Wednesday, March 2, 2016

March 2: Mrs. Mildred Sink, Telling Stories, Matthew Gavin Frank, "Kepler's Last Law"

One day I was talking about snakes to Mrs. Mildred Sink, who operates a switchboard.  A large pane separated us, and we were talking through a circular hole in the glass.  She was seated in a dark room little bigger than a booth.  As we talked, red lights on her desk would flash.  She would glance at them, then back at me, and, finishing her point with careful calmness, she would fix on me a long, significant look to hold my attention while her hand expertly sought the button and pushed it.  In this way she handled incoming calls and told me her snake story.

When she was a girl, she lived in the country just north of here.  She had a brother four years old.  One bright summer day her brother and her mother were sitting quietly in the big room of the log cabin.  Her mother had her sewing in her lap and was bent over it in concentration.  The little boy was playing with wooden blocks on the floor.  "Ma," he said, "I saw a snake."  "Where?"  "Down by the spring."  The woman stitched the hem of a cotton dress, gathering the material with her needle and drawing it smooth with her hand.  The little boy piled his blocks carefully, this way and that.  After a while he said, "Ma, it's too dark in here.  I can't see."  She looked up and the boy's leg was swollen up as big around as his body.

Mrs. Sink nodded at me emphatically and then heeded the flashing light on the panel before her.  She turned away; this caller was taking time.  I waved and caught her eye; she waved, and I left.

Yes, I know that's a incredibly long passage.  But the story is so good.  The way that Dillard sets it up, talking with Mrs. Sink through a hole in a window.  The tale of the snake, starting so innocently and ending with that image:  the four-year-old boy dying in front of his mother.  (Make no mistake--the boy died.)  It's thrilling and terrifying to read at the same time.  And then Mrs. Sink just goes back to the switchboard.

I love a good story.  Right now, I am sitting in my office at the university.  It is spring break, so I believe that I'm probably the only person in the English Department.  It's almost 7 p.m.  I have been here about an hour and a half, doing work for the online class I'm taking.  (The instructor of the class told me the class would take about five hours per week.  I think I spent five hours just doing the week's readings.  This is going be a loooooong class.)

Whenever I'm in the English Department in the evening, I think of my friend, Ray, who used to the be the Department Head.  You may remember that Ray died of a massive heart attack the night before Thanksgiving in 2014.  Well, he's on my mind a lot when I'm sitting in my office.  For many people, Ray was the English Department.  A generous, funny, fair man.  He loved this place.

And thinking of Ray makes me think of my sister, Sally, who passed away in August, 2015.  I miss both of these people a great deal.  Ray was a part of my life for almost 25 years.  Sal wasn't just my sister.  She was my boss for 17 years.  Ten hours a day, we were together.  I sometimes still expect to see her car parked in its normal spot when I go to work.  She always parked in the same place.

I remember the first day I went to work after my sister died.  I was standing by a window, staring out into the parking lot, and I swear I saw my sister walking in the distance, wearing her blue hoodie and blue scrubs.  I looked once, looked away.  When I looked back, she was gone.

The first night that I was in my office at the university after Ray died, I was absorbed in some task at my desk.  The lights in the English Department are motion-activated.  After about ten minutes of inactivity, they turn off.  The hallway that night had been dark for quite some time.  As I was sitting at my desk, I felt like somebody was standing by my office door.  I looked up.  Nobody was there.  Suddenly, the hallway lights went on.  I got up and walked to my door.  Nobody was in the hallway.

You may be wondering why I'm telling you these stories.  Snakes.  Death.  Ghosts.  Well, first, I like telling stories about my friend and my sister.  It makes me feel like they're still with me in a way.  Second, I've been a little melancholy this afternoon, thinking about where I am right now in my life.  Third, I'm procrastinating about grading some papers.  The longer I make this post, the longer I can put off picking up my red pen.

The light just went out in the hallway of the English Department,  It's a little after seven in the evening now.  I'm sure the sun has set, and the cold night is getting colder. 

Saint Marty can no longer avoid the inevitable end of this post, except with a poem...

Kepler's Last Law

by:  Matthew Gavin Frank

The gargoyles with their frosted hair
guard the entrance to the library.

They are brother and sister, coffee-
stained, their muscular necks, things

under which teenagers still kiss
reading up with flapping fingers

to write their names.  From below,
my sister tells me, a fang is only

a small circle, a picture of the sun
in the central color pages

of a children's book about astronomy--
the one my mother bought me,

my seventh birthday, hoping
I wold go into the sciences,

unearth the skull of some Midwestern
dinosaur, polish it like a pearl.

Tell her that, in every cornfield,
is an ellipse that cries when it moos.

This is, after all, a law
of conservation, the orbit of her hand

as she bakes mandelbrot with chocolate chips
for the holidays, the finished scones

cooling on a sheet pan subject
to the hard gravitation

of room temperature.  Their smoke
loses itself in the space of a yellow

chandelier, the small extinction
of heat.  My sister,

angry after I dropped her
dollhouse family down the bathroom sink,

burned my book in the snow,
the chapter on Mars having outlasted

the fattest of the Jovians, the unspeakable
cold of the milk.  I knew even then

that she changed my life,
that my heart was not a good one--

a silk handkerchief, a bony
hand--an argument with genetics

I could not win, my body
stubbornly Aristotelian, still believing that it,

like the Earth used to be, was a fulcrum.
(Kepler knows:  here, an eraser is hard

to come by).
This pressure on my throat,

tightening now as I turn my back
on food, pass into pages, must be

my daughter, unborn, writing her name
on my breath.

Somewhere, in warm, warm, kitchens . . .

The hardest thing the Earth asks of us,
with its smells of white flour, requires

not the tractor, but remembering.

Yes, another weird cartoon to laugh at . . .

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