King Me

Austin Smith

Spring 2018

At the kitchen sink, Mary Morris is washing the bowl she used for lunch: salad with sliced carrots and radishes and tomatoes from the garden, button mushrooms and stale sunflower seeds from the cheap grocery, some watercress she picked from around the well, all covered a little too thickly in ranch dressing. She takes a sip of lemonade, notices the rim of the salad bowl is chipped. Frank, she thinks. Her husband is clumsy. It is hot and still and even if the radio were turned off she would know a storm is coming, but the radio is always on. It is her constant companion, along with the television in the living room and the computer in the cluttered office with its slow, stuttering connection. Every few minutes she goes in there and, without sitting down, refreshes Facebook to see if her daughters have written anything on their walls. She likes that image, of her daughters writing on their walls, as if they were each upstairs in their bedrooms, drawing and writing stories, little girls again.

Frank is at a sale across the state line. He buys equipment at auction, busted-up stuff someone is happy to part with for hardly more than the carrying it away. He fixes things up and sells them online for sometimes quadruple the price. Once, the very man he purchased a hay rake from, the tines that weren’t missing bent out of shape, bought it back from him without even realizing it, and that had been a coup for Frank. If it weren’t for Craigslist, they wouldn’t even have the Internet. Mary hadn’t thought twice about it before they got it, and now she couldn’t imagine not having it. She used to be lonely out here. When Frank was still farming and the girls were little, she would walk up and down the lane in the afternoons, waiting for the mail to come. Now messages arrive instantly, at any moment, and it doesn’t really matter what they say. Even an email from Pottery Barn will be addressed to her: Dear Mary Morris. The same’s true for Facebook, not so direct maybe but it comes to her nevertheless, like when she’s watering her flowers but can’t help also watering the weeds. Best of all is NPR. She knows the voices of all the anchors. One day she looked up her favorite host online, but his face was nothing like the face she’d imagined, and she quickly closed the window (something she should be doing now, what with rain coming). In the months since, the anchor has again become the man she imagines, sitting in a dark room, headphones on, leaning forward to speak to her. For in some ways, without Mary Morris there is no news. In some ways, what happens in the world happens because she is here, alone in this farmhouse with its mildewed siding and torn screens and chipped sills that they have to paint every spring to lock in the old coat of lead paint. If it weren’t for Mary Morris, the news would be broadcast into a vacuum, a forlorn signal travelling forever in space.

The radio is always on but she isn’t always listening to it. It’s just there, the way the light is there, the way the cats are, waiting for her to open another can of tuna fish, until the voices change in tone and she turns up the volume to hear if there’s been a tragedy somewhere. It could be an earthquake or tsunami, a plane or train crash, an assassination or terror attack, the outbreak of some terrible disease that will be eradicated before it can reach Pearl County. No matter what it is, she turns up the volume, puts CNN on (more for the ticker’s crawling updates than for the coverage), checks Facebook for posts of sympathy or consternation, and suddenly she is part of it all. She adds her two cents to the New York Times comment stream and there she is: Mary Morris of Stockton, Illinois. She writes something on her wall and within moments it is being liked, and liked, and liked again. Then she is free to take part in the tragedy in a different, more private way. She imagines herself as one of the victims. As the wall of water breaks over the village, as the plane loses altitude and the oxygen masks dangle down, as the bomb rips through the crowded marketplace where she was just squeezing tomatoes for ripeness, she is with them.

Mary would be lying if she said she didn’t look forward to tragedies. Her role in them, she believes, is that she, along with millions of other listeners and viewers, helps process the pain. Through her, suffering is channeled and changed, just like when sewage is pumped through wetlands and comes out pure and potable, while the leftover contaminants make the plants grow green and tall. Her role in life is to imagine horror, then survive it. She tried to explain it to Frank one night during a disaster that she cannot now remember. She compared it to how he repairs broken equipment. After passing through his hands, and through the blue flame of the soldering torch, a shovel returns to the world, restored and reborn, and this is how the world comes to her, broken, needing to be held within her for a time and healed. But when she asked him if he understood she was answered by his steady breathing. He had fallen asleep.

On the radio, playing softly now, the news circles back to check on older tragedies in a desultory way, like a vulture who knows that all that’s left down there now are bones. Mary doesn’t like stories that take place outside time, profiles of a person or place, interviews, history. She likes her news to be continually breaking, to develop so fast the anchors can’t even keep up with it. She can hear when they get swept up in the emotion of the story and forget that it’s their job to be objective. She imagines the update, handed up to the desk by an intern who ducks instincively every time he enters the studio. “We’re just getting word . . .” This is Mary’s favorite phrase in the language. If it wouldn’t be taken as ironic, it could be her epitaph.

But unless something happens soon, she will have to wait until tomorrow to hear it. When Frank is home she can’t pay attention to the news. His listening takes away from hers, like two people eating off of one plate. If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now. She checks CNN. Even Wolf Blitzer looks bored, talking to a panel of experts carefully chosen for their antagonisms, debating stem cell research. This is precisely what she hates: a “controversial” subject chosen by the station to fill the troughs that yawn between catastrophes. On Facebook, Susan Finkenbinder has posted pictures of her son’s wedding. Mary scrolls through shots of smiling couples, the girls holding bouquets, the boys wearing boutonnieres. Susan’s son and his wife are beginning their new life together, and she has nothing but pictures and bills, the program and the menu, smooth blue glass stones she collected from the tables. Mary likes a few of the photos, then opens another window to check the weather. The radar image of the only patch of earth she has ever known is covered in an approaching system’s ugly rash, the green giving way to yellow and red. Well, it’s something, she thinks. Maybe there will be a tornado.

Through the window, the laundry is fluttering on the line, and there is something lewd about it, as if the wind is putting on her dresses to mock her. What the wind does with Frank’s clothes, jerking the legs of his jeans, reminds her of the dead frogs’ legs they reanimated in high school biology by hooking electrodes up to their globular toes. She can hear Mr. Wieland saying, “All life is is electricity.” She’d thought it a foolish statement at the time, for obviously there was a difference between the dead frogs jerking around on the lab table and Frank Morris, sitting a few seats in front of her, always tugging his left earlobe, which she found endearing. When she admitted this, after they’d started dating, Frank said, “Of course it’s endearing. Get it? Endearing?”

Out the window, to the west, the sky is purple, but it is hard to match the weather she sees on the horizon with the weather on the television screen. They seem like two distinctly different storms.

Mary takes the basket from above the drier, slips on the Crocs perpetually covered with grass clippings, and goes out the back door and around the side of the house, past the ramp of the cellar doors. The house is vivid against the color of the yard, like chalk on a green board. She takes her time taking the clothes down, careful not to lose any pins to the grass, thinking she will make decaf coffee when she’s finished (she is up all night, twitching in bed like one of those dissected frogs, if she has caffeine after lunch). She is about to go in when she notices the neighbor girl squatting in the rhubarb patch.

Oh yes, Mary thinks, dirty as always, crouching in one of her decrepit floral-printed dresses, breaking the best stalks off and sucking the stringy, sour stems, then casting the big frond aside. Mary has asked her not to. Mary has asked her, if she wants to eat the plant—she calls it “rude-barb”—to come up to the house with a few stalks, and she would give her a bowl of sugar to dip them in. That way, instead of her rhubarb patch being trampled to death and the best stalks wasted, Mary could have the pleasure of giving this poor girl some sweetness in an otherwise sour life. She and Frank are almost certain the girl’s parents are meth freaks. One day in early spring, soon after they moved into the double-wide down the road, Frank saw them driving back and forth on the rough gravel lane that leads to their trailer, back and forth and back and forth over the washboard lane, as if they’d forgotten something, only they never got out of the car. It was Mary who’d solved the mystery. She’d seen a post about the shake-and-bake method of making meth, how you put all the ingredients in a Mr. Pibb bottle and toss it in the trunk and drive rough rural roads until it’s cooked. That evening, when Frank came in puzzling over the behavior of the new neighbors, she told him precisely what they were doing, which confirmed all their suspicions anyway.

Austin Smith's first collection of poems, Almanac, was published by Princeton University Press in 2014. His second collection, Flyover Country, is forthcoming in the fall. He was recently awarded an NEA grant in prose, and teaches at Stanford University.

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