the street, yet it feels a million miles away. Grocery store workers are heroes. Every surface is uncertainty. Each customer sniffle, wiped nose, slight cough: uncertainty. Every kindly neighbor’s smile, every less-so remote gaze in the near-empty aisle: uncertainty. Every hoarded sundry, every extra bottle/loaf/roll, is an instinctive animal act prompted by: uncertainty.
We’re using it all up at home, counting backward. How many days remain?
When did we last see parents and grandparents? When did we last visit Kansas? When did we last sit in a Red Robin and draw on the kid menus with crayon and go to the mall down the street and “get some exercise” walking its shining expansive floors and browsing the stores and perusing things we didn’t need but who knows?
As breath grows short for thousands, as shadows cross the door, I run and run under the fine spring Sun. In Brooks and with hubris, aerobic and moving fast. Aerobic and fast, yes—but going nowhere and unaccompanied, keeping six feet distant even if I’m in the street, seeming free but tethered to my home by Governor’s decree, releasing endorphins and reducing stress and metabolizing air through deep and hungry breaths, and it feels like I’m hoarding them, more than my fair share, counting them backward, using them all up under a beautiful, warm, impassive spring sun.
“Please, God, let him telephone me now.” With dramatic flare, Alex breathed on the Nokia and polished it against his sleeve. He held the phone aloft, precious as a relic, beneath the old Monte Carlo’s interior dome light. “Please, in all your divine wisdom!”
Seated shotgun and a little drunk, Elaine giggled. She never tired of Alex’s joyful theatrics. But one uneventful moment later—when Alex tossed the phone across the dashboard—she realized that he was genuinely upset. As the Nokia bounced down to the floorboard at her feet, Elaine slumped in her seat, toying with the paintbrush ends of her own long braids.
Alex sucked in a calming breath, then turned up the volume on the stereo to a deafening level. It was already past nine, and Dave was clearly a no-show-no-call; meanwhile, Alex was ritually compelled by nervous habit to make noise in the wake of the unexpected. In fact, whenever deviations threatened any plan, Alex’s good judgment suffered. Elaine would have to be vigilant tonight.
The radio was tuned to the college station out of Lawrence (Elaine’s broken Bauhaus cassette was still jammed in the tape slot), but reception there in Topeka was spotty. Static fizzled in alternation with the latest electro-clash beats, an asynchronous ruckus to which Alex vogued lithely behind the steering wheel. Once his mood had improved satisfactorily, Elaine turned down the noise and accepted the consequence of his withering glare. “If your ‘telephone’ rings,” she air-quoted, “we’re not going to hear it.” But mainly, Elaine didn’t want to gain undue attention. They were parked outside the apartment complex of Mandy the Connection—in the tenant-only lot, no less. “Why don’t we cruise the Boulevard instead,” she said, and offered him their shared Wild Turkey fifth.
“Oh no, dear. We can’t miss it.” Alex finished off the whisky and rolled the bottle under his seat. He drew in a deep, sorrowful breath. “Shit. And Dave had the address…”
“That sucks, but we can find it. It’s a warehouse party. How many could there be in one night?” Elaine leaned over, chin to her knees, and rummaged in the vinyl purse at her feet. She hoped to hide her helpless near-smile, her relief that Dave had flaked. Alex deserved so much better! And as a matter of fact, she’d told Dave as much just yesterday—unbeknownst to Alex.
From her purse, Elaine extracted the envelope of their combined remaining tips from the café’s lunch rush. She squared dollar bills against the dashboard, and dealt the cash into a pile on her lap. Five, ten, fifteen—
“I guess you were right about him,” Alex said. “You’re always right.”
“Am I?” she said. She fanned herself with a handful of dollars.
Alex finally smiled again, showing those sugar-cube teeth. He turned the radio up once more and bounced in his seat to the static-laced percussion.
This time, Elaine allowed the loudness. She knew when to pick her battles. Twenty-five… Thirty… She scooped a mound of loose change from the open ashtray, stacked quarters on the dashboard. “And, thirty-five!” she said over the noise, with a ta-daaa gesture. She popped open the glove box and retrieved a Ziploc bag.
“And, nothing,” Alex sighed. “Dave also had the rest of the money.”
“What’re you talking about? Thirty-five’s plenty. Absolut, Smirnoff—”
“Actually, I ordered something else.” Alex shot her a hangdog look. “But don’t worry, it’s something fun.”
“Oh?” The single syllable followed a querulous tonal arc, as Elaine tucked cash into the baggie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was Dave’s idea,” he said lightly. His next words followed their own meaningful tonality, as if to sweet-talk a pet with a treat: “Li-quid code-ine!” Alex rapped at the steering wheel with drumstick fingers, matching a syncopated roll on the radio. When he glanced at Elaine for approval of his percussive feat, he noticed her expression. “Sorry, Elaine. Dave said he mentioned it to you, but that you seemed unsure.”
“Why would I be unsure? It sounds lovely.” Elaine handed him the money, but her gaze stayed on the Monte Carlo’s dashboard. Zoomed in on its woven-texture surface. Contemplated the unobtrusive pattern there—so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible.
Alex pulled mischievously at one of her long braids. Elaine leaned toward him, going along with the braid-tug. He smooched her temple. She lived for this, the temple-smooch from Alex: her own unique token of belonging. Oh, the evasive sense of belonging! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. Being with him was the first time she’d had it since she’d run away from home a year ago, her arms beset with bruises and burns. Being with him was the last sense of belonging she’d ever need.
“Anyway, it’s all fine,” Alex said near her ear. “Mandy offered me an arrangement for these situations.” He leaned back in his seat, sugar cubes disappearing behind perfect lips. He peered in the rearview mirror, checked his profile from different angles. With dramatic fervor renewed, he said: “Please God, help me through it!”
And suddenly, Alex pulled the keys from the ignition, killing the stereo. As he got out, an unnerving open-door chime replaced the radio’s remote static/music. Humid evening air drifted in, bringing scents of cut grass and pre-storm ozone. The night was warm, but Elaine crossed her arms against a chill. “What kind of ‘arrangement?’”
“Mutual benefit,” Alex said. “Mutual understanding of life’s underlying principle.” In one hand, he gripped the money bag by its zipped-up strip. In the other, keys jangled, swinging by their central ring: clink-dink, clink-dink. “Life’s unifying principle!” he declared. “One does what one must, to get what one needs.”
Is that what he’d said? The outdoor ambience mitigated his voice—distant traffic, whirring cicadas in the ball field across the street, the hum of an air conditioner in a nearby window. And of course that clink-dink of keys. Elaine stared at Alex, turned his indefinite words over in her mind, checked them from different angles. “But what exactly—”
“Just play along.” Clink-dink. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
“Okay,” Elaine said quietly. Then, brightly: “Yes, dear.”
Among Topeka’s underage underground—the punks, the club kids and ravers, the black-metal cultic—Mandy the Connection was scenester royalty. But as Elaine followed Alex along a knobby carpet runner down the main hall—as she breathed in sundry scents of Lysol, warm dryer sheets, and burnt popcorn—she wondered: what does it mean to be royalty? To be relevant, to be adored? To be somebody important in the eyes of another?
Elaine’s own eyes grew wide as they reached apartment five, where the door angled open to reveal a petite woman in goth-y eyeliner, Mary Janes, and an oversized black
T-shirt. Mandy the Connection. How old was she? Twenty-five? Thirty? Despite her old age, she was pretty. There was a drawn hardness to her features, as if she were enacting icy willpower to refrain from smiling no matter the circumstance. But this merely added an alluring sense of danger about her.
“Sorry we’re late,” Alex said, proffering the bag of cash.
“Where’s Dave?” Mandy asked. She unzipped the baggie and thumbed through the bills. Elaine watched her, entranced, memorizing every movement.
Alex smirked. “Dave who?”
Mild amusement displayed on Mandy’s hard features. She looked up and glared at Elaine, who’d been staring. Elaine glanced away coolly, but her face warmed.
“Who’s she?” said Mandy.
“My friend Elaine,” Alex said. “Remember, I told you? She just moved here from Kansas City.” He emphasized those last two words, implied Elaine’s metropolitan savvy. As Mandy raised one manicured eyebrow, Elaine felt special. Relevant. Important.
There was a near-imperceptible hesitation before Alex added: “Her stepdad owns the Underground Sound club.”
Elaine froze cold next to Alex. An electric flash of panic zipped through her nervous system. What did he just say? Power drained from her as fast as it had risen up. She drew in breath to speak, but her throat was tight with rage. After everything I told him about—
“Wow, that’s cool,” said Mandy, her icy demeanor melting slightly. “Big city girl.”
Alex nudged Elaine with his elbow excitedly.
Still frozen, Elaine heard herself make a polite sound.
Mandy let them in. Alex moved fast, keys jingling. Elaine followed numbly. In just five steps, they stood in the main room of Mandy the Connection’s small apartment HQ. It was a schizophrenic hybrid of kitchen, laundry room, and living room—and all pertinent sundries were stacked and scattered from wall to wall. Dishes occupied an ironing board next to a bookshelf. Clean clothes were sorted on the dining table. Cracker boxes and a bread loaf sat atop an entertainment center, inside of which a Law & Order rerun played dutifully on TV.
Mandy reached under the dining table and dragged a large crate across the floor. She pulled from it a Smirnoff bottle and set it next to some folded towels. “Good enough?”
Alex glanced at Elaine for her blessing.
Elaine glared at him. Anger stirred sickly at the pit of her stomach.
Alex returned his attention to Mandy. “Perfect.” As he spoke, a peculiar sound rose simultaneously from the far side of the couch. A small dog’s bark? Elaine glanced around, eyes darting across the room’s cluttered landscape.
Meanwhile, Mandy scooted the crate back under the table and regarded Alex with what nearly passed as a half-smile. “You still want… the other?”
Elaine fought the urge to shout, No! But just then, the dog’s-bark transformed eerily into a cat-like mewl—then a dove-like coo—which then became distinctly human. Goosebumps speckled Elaine’s bare arms. What the hell is that? The incipient rage in her gut was quelled by curiosity: not the adoration-of-life’s-mysteries kind, but rather the ill-sense-of-dread variety. Elaine drifted from Alex’s side, moved slowly along the edge of the couch. Her line of sight focused on a metal frame that rose vertically above cushion-level, just beyond the couch’s arm. That metal frame moved, rocking gently—then was still.
“Yes.” Alex’s voice, from behind her. Miles away.
Elaine peered over the furniture, gaze following the metal frame’s downward slide. She gasped at the sight as it emerged before her: a baby was sitting in a stroller next to the couch, watching TV.
“Are you sure she’s okay with this?” It was Mandy’s voice this time, broadcast from some remote station. Elaine stared at the baby in blue terrycloth—as it wagged its arms and gurgled and kicked out onesie-footied feet. It barked a rough cough, then mewled and cooed at the screen as if in appreciation of Law & Order’s dark and unexpected reversal.
A beat of silence followed. Elaine suddenly remembered the others in the room, and realized she’d become their center of attention. She whirled around. Alex’s expression was unintelligibly aloof.
Elaine looked at Mandy, who had moved from the table to kitchen. Elaine said brightly, “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Good,” said Mandy. She turned around and opened a pantry cabinet. With her back to Elaine and Alex, she removed cans of food from an interior shelf and stacked them on the counter.
Elaine thought she saw sugar cubes flash in the corner of her eye. She would not look at Alex, could not stomach the sight of his smile. The vague-sick-dread feeling swelled, welled up inside her, threatened to manifest in tears. She stared doggedly at Mandy stacking cans.
And in spite of it all, Elaine was surprised to see what was now exposed inside the cabinet: a small combination safe, deep inside, ostensibly attached to the back wall. Mandy twisted the dial. In Elaine’s mind, numbers echoed. Twenty-five…
Alex sidled up next to Elaine.
He kissed her temple.
The safe popped open. Alex slid away again.
Mandy shoved the money inside the safe. From within it, she extracted a medicine bottle of syrupy red liquid. “Heads-up, Big City.” Mandy tossed the bottle to Elaine, who caught it by instinct. She considered it numbly. On the prescription label was the name of a codeine-based generic drug she did recognize, and the name of a person she didn’t—Isaac Smith.
In the meantime, Alex joined Mandy in the kitchen as she replaced the cans in front of the safe. Then the two beautiful creatures moved together toward the bedroom hall. Already a numinous physical force connected them, as if their individual spheres of personal space had merged. Alex leaned his head toward Mandy’s neck, and he kissed along its length—and Elaine simultaneously felt that very sensation from afar, those soft lips tickling her skin. It was an unwitting, unwelcome act of remote empathy that left her breathless, electrified, and nauseous.
“Keep Izzy company,” said Mandy as they passed Elaine and left her behind.
Five minutes later, the inevitable event: Elaine’s tears came in a rush, like rain gushing down from midsummer firmament after a long stretch of hot and humid promise.
But tears hadn’t yet come when the bedroom door shut assertively in the hall. At that point, Elaine numbly sat down at the end of the couch near the baby. Izzy glanced at her, then resumed a private endeavor to pull his foot to his mouth.
And tears still hadn’t come when Law & Order’s familiar credits rolled on TV, following yet another satisfying but noir-nuanced conclusion. The theme song ended, the screen went black. Sudden, unexpected stillness in the room allowed for unbidden realization. Abrupt silence showcased the purity of Elaine’s unsureness. Oh, the evasive sense of certainty! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. In that instant of broadcast discontinuity, Elaine finally understood Alex’s loud stereo, jangling keys, and thrumming fingers on every surface. She finally got the need for noise in the face of deviation from the plan.
But even then, Elaine’s tears didn’t come quite yet.
“Ahh,” Izzy said, his voice huge in the quiet room. Elaine looked at him, intending only a perfunctory glance. Instead, when she found the baby gazing directly at her, she was immediately lost in those sweet brown eyes.
Izzy stared, taking in every detail, as if in awe. As if she were important.
As local news anchors lit up the screen to an exciting musical crescendo, Elaine wept.
According to the bank building’s clock a block down from Mandy’s complex, it was 10:15 when Elaine crossed Sixth Street with the stroller. Her heart beat heavily. Her mind swam with images of the actions she’d taken after the tearful breakdown. Pouring cough syrup down the drain in the kitchen sink. Stacking cans helter-skelter on the counter. Whirling the safe’s combination dial to its salient stops, drawing on the singular well of certainty to which she was privy. Shoving the Ziploc bag of cash into the stroller pouch behind Izzy’s seat. Grabbing a bottle of formula from the fridge.
Had it been her that had taken these actions? She felt strangely disconnected from the immediate past. But all signs said yes as she popped the stroller wheels over the curb. Here she was with Izzy, the bottle clutched in his chubby fingers. Here they were, moving under competing angles of street lamps and security lights, a gestalt form of
girl-with-baby-in-stroller casting multiple shadows in varying gradients. As they approached the empty ball field in increasing darkness, their silhouettes crisscrossed and merged, and finally dissipated in shadow.
Sprinkles of rain pinpricked Elaine’s bare arms. Loose change rattled merrily in the stroller pouch as they crossed the uneven terrain. Izzy’s terrycloth-clad bulk jostled with each bump, the bottle bopping in his mouth. “Sorry,” she whispered, though Izzy was unperturbed.
When they reached the field’s center, Elaine realized at last: she didn’t know where they were going. But in a far corner of the lot stood a little park—merely a climbing structure and swing set, and one lone bench. It barely qualified as a playground, but seemed a perfect destination for this sojourn. Elaine headed toward it, bumping along.
At the twenty-yard line, Elaine cut away from the field and approached the playground. By the time they reached it, light rain was falling. Elaine expanded the stroller’s umbrella over Izzy to keep him dry. She sat on the bench, turned the baby to face her. “Sorry,” she repeated, exhausted.
Izzy stared at her with deep interest.
A man’s voice echoed across the field, breaking hoarsely with the effort to project. Elaine heard her name and looked up to see two figures running across the cropped turf. She’d never seen Alex move so fast—a startling sight. As petite as she was, Mandy kept pace with him nonetheless. She had changed into jeans and a blouse, and now wore sneakers.
Elaine’s blood ran cold, her insides turned watery. She jumped up from the bench as imminent thunder rumbled. Rain gained gravity.
Alex skidded to a stop next to her. He spoke between heaving gasps. “What… the… hell… are you… doing out here?”
“We went for a walk,” Elaine said.
Mandy arrived, face ruddy with exertion and rage. Her eyes were wild as she pulled the stroller away from Elaine. She patted at Izzy to see if he was okay. She then rounded on Elaine furiously, fists clenched. “Explain your motherfucking self!”
Elaine cringed. “We went for a walk,” she whispered.
“She’s drunk, Mandy,” Alex pleaded. “She’s using bad judgment.” Gently, he placed his hands on Elaine’s shoulders. Warmth emanated from his touch, mitigating her
cold-blooded flow of guilt. He guided Elaine to a swing, onto which she ungracefully descended. She looked up at Alex with remorseful gratitude.
“Isn’t that right, Elaine?” he scolded. But his eyes sparkled: a playful glimmer so subtle as to nearly be imperceptible.
Doubtful, Mandy considered Alex’s words. She hissed at Elaine, “What you don’t know would fill a fucking book.” But her fury had diminished slightly.
Finally Mandy turned away. She sat on the bench, peered down at Izzy, and stroked his hair. Izzy smiled and cooed at his mother. At this sight, Elaine herself smiled—although her joy was truncated abruptly when Mandy snapped at her, “And where’s my goddamn money?”
Elaine pointed at the stroller pouch.
Mandy hefted out the Ziploc, coins jangling. She mumbled, “How the fuck did you know the combination,” but it wasn’t really a question. Elaine didn’t have an answer. As Mandy unzipped the bag and pulled out the cash, Alex grabbed Elaine’s nearest braid and tugged. He leaned toward her and whispered, “Down the drain? Really?” He rolled his eyes and mouthed silently, “All that for nothing!” Out loud, he added theatrically, “Please God, help us both!”
In spite of herself—in spite of everything—Elaine giggled.
Meanwhile, as the rain gained intensity, Mandy began counting the money carefully, confirming all that was hers was still there. Making sure that Elaine had taken nothing away that did not belong to her.
Elaine swung her legs back and forth on the swing. She gained altitude, her kicks gained force. Silently she counted along with Mandy, in a mindful act of empathy. But Elaine already knew—all it ever was, was all still there.
Belonging was originally written for the Regulus Press 2018 Literary Taxidermy competition, in which it received an Honorable Mention. The first and last lines are from Dorothy Parker’s short story A Telephone Call.
This was Wormwood’s last performance. It was our very last song together.
Passages of Lesser Light crescendoed toward its finale of layered bass-pummels / percussion-thrashes / keyboard-smashes—and ended in an abrupt cessation of sound. On stage, in the instant of that sudden silence, I felt an indescribable emotion surge as I lifted my hands away from the keyboards. I realized with painful clarity: everything would be different from now on.
A tremendous and formative life’s-chapter had just come to a close.
* * *
Wormwood began in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997—in an era before smartphones and streaming music, in an age before GPS systems succeeded AAA Trip Tik maps. We were a team of new friends in our twenties, bound by creative collaboration. Our disparate specialties—punk, hardcore, black metal, goth—gelled into heavy-handed, oddly-timed, and unlikely songs. Our music-centered alliance was strengthened by humor, alcohol and cigarettes, and plans for the band’s future.
Over eleven years together, our support systems extended far beyond Lawrence city limits, corralling artists and writers and independent sound engineers, venue managers and underground record labels, and sister and brother bands from the Midwest, PNW, and across the world. But Wormwood was always a grassroots endeavor. Our friends were our first audiences. Our fans became our friends.
* * *
Primarily, Wormwood was a creative venture: we wrote music, designed album art and show flyers, made posters and stickers and T-shirts, and even built a webpage (from HTML-scratch!). But Wormwood was also business. Not a business, mind you. But it had a practical side that demanded attention.
The business of the band entailed buying music equipment, maintaining a van, paying for gas. It meant door money and drink tickets and guest lists and a cooler of beer in the green room. It meant paying rehearsal space rent—every month. It meant saving to afford DIY recordings and screenprinted shirts and flyer copies at Kinko’s.
Properly tended, Wormwood’s practical side ensured the best future for its creative output. We taught ourselves how to format images in Photoshop—we learned about rasterizing and color separation and optimized file size. Vinyl records required careful packaging; we saved bubble wrap and flat square boxes. Our music reached listeners near and far through mail order and record trades—from kids in small Midwest towns to European and Japanese record distros.
The early business of Wormwood meant making connections in a pre-social media age. We wrote letters and email messages back in those days (uphill both ways). Later we posted on MySpace. We also mailed out demos and promos and “press kits.” We even had a well-intended but ultimately neglected mailing list, which would be set out on the merch table during shows.
Ah, the merch table. Here’s where any band’s creative and business sides coalesce. Records, CDs, T-shirts, stickers, patches, even cassette tapes. Sharpies and masking tape and extra paper and little price signs and a lock box for cash and cash itself (in a hopeful variety, to make change). The merch table was sometimes a sore point: in the absence of a roadie, which one of us was going to sell merch after a performance? Bring that man—or woman—a drink!
* * *
From a personal standpoint, Wormwood had been my social center and ersatz family for well over a decade. What would happen next?
My husband and I had shared eleven years in the band together. It had been a grand-scale ongoing project that started long before marriage, long before kids. Would we find a new project together? Would we endure?
Being in Wormwood had also ensured persistent friendships with the amazing creative humans that were my bandmates. It meant a beer at the bar before band practice twice a week. It called for long bouts of creative collaboration, long hours in the studio, and long drives across the country in an old Chevy van with a hole in the back floor. In fact, Wormwood survived a move across the country (well, with four-fifths of its Kansas-era membership intact). Even when disagreements and tempers and sensitivities arose, there was always another rehearsal or another show that would usually smooth things over. Now, no more practice. No more shows. What did the future hold?
Wormwood was the common theme in my own internal creative life. It motivated and inspired art and writing. I catharsized my darkest nature through Wormwood. I thrived on the artistic redemption this provided. But what would redeem me now?
Wormwood did wonders for my anxiety and self-image. At first, I huddled trembling over my keyboards, hidden behind the bass amps at basement shows. But eventually, I would stand out front—hoping desperately I wouldn’t screw up Screwtape or pass out during Out Cold. Wormwood provided internal psychological leverage against my own social awkwardness: “Hey, why should I feel shy and unworthy? I’m in the band!” (Sadly, it didn’t cure me—although a mid-40s life perspective does help a lot.)
For all my years in school, Wormwood was a learning experience that no college program could have provided. Tours especially opened my eyes and un-sheltered my thinking. Tours meant exposure to other bands, venues, artists, and music-supporting communities across the country and beyond. It meant seeing firsthand other lifestyles, subcultures, and means—from heartland rural USA to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver B.C., and more. Tours were often chaos barely constrained by good humor, but it all served to bring on new awareness. Setting up instruments in wet basements and oven-hot garages and crowded living rooms and oversized stages under over-bright lights—performing in bars and night clubs and VFW halls and back yards—playing for both the straightedge and the drunken, for the underage and their parents too, for vegan crust-punks and black-metal kids in face paint and Harley Davidson enthusiasts and female-fronted-folk-rockers—sleeping in the van, sleeping on sofas and floors, sleeping in the towering outdoors, simply not-sleeping—and eating free pre-show spaghetti and red sauce in towns all across America….
Also, tours often meant survival as the sole female among the guys. That experience could stand as a narrative all its own. Well, maybe some day.
* * *
Passages of Lesser Light‘s lyrics allude to the elusive nature of the past’s objective truth. “Memory is but a likeness that our minds arrange.” But the past is more elusive to some than others. I have a terrible memory for proper nouns and event sequences, and the more remote the memory, the worse this gets. But I rationalize that it’s because my memory is primarily emotional. I distinctly recall (and sorely miss) the excitement and exhilaration of creative collaboration. I clearly remember the escalating energy of Wormwood shows, and the sense of sheer joy in the studio during perfect playback of a newly-recorded song.
And I can never forget the drug-like high that results from entrancing an audience—from evoking animation and excitement and passion in others.
I also clearly remember the advent of emotional dissonance. I recall irreconcilable differences rising within the band. The last song Wormwood wrote was Reversal of Fortune: it seemed to take forever, and where creative coalescence had once raised songs to their best possible form, Reversal sometimes seemed an exercise in grudging negotiation. Not that I don’t like the song; I do, and very much so. But its existence is a miracle, which says a lot about Wormwood’s health status toward the end.
The manifestation of Reversal of Fortune eponymously, prophetically accompanied the band’s collective decision to end. The difficulties we experienced with the song’s direction and scope serve as a metaphor for the band’s overall difficulties. Discussions rose and fell around the subject for weeks before it was settled. Not everyone happily agreed it was the best idea. But at last we formally ended the band.
Personally, I hate the end of something wonderful. But then again, I don’t like loose ends. I hate to say goodbye. But in the wake of unexpected finalities, I’ve regularly yearned for the chance to have said a proper goodbye.
I didn’t want to miss Wormwood’s end. I could not tolerate the thought of its quiet slink into the increasingly-obscured past, loose ends trailing. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate the intense creative, long-term challenge that was Wormwood. Better to formally end it and celebrate than to blink, distracted, and miss it.
Certainly, the days of giving everything over in the name of the band were over for me. And for me, that’s what Wormwood had always meant—devotion, obsession, catharsis, invocation. It was all no longer sustainable. And the effort and change required to somehow make it sustainable again—to force the emotional dissonance into submission, as if that were even possible—was not something I wanted as much as that which closure might permit: new creative pursuits, new personal endeavors. Re-learning survival in a non-Wormwood environment. Learning to thrive in a post-Wormwood age.
* * *
In Theodore Roethke’s The Dance of the One-legged Man, one haunting line of poetry captures the bittersweet essence of change: “Each thing’s an end of something else.” What nature of thing would emerge from the end of Wormwood? The era that would rise from that last, poignant instant on stage meant change in ways I could not predict nor remotely fathom at the time.
Passages of Lesser Light’s lyrics, first written in 2001, consider the inevitability of change: “Passages arrange, by nature, re-emergence.” I hadn’t read Roethke yet, but maybe his ghost was already haunting me? (I’ve heard that he frequented the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle’s U-District, which was just a few blocks from my tiny alley-level apartment back then…)
Re-reading Passage’s lyrics now prompts a new consideration. Occasionally one must re-choose life’s current trajectory by answering the question: Is this still where my heart is? When the answer is “Yes,” this reaffirms and strengthens the heart’s position. Stay on the path, maintain trajectory—until it comes time to ask the question again.
If a day comes when the answer is “No,” this is the first step on a new path, and into a new passage toward change. But it doesn’t mean the heart was never there.
The legacy of the Wormwood passage in my life—that wonderful, circuitous path—and all the energy that surrounded Wormwood—the friendships and collaborations and hopes and concerns and endeavors of that time—all of it had my heart. All that music you can still hear, the artwork you can still see, the words you can still read today—all of this has my heart. It is my heart, as it once was.
* * *
Last song of Wormwood’s final performance, via Poetweek on YouTube:
Photographs from the night of the show, courtesy of Emily Hadley on Flickr:
Punctuated Equilibria posts will be less frequent as I focus effort elsewhere.
In the meantime (and in the spirit of obscure pertinence not unfamiliar to this blog)—please enjoy this handful of favorite short films from recent years. Each is graciously made available online via its respective creator. I hope you’ll find them as inspiring and entertaining as I have.
Until next time—thank you for reading, and best wishes.
Writer/Director: Andrew Pang
Shadow is deeply poignant, yet subtle. These beautiful eight minutes—though all too fleeting—invoke a profound sense of melancholy awe.
Director: Vivek Elangovan
Completed in 2015, Odam is as relevant now as it ever was. Fearful presumptions interweave with the narrative groundwork of this suspenseful, evocative story.
Writer/Director: Karel van Bellingen
Genre: Science Fiction
Welcome to my happy place: in a mere thirty minutes, The Leap showcases a litany of personal penchants, including dystopian sci-fi, heartrending plot reveals, and a conflicted anti-hero with a tenuous chance for redemption.
Simple, creepy brilliance. There’s something to be said for not being on the cutting edge of internet virality: I knew nothing about Whisperbefore I clicked this accursed YouTube link—and this video scared the &$@# out of me. I now perpetuate it here, for your enjoyment.
The Scared is Scared
Director: Bianca Giaever
This sweet little short has been around since 2013, but it’s a longtime family favorite in my household. It provided early inspiration for my own kid’s interest in making movies (which, for the record, I fully condone).
After last night’s storm, my campus shortcut is mud. From the edge of the community garden, I toe a muck mound next to a carrot patch, another one by the lettuce. Nope, no can do—not in holey canvas Chucks. And now I’m officially running late despite best efforts.
I backtrack swiftly, jog along alleys, jump puddles with cartoonish animation so remote from my mood as to be criminal. Here’s another should-be crime: although summer classes are done, I was out of bed by eight AM to make Mr. Crosthwaite’s ridiculous office hours. Excuse me: office hour. All I want is blankets and darkness and silence; all I get is unwitting exertion beneath the Kansas summer sun.
On that topic, I’ll add air conditioning to my list of wants. It’s only nine-thirty and already oppressive heat bathes me in sweat. The morning sky is ablaze, brilliant blue. I shrink from the firmament, my gaze cast groundward as I slog up Fourteenth Street. I wipe my damp forehead with a likewise-damp forearm and sigh. Then, chagrin: I recognize this gesture as a copy of my mother’s hot-flash tell. Well, that’s just perfect.
(I’d say, “Mom, are you okay?” and Mom would bark that bitter post-divorce laugh-like sound and say, “My superpower is to completely ignore the egregious shit that life throws my way.” And then I’d say, “Oh.” And then I’d say, “Um, are you sure you’re okay?” And she would fan herself and say simply, “Yes, dear.”)
Ignore it! I tell myself. It’s a little warm, what’s the big deal? But the sun throbs deifically overhead. I slow my climb, sweating. A rivulet runs down my spine beneath the cotton Clash T-shirt. The big deal is, I realize, there’s no escape. Rivulets run down my cheeks.
As I crest the hill onto campus, Dyche Hall rises into view, and I head southbound along Jayhawk Boulevard. The school grounds are quiet. Humidity rises from untrodden green lawns. Moisture from the pavement evaporates unevenly, and Rorschach blots on pale concrete provoke interpretation. There’s a bird, there’s a car, there’s beautiful Sean’s bedhead-hair. There’s Janet flipping me off good-naturedly. And look, there’s my geek ex Eddie in his Mariners cap and Werner Heisenberg hoodie with a bag of Cheetohs and a sardonic grin.
Winded, I park my Chucks on Janet’s imagined face. My fingers scrabble around in my backpack, bounce off the phone in there, and I squeeze my eyes shut: nope, nope, restraint. I extract the Pall Mall box instead, tap its end. Out slides the remaining cigarette, bent but thankfully unbroken. I touch the lighter in my jeans pocket—then think twice, withdraw. Man, it’s getting bad. The past three cigarettes were each, in succession, supposed to be my last. Such a liar-to-myself. Well, then again—each of those cigarettes was my last, at least for a while. Up until the point I smoked another one.
The truth changes.
I slide this one behind my ear and shove the empty box into the backpack’s depths. I peer inside the bag, shake things up, rattle past the class journal and water bottle: there it is. I grab my phone and punch at its smooth face with my fingers, stare at the notification.
Yep. Still there. And yet I still can’t quite believe it.
Voicemail. From Eddie.
A message from Eddie, as yet unplayed, after months of the stonewall-silent-treatment-cold-shoulder. It’s Schrödinger’s cat in my inbox, neither heard nor unheard, dead nor alive. Now, of all times. Now, after all this. Why? What does he want? Did Eddie psychically tap into my weekend’s despair—subconsciously prompted, he calls to ask forgiveness? To say he wants me back? Unplayed, unheard—that cat is still in the box, and still in the bag.
Zip up the backpack. Keep walking. Wipe sweat from brow. What’s crazy is, I don’t even care what Eddie has to say. It took me six weeks in Kansas to finally get over him, to finally want something—someone—else. And as of Saturday night, the future I had finally come to want is forfeit.
My superpower is the provocation of brutal irony.
Mr. Crosthwaite told us in class that the mere observation of a quantum-level phenomenon changes that phenomenon. Might that be true too of me and my-level phenomena? If I had just stayed in bed, would none of it have happened? If I hadn’t lingered in the kitchen Saturday night—if I hadn’t been standing there in the dark, illuminated by an open fridge—if I hadn’t loaded up on post-party-drunkard orange-juice-in-a-coffee-cup and coming-down-potato-chips and too-hyped-up-to-sleep-Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch-no-milk—if I hadn’t been just standing there, observing….
Maybe Janet and Sean would not have sneaked out of her room giggling like children, messy-haired and ruddy-cheeked. Janet wearing Sean’s T-shirt, its edges down to her upper thighs. Sean wearing only wrinkled shorts and a beautiful goldfish tattoo. Maybe they wouldn’t have entered the dark kitchen, whispering about sandwich fixings and switching on the light, and maybe I wouldn’t have been standing there holding a single potato chip aloft, ready for a bite, frozen in surprise and then in shock and then in dread.
We three stared at each other for a long minute. Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “Hey. I didn’t know you were up.”
“Sean?” I said, setting the potato chip down on the counter. I didn’t predict it at the time, but that chip would sit lonely, uneaten, for the rest of the weekend. So close had it come to fulfilling its destiny—yet its sole purpose d’etre remained wanting. Eventually Viv would get home and clean the kitchen and throw it in the compost with an angry mutter.
“Hi there,” Sean said. Seriously. Just as friendly and nonchalant as he’d been at the coffee shop, at the July Fourth fireworks, at the party. Just a nice, friendly guy. “It’s Wil, right? You live here too?”
Did he just say It’s Wil, right? like he only vaguely remembers?
Janet said, “Did you have fun at the party?” and smiled. Like she knew. Like she’d planned this. Egregious.
Or maybe it was just a nice, friendly smile.
I turned in, but I couldn’t sleep. Later I heard Janet and Sean talking and laughing through the wall. Then their voices fell quiet—and what remained was the occasional, subtle sound of movement and soft sighs. I rolled over to silently weep, and that’s when I saw the message on my phone from Eddie. Brutal irony! I was so surprised, I laughed right through the tears.
Not a laugh: a bitter laugh-like sound.
I stayed in bed until Sunday afternoon, numb and nauseous. I could neither sleep nor face the day. A cat in its cozy Schrödinger box—hanging out perpetually at the quantum level—strategically unobserved and thereby foregoing reality’s vicious collapse.
Dammit, I want to smoke the thing behind my ear so desperately. I should have thrown it away, like I planned. So will I throw it away—like I planned? Will I purposefully savor the predictable but inevitable growing sense of yearning, push through the anguish of withdrawal bravely, prove to myself my own inner strength and power of restraint—like I planned?
The lower east entrance of Wescoe Hall, all concrete and angles, is a sheltering little nook under the broad overhang of the main entrance stairs. Beyond the glass door is an empty hallway, ostensibly leading to Mr. C’s office. But before I pull the door open, my gaze recalibrates to catch my reflection in its surface. Hair in a frizz-haloed ponytail, eyes puffy and red. Better take a moment and gather as much dignity together as possible before facing Crosthwaite again.
“You’re my first student to simply not finish the final writing assignment,” Mr. C told me. “May I ask, why?” It was Thursday, the last day of class, after everyone else had dropped their journal off at his desk. Meanwhile, I had approached empty-handed and said with a shrug, “Sorry, but thanks anyway.”
I’d figured he would just ignore me. Since he didn’t, I was taken off guard. “I got distracted,” I explained, nonchalant. Oh man, I was so happy that day. Was it really less than a week ago? Way back when, Sean seemed imminently part of my most promising future. “You can fail me. It’s fine.”
Mr. Crosthwaite adjusted his glasses, as if he didn’t trust their clarification of the very sight of me. “Interesting transitive use of the verb ‘fail,'” he said. Then after a moment, he added, “Drop off your class journal during my Monday office hours, between nine and ten.”
“I didn’t do the assignment,” I insisted.
“Bring in what you have.”
“I probably won’t have time.”
“And if I don’t see you Monday—”
“I get it. I know. I’ll fail!”
“—I was simply going to say, I hope you’ll keep writing. You have a gift.”
I was on a giddy Sean-high that day. And in that moment, Mr. Crosthwaite’s words seemed like mere superficial icing on a crazy-delicious Sean-crush-cake. I probably smirked and rolled my eyes. I can imagine myself doing those things. Maybe I just smiled and walked away. I hope so.
Because today, Croshtwaite’s words echo in my heart’s empty chambers. Today they’re etched in my bones.
In the shade of Wescoe Hall’s upper level overhang, I rest against the wall, cool down. I smooth my hair back into the elastic band, and accidentally knock the cigarette from my ear. I pounce after it as it rolls to the base of a cement-enclosed trashcan.
As I pick up the cigarette, I notice a curious pool of rainwater in the can’s dented metal cap. Such a spacious dent—as if a boulder had fallen on it, or someone smashed it with a bat. I peer down into that shallow pool, glimpse a subtle shift along its surface. The movement below is a reflection of movement above: a V of birds crosses overhead, dark silhouettes against the rippling blue brilliance. I look up from the trash toward the real birds in the real sky, just as they dip and disperse, swoop and glide—from perfect order to seeming chaos, yet just as beautiful.
The geese have no mind to leave their reflection in water. Water has no mind to reflect their image.
Gently I lay my bent cigarette down in the dent pool. I watch it absorb the rainwater. I observe it transform—from cruel temptation to benign soggy refuse.
Ready?, I ask the girl in the door glass, self-fanning. Are you sure you’re okay?
I’m just in time. I push past my reflection and move on down the hall.
I’m in a long-term relationship with the book City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.
I started reading this massive novel in the summer of 2016. While on a cross-country trip, I picked it up at an airport Hudson News during a long layover. I made it an eighth of the way through the book, reading voraciously for the remainder of my itinerary. It’s a slow-paced, lovingly detailed mystery set in New York during punk rock’s early years. The characters are vibrant, the storyline is engrossing, and Hallberg’s prose style is beautiful, sometimes nearly poetic. City on Fire-and-me was a match made in heaven—at least, so it seemed while on holiday.
I vowed to keep up my reading momentum after traveling, so much had I yet enjoyed the story. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for—well, for pretty much any aspect of normal life. Upon return home, busy routines set in. Leisure time was in limited supply. I set City on Fire aside in lieu of other pursuits.
But I hadn’t forgotten it.
A sucker for the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, I formally resolved at the start of 2017 to read more books in the following year, specifically in exchange for social-media time. I won’t get on a soapbox about this, because I don’t believe everyone has the same anxiety-provoking experience with Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk. But for me, titrating down my regular overdose of online-profile-plugged-in-ness was a big deal. City on Fire was my forced substitute in the evenings, and I started over again from page one.
At first, reading a book seemed a poor tradeoff for all that dopamine-pinging, phone-glowing scroll/click/lurk/like behavior. Although I’d realized for some time that it worsened insomnia, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, I still found daily social media engagement to be a surprisingly tough habit to break. For a former bibliophile, that’s hard to admit. What a powerful addiction.
But I stuck with the tradeoff. City on Fire became regular evening reading. Sometimes this meant just a couple pages per night, but the important thing was that it kept me off soc med before bed.
By the end of the year, reading before sleep had become second nature, and previous device-centric habits had happily fallen away. My sentimental attachment to City on Fire is solidified forever for what it has come to symbolize: freedom achieved from a toxic groove.
But… I still haven’t finished it.
The paperback version is over nine hundred pages. Reading a page or two per night hasn’t gotten me very far. However, I recently started a new job with a bus commute, and I’ve gained a sudden bounty of reading time. Since the new commute, in less than one month, I soared past the midpoint of the tome. I’m on a roll.
And now I even have an e-reader—and yeah, okay. Many years ago, I vowed I would never choose to read a Kindle over a real paper book. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for the sheer gravity-attractive mass of City on Fire. So I checked out an electronic copy from the library and put it on my, y’know…. my device.
The poetics of personal irony do not go unappreciated around here.
Again, no soapbox: I adore the e-reader in my backpack. But I certainly still love the big dog-eared paperback on my bedside table. I can do both. And I hereby resolve that 2018 is the year I finish this book, one way or the other.
I just won’t be hashtagging and oversharing online about it.