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.

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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