Benjamin Soileau — Row Your Boat

I was coasting. And then I blinked.

Now I go around all the time with the feeling that I might have left the stove on. When I enter a room I seek out the corners so I can see what’s coming.

That’s where Jeff found me, wedged beside a cigarette machine against the back wall under a poster of Billy Dee Williams peddling malt liquor. He handed me a beer, gestured toward the stage, and I pushed off and followed him through the small crowd milling.

The Night Crawler wasn’t where I would normally be on a Friday night. Jeff heard about this singer who was supposed to be the real deal, The Milkman, from Woodville, Mississippi. I should do myself a favor and check it out, he said. Jeff’s a good ten years younger than me, and even though I don’t air my laundry at work, it’s impossible to share a cubicle with someone without their being aware that you’re just waiting for the other boot to drop. It was more appealing than sitting alone in my brother-in-law’s apartment for the fourth Friday in a row.

We stood with our drinks before the stage making small talk. I didn’t feel I had much to say that would interest him otherwise, having been married for the last seven years, and being the father of a nearly two-year old boy. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a live band.

Once they got going, we didn’t have to talk. The Milkman was the genuine thing. He was the blackest man I’d ever seen; a soul-screeching obsidian giant in pink satin with hair like broccoli in silhouette, sweating diamonds under the stage lights and grinding it out, really doing it. His band was all white, which made The Milkman stand out even more, but they could play. There were only two dozen folks in the audience, and we were all of us stupefied like flash-lit frogs under Milkman’s spell. One tune bled into the other as they pumped it to us for two hours, and not once did I think about anything other than what was right in front of me. The lights rippled and bent off the saxophone, which honked it out right along with The Milkman, lifting him up until it was damn near painful it was so true. And I swear that I saw when it hit him.

His face caved in on itself like a puppet’s on an arthritic fist, and he grabbed at his chest. He reached for that last note, and the band swelled and carried him there. They were taking us over the rough side of the mountain. And when they finally crested, and got us all safely over, The Milkman ripped open his shirt and dropped dead.

The buttons of his shirt scattering across the stage sounded like ice crackling under vodka. For a full ten seconds, the band stood huffing and puffing, looking down at him in recognition, exhilarated at what they’d just accomplished, before they realized he was played out, and the sax player bent to him. It was the most amazing thing any of us had seen, I’m certain. Nobody moved or talked until after he was carried away and the lights came up, and even then, we all shuffled into the parking lot dazed, like those people wandering from that spaceship at the end of Close Encounters.

I don’t think we spoke until we were back at Jeff’s apartment where we tried to make sense of what we’d seen. We drank three bottles of wine while hashing it out, but remained unmoved. We thrummed with adrenaline. Finally, Jeff confessed that seeing The Milkman made him realize that he needed to go back to Galveston pronto, tell his family that he was most definitely a homosexual. He was going find Barry in Kansas City, his Virgil, he claimed, fuck it be damned. Could I rescue the framed and signed photograph on his desk at work of Lucinda Williams? He would contact me with an address where I could send it. He was leaving immediately, after he showered, in fact.

We said goodbye and I wished him success and happiness and as I walked down his apartment steps into the Saturday sunrise, I was jealous of his revelation. I imagined the others from the club charged with new meaning, dispersing into the rest of their lives with flaring ember hearts. I idled in the parking lot, feeling spiritually inferior. The dashboard clock blinked the date in green digits. It meant something I knew, and then I realized it was my mother’s birthday. She died twenty years earlier at the age of 41, my age in months, much in the same way as The Milkman except she was alone in the bathroom of the Hi Neighbor. When life took a turn on her she would break out singing, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” with as much bravado as she could muster, her voice muddy with sarcasm at first, but clearing as she persisted, like water coughed from a neglected faucet. She’d push through until her singing became smooth and cheerful, as if she had convinced herself of something. The dashboard digits flipped forward as they will, but her voice echoed on as I gunned it out of there and onto the freeway.


This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. The familiar and eerily calm voice interrupted the Springsteen tune I was finding some spirit in. It was the second test I’d heard that morning on the drive across town to my house to scoop up my wife and son, who I’m actively courting. A series of tones barked from the speakers like amplified cicadas boring into my ear drums, and I smashed the power button on the radio as I turned onto my street. I remembered hearing another one on my way to work the day before. Jesus, I thought. What are they preparing us for? Before I got out of the car to approach my front door I filled my lungs and gathered myself into a confident and shining example of husband and father.

“Hello,” I called out when I walked in.

Heidi whipped her head around the corner from where she dug in the dryer and slid her finger to her lips.

“Still? It’s nine.”

It’s a new thing, she told me, Griff’s sleeping late. She was in her pajamas, and I teetered on the impulse to throw her over my shoulder and march her to the bedroom.

“You look rough,” she said, a towel draped over her shoulder. “You OK?”

“I can’t sleep in Kermit’s guest bed.” I rubbed my lower back, stretched my arm over my head, and moaned.

“I’m gonna jump in the shower,” she said. “I didn’t mean to sleep so late, but damn, I needed it.”

I hated thinking of her sprawled out across the entirety of our bed, snoring in blissed out, unfettered sleep. As soon as I heard water gurgling through the walls I went to rouse my son.

It wasn’t anything sinister like infidelity or general meanness, but rather the reaping of my indiscriminate and careless sowing in what now seems like a completely different life. It could happen to anybody. I’d wandered the better part of my twenties, aimless through the campus of LSU with no intention of ever leaving. I took only classes that interested me: mythology, literature of the Holocaust, Italian cinema. Yoga, I took seven times, moon-eyed and contorted in the back of the class thinking I’d figured something out. After seeing my friends enter their thirties with careers and houses with families that lived in them, I bailed out with a General Studies degree and eighty-five grand in student debt.

I mastered the art of deferment. It got so after a while I forgot I had to pay the money back, and the wake up call was a terrific cramp in my style. In order to avoid paying such astronomical monthly payments, I had to apply for the income-based repayment plan. My income, which is significantly less than Heidi’s, which meant filing married but separate, which in turn meant we couldn’t write off daycare, or any other perks one is afforded for being joined in matrimony and procreating in our country. It was a real blind sider, although I know it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t what she had in mind when we tied up, she said. I said for better or worse.

My first night at Kermit’s was April 15, which also marked the first anniversary of her mother’s death. I thought it would just be for a few nights, until the dust settled, but it turned into a week, then two, and now look. Heidi claims the break has given her perspective, that she’s able to process everything from us to her mother, to the election, but I know she enjoys the new space. I know it’s like a vacation for her, and I’m scared she’ll discover something about herself that doesn’t include me.

We parked downtown and got Griff in his stroller, and before long we blended right in with the other families. It was the grand opening of the new farmer’s market, a big deal for our town. The storm that was supposed to have barreled in from the Gulf still hadn’t made landfall and the sky was a fierce electric blue. We perused tents, looked at crafts. A pretty girl with her face painted like an owl tied a yellow balloon to Griff’s wrist and it bopped pleasantly against my cheek as I pushed him along.

There was a migration of folks, a buzz toward a small stage, and we parked off to the side and waited for the show to begin. The children in front went ape shit crazy when Green Beard walked out with his guitar. Behind the children stood the parents, huddled together beneath a tent, applauding with cups of beer pinched between their teeth. Griff stretched out his arms and clapped too, and Heidi and I exchanged smiles, standing shoulder to shoulder under the sun.

Green Beard’s namesake was dyed spearmint under his pirate hat. He had the eye patch, plastic parrot perched, the whole nine. He was the most enthusiastic person I’d ever seen, strumming songs about the importance of brushing your teeth and sharing your toys. He was really whipping the kids into a frenzy. Griff bounced in his stroller just like the other kids and to look at them you’d have thought it was the second coming of Mister Rogers.

We were catching Green Beard’s enthusiasm, and at one point, Heidi placed her hand on my lower back, and laughed. I started to think that the day might end with a vigorous love making session, one in which we would greedily make up for lost time. I thought about what I was going to cook for breakfast. Something grandiose, of course: pancakes with bacon and cheesy grits, scrambled eggs, biscuits and coffee and orange juice and whipped cream, hell. Why not?

Sweat and dye bled down Green Beard’s neck into his collar. He plucked a puppet from behind his little amp and fit it on. “Hey kids,” he said. “Do you want to meet Socky Squirrel?”

Shrieks of delight. Green Beard poked the puppet over his guitar and withdrew it suddenly. “Socky’s shy, y’all” he said. “You in the front.” He pointed to a little girl. “What do you think would make him feel less shy?”

“Acorns!” she squealed.

“Acorns?” said Green Beard. “That’s exactly what makes Socky feel better. As long as they’re organic acorns.” Green Beard made the kids repeat, “Organic Acorns,” and I could hear some of them struggling with that word.

“I didn’t know there were acorns that weren’t organic,” Heidi said.

After a minute or two with Socky, Green Beard tossed him back to the amp and fretted his fingers. “What would be the one thing you would want most?” he asked the children. “If you could only have one thing in the whole wide world. Yeah, you,” he pointed to a boy in the front.

“A car?” Green Beard repeated. “Did you say you want a car?”

The little boy looked around, realized that he was in the spotlight. “Yes!” he squealed. “A race car!”

“That’s an awfully big carbon footprint,” Green Beard said.

The boy seemed confused that what he’d said wasn’t the right thing. The other kids looked to Green Beard for an explanation. “Bullshit,” a husky voice rose from where the parents huddled in back. I saw Green Beard’s jaw tighten. “No, kids, you’re a lot cooler when you ride a bike.”

“Hey, knock it off,” a woman’s voice drifted up.

“And the coolest thing we could want is world peace by the way,” Green Beard said. “Not a car!” And then he launched into a happy song about just that thing. 

As he bounced around up there, a large man in a yellow ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ tank top approached the stage to collect his son, the one who’d wanted a race car. Green Beard flinched as the man put out his arm to gather his son who was in the front row, and murdered the tune with a terrible screech of strings.

“I don’t think this is part of the show,” Heidi said.

“Hey,” cried Green Beard. “I’m in the middle of a song. This song is for him.”

“He’s my son, dickhead,” the man said over his shoulder, ushering the boy away.

“These are just kids,” said Green Beard.

“Exactly,” someone shouted from back.

As the man and his family left the tent, he turned, pointed his finger at Green Beard, and shouted, “Go back to the funny farm, snowflake.”

Green Beard stood frozen for a moment, inched his mouth toward the mike, hesitated, and then went for it. “Don’t you kids just hate bullies?” The children went wild. “Bullies are even worse than cars,” said Green Beard.

The crowd surged as the man made his way toward the stage, stepping over children in front like an ominous giant. As he climbed onto the platform, Green Beard took a step back, planted his Converse and swung his guitar, the cheapness of which was confirmed when it splintered to pieces against the man’s bowling ball shoulder in a tidal wave of feedback. Green Beard turned on his heel and hauled ass across the back of the stage and the man gave chase, and they disappeared down the alley. Several of the fathers took off after them, beer sloshing over their cups as they ran. When I turned, Heidi was not there.

Griff was whining when I caught up with them, and just like that it was over. She said Griff needed to eat, needed a nap. She felt sick suddenly, must have been the corn dog. On the way home the banana chips I’d bought for Griff sailed into the front seat. “Don’t throw your food, Son,” I said. “He wants toast,” Heidi said. The feeling in the car was that it was my fault for having lured my family into disaster. My suggestions to hit the park or stop for ice cream were shot down. “Toast,” Heidi said. I pulled up at the house and got Griff out. I tried wrestling with him while Heidi made toast, but he wasn’t having it. I heard Heidi cussing softly from the kitchen, and when she started weeping I went to her.

“My Mom’s toaster,” she said and collapsed into a chair. “It’s broken.” She buried her face in her hands and shook into them.

“It’s OK, Baby. It’s just a toaster. We can make toast in the oven.” I knew right off I’d said the wrong thing.

“She bought it when her and Daddy got married and it’s always been in the family. I grew up with that thing. And now it’s gone too.”

“I’ll fix it,” I said, going over to it. I’d never before contemplated that toaster. It was nothing but a greasy bread warmer to me. The lever looked like it belonged on a slot machine. I pushed it down, but it didn’t catch. I did the same thing a few times and said, “Hmm” pretending to understand what the issue might be. I removed the loaded bread, looked down into the slits. “Hmm,” I said again.

“What is it?”

“I think it might be,” I started talking, making shit up on the spot. I told her I would run to the store for some tools and after it was fixed we could all go out for pizza. I figured I would repair it slowly for the rest of my life.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said.

I insisted, but she kept crawfishing. She said she would take it to a shop somewhere next week and that she had a headache. I said I would take Griff while she slept. “I just feel blue and I want to be alone,” she confessed finally. I fed Griff, changed him, and after putting him down she was waiting in the kitchen, ready to walk me to the door, which we did in silence.

 “I saw someone die last night,” I said.

“What? Who?”

“Nobody. Just a stranger. I saw it from a distance.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s something in the air. I’m telling you because life is short, that’s why. I want to be at home with my family and I’m just trying to have a conversation with my wife, like a baton I’m trying to pass. Maybe grab it and run. Help me out.”

“I want to hit you on the head with it.”

“It’s been a month!”

We both swiveled our necks and held our breath, waited to hear Griff stir.

“One thing at a time,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to recalibrate.”

“Don’t speak for me,” I said.

It was getting tense and there was no winning at such a thing. “Hold on,” I said. I jogged to the kitchen and plucked the toaster from the wall. It must have weighed six pounds. I came back to the door where she stood, cradling that thing in my arms like a baby. “I’m going to fix your mom’s toaster.”

“What do you know about it?” she said.

“I’ll fix it.” I said I would bring it back over tomorrow, that we would have a dinner of waffles and pop tarts and anything else we could put in a toaster. I gathered her with my free arm and she nuzzled into me. I squeezed her and kissed her good and hard on the lips before leaving. I cranked the car and looked at the front door of my own house, drummed my fingers on the toaster. I picked up a banana chip from the passenger seat, knowing that my son had just had his fingers on it. I tossed it into my mouth as I pulled away.

At first I thought I had been rear-ended, the crunch that shook my skull, a seismic shift of bone and filling. The taste of copper flooded my mouth as I pinched my fingers between my lips and removed most of a tooth.


When I floated back up Heidi had still not evaporated from on top of me and I kept my eyes crammed shut to keep her there. I pressed her into me with all my might, but no matter how hard we pushed into one another we couldn’t fill the space. I squirmed until she evaporated like mist and I gave up the ghost. The green digits blinking 2:07 am were not the soft blue ones I’d hoped to see. I tongued the calcium ruins in my mouth and the uneasiness was back on me like a lead blanket.

I hovered in the golden swath of light from the fridge and guzzled the rest of the grapefruit juice. I downed two pints of water and focused on my breathing. I’d learned in the past year that such spells were not heart attacks, and the thing to do was to not let that idea gain too much momentum. It was just another fit of anxiety and I knew that if I remained calm and breathed then after a while it would leave. It was a fairly new thing in my life, since right after Griff was born, and I was trying to learn to live with it. One minute it would be picnic skies and soft puffy clouds, and the very next, the wingtips of the Luftwaffe punch through.

Wandering around Kermit’s apartment was like waking up alone in an IKEA after everyone went home for the night. I opened and closed drawers, mostly to keep from thinking. I remembered Kermit telling us that even though his church frowned upon it, he had to take pills since he was constantly slipping between time zones. I wanted only to not be conscious, to find something strong and go back to sleep. Soon I was standing at the foot of the spiral staircase that led to Kermit’s quarters, a part of the house that not only had I never ventured into, but was never invited. I must have felt at home though.

Kermit’s been great about the whole thing, and doesn’t make me feel bad about it. He knows his sister. He says he likes knowing that someone’s at the apartment. Kermit sells various boxes for companies to present their products in. It’s a lucrative business and he’s constantly jet setting around the world. When he does come home he’s out doing volunteer work with his LDS church. He even married me and Heidi since he’s ordained. Once a week a Puerto Rican comes to clean the apartment, but I haven’t seen him yet.

Upstairs, I rooted through vials in his immaculate bathroom. I didn’t find any sleeping pills and it occurred to me that he probably had them with him. I did find some valium and I took two of them. The door that connected the bathroom to his bedroom was ajar and I wandered in, flipped on the light switch.

His room was like a museum in its order. Everything was gray from the walls to the bed sheets. There were a few little barbells piled in the corner, but that was it, not even a picture hanging. I pushed down on the bed and it sloshed around. I winced at the thought of moving a waterbed up to the second floor. At the foot of the bed was a cabinet with a TV and VCR. There was a tape sticking out of it that said, Quicksand Mix and I pushed it in. I pitched slowly up and down on the edge of the bed and watched a montage of scenes in which people were stuck in quicksand. Indiana Jones. Romancing The Stone. Princess Bride. Blazing Saddles. Not weird at all, I thought. There were a few more tapes stacked behind the VCR, each of them labeled with a different exotic location, scribbled in Kermit’s exquisite handwriting. I grabbed Paraguay and slid it in.

The camera was shaky at first, but it soon materialized on you guessed it, a pit of quicksand. There was a person in it, shirtless, attached to a rope. When the camera panned in I could see it was Kermit. Two pairs of legs, standing at the edge of the pit, framed his sinking head. The camera zoomed in. His eyes were cast up like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, that pained look of spiritual ecstasy. His mouth was opening and closing for air. I’ve only ever seen Kermit conduct himself as a gentleman, all business, always friendly, not a man of many words. I was overwhelmed by an eeriness, as if he might suddenly appear in the doorway from his trip and catch me. I dashed out into the hallway and froze like a burglar listening to the jangle of keys. I stayed there for a minute before going back in where my finger trembled before the eject button.

It seemed Kermit was about to be swallowed into the earth for good and that he was saying goodbye to the owners of the legs. Just as his nose was above the muck, the camera panned out. A yellow ATV was off to the side. The two men at the edge of the pit wore only underwear, and fondled themselves, bending and crouching like little boys waiting in a line to pee. The ATV drove away slowly, and the rope it was attached to lifted, and out came Kermit, until he lay on the dirt, naked and erect, gasping like a fish. The rope was attached to a harness that fit around Kermit’s torso. The ATV backed up again so that the rope was slack, and a small Indian fellow raced over and unfastened the harness, helped him to his feet, and wrapped him in a towel. One of the men standing beside the slush shimmied out of his underwear and fit on the harness, and lowered himself into the quicksand. Kermit was brought some water, and soon he joined the other man at the edge of the pit to watch the next show.

I hit eject and replaced the tapes just as they were, smoothed the wrinkles on his bed. I rechecked it a dozen times, retraced my steps to his bathroom where I knocked back another Valium. I hurried downstairs and got back in bed. I felt a dozen different kinds of dirty lying there.

I thought about Jeff confronting his family in Texas, figured he’d already done so, and how they must be consumed with shock and confusion, the sensation of being duped somehow, foolish even, wondering what else they don’t know about. I wondered did my wife feel it. I burrowed tight under the covers and kicked back against my eyelids, swam into the abstract, hoping to find Heidi in there somewhere.


 I sat on the stoop telling myself that it wasn’t a big thing, just a minor setback. My shadow stretched to the street and resembled some creature etched high up on the corner of a cathedral. People walked through it on the sidewalk with their groceries. Some were dressed for church, pulling their children along. It was a beautiful morning. Still no sign of the storm. A warm breeze licked up and the purple azaleas around me shivered. I peeled the barcode sticker from the handle of the tiny screwdriver I’d just bought while I waited for the locksmith.

A bit of weight lifted when a truck pulled behind my car and the driver squinted at me and then back at the clipboard he held. He left the truck running and got out, circled my car, and the weight perched back on my shoulders, really dug in. He wore a gray jumpsuit in the style of a mechanic, a faded olive green shrimper’s cap snug on his crown. The gauges in his ear lobes swung lazily as he studied my car. The truck he drove had no decals indicating the name of the business I’d called, Lock Monkey, the first name to pop up in my Google search. The passenger door was a completely different shade than the rest of the truck, and there was no side mirror. Idling, it sounded like a child raking through a silverware drawer.

“You Avery?”

“That’s me. Glad you got here so quick. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“No shit,” he said. “OK. Shouldn’t take me more than five minutes and you’ll be on your way.” He held the clipboard toward me with one hand, pen in the other. “Just need your Hancock and I’ll get her done.”

I was about to initial on the line when I saw the price he’d scrawled. One seventy-five. “Wait a second,” I said. “The lady on the phone told me it was twenty-five.”

“That’s just the service call. It goes up from there depending on the job.”

“How did you jump a hundred fifty bucks in less than a minute?”

“You want your car unlocked or what?”

“You know what, don’t worry about it. I’ll call someone else.” I handed him the clipboard and he frowned down at it for a second before returning to his truck where he got on the phone. After a minute he came back over.

“OK,” he said. “Here’s what I can do. I’ll take off the service charge for you.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m not going to give you a hundred fifty bucks for the minute it would take you to get this unlocked.” He watched me thumb the screen on my phone. I brought back Lock Monkey to see if their rates were listed, but there was no website.

“Look, Cap’n,” he said, slapping the clipboard against his chest. “There just ain’t no way I can go back without getting paid.”

I stepped up to my car. My keys were dangling from the ignition. The toaster sat in the passenger seat, glinting with sunlight.

“I’m not getting ripped off,” I said.

He went back to his truck and then my phone started ringing. It was Lock Monkey and this time there was no honey in her voice like before.

“My husband says you ain’t gonna pay.”

I told her they should be more forthcoming with their services.

“Listen jackass,” she said. A child cried in the background. “Trey ain’t leaving till he gets paid, you hear? I told you straight up there was service charge just for his coming.”

I hung up and stepped back up to Trey. “Listen, man. You can hang out until kingdom come, but I’m not giving you money for something you didn’t do.” I went back to the stoop. He leaned against his truck with the clipboard. My chest was a fire ant hill booted. My phone rang and the Lock Monkey number marched across the screen. My shoulders were so tense that my neck was cramped. I took deep breaths.

“You can call another racket if you want,” he said. “But we got the drop on you. Even if somebody else showed up they’d have to leave since we’re already here. It’s like a locksmith code.”

 I ignored him and he circled my car, looking in the windows and scribbling. He toed my tires with his boots and showed me his teeth. I pictured him creeping around after midnight. “Fine,” I said, digging out my wallet. “I’ll give you the fucking fee for your coming here, but then you have to leave.” I pulled open my wallet and finding nothing, pinched out my Visa.

“I don’t take cards,” he said and nodded across the street. “There’s an ATM up at Pokey’s.”

“Fucking unbelievable!” I stabbed my wallet back in my pocket and marched off down the street, raking my tongue against the iceberg shard of tooth and tasting blood.

“It ain’t personal, bro,” he called out, following me in his truck at two miles an hour. “You don’t understand. I got to bring back something.” Neighbors out in their yards stopped to watch the procession with arched brows. I’d only been to Pokey’s twice before, on nights when Kermit actually happened to be home and I’d wanted to get out of his hair. The cool air enveloped me as I made my way to the ATM in back. My hands trembled as I pushed my card into the slot and punched the numbers. I started to take out a hundred forty, but froze. Heidi policed our account like a hawk on a telephone pole looking for field mice. How would I explain the withdrawals when I had a duplicate key at home? And calling her to fetch it to me was out of the question. I took out only forty and sat at the bar.

I ordered a beer and asked the bartender for some matches. I lit the candle next to me and let it get hot. I watched Trey across the street leaning on his truck, waiting on me. I sipped my beer, took my time. I tipped some wax onto the bar and when it was dry enough, molded it into a ball and jammed it on the tip of my tooth. A tennis match was on TV above the bar and I closed my eyes, willed myself to be soothed by the metronomic puff of the ball going back and forth. Just as I finished my drink, Trey walked into the bar and sidled up two stools down from me. I kept my eyes on the match, but could see him in the mirror behind the bar.

The bartender stepped up and I ordered one more for courage. “Get him one too,” I said, and the son of a bitch ordered a Manhattan. I slapped the forty bucks on the bar. “This is for my two beers and whatever else he wants.” The cash sat on the bar between us. I watched TV, occasionally catching his reflection in the mirror. He stirred his drink for a while, really making a racket, and then sucked it down in no time. He ordered another and heaved a giant sigh, like air going out of a bicycle tire, that went on nearly the whole time his drink was being prepared. After jostling his fresh drink for a minute, he said, “Shit fire,” and started to tell me what it was like then, working for his wife.


Sizing myself up, I give a smile to the toaster sitting shotgun on the other side of the glass. Clouds glide across the sky over my shoulders, gathering conspiratorially and darkening like a fresh bruise. The wind has ratcheted up. I’m waiting for an opportunity, a break in traffic on the street, but it’s a busy day. Folks are scurrying, trying to finish the yard work they’d started under a blue sky. I hear my mother’s voice as she rows around in my head. Merrily, merrily, merrily, she sings.

When I kick through my reflection every person in my peripheral freezes. Heads swivel. Neighbors come out to their porches and faces appear in windows. I go ahead and kick a few more jagged bits out of the way before I reach in and scoop up the toaster, yank my keys from the ignition. He ain’t gonna like that the lady across the street hollers as I jog back up the stoop.

I put on coffee, get all the lights up high so that the kitchen could be an operating room. The toaster sits on the table, along with my tools: tiny screwdriver, tweezers, a toothbrush. I find an owner’s manual online of a similar toaster from the same decade and dive in. An hour later I’ve got the thing dismantled, parts arranged before me. The house shakes violently with grumbles of thunder. The lever won’t catch because it’s prevented from doing so by a wad of what looks like dried tar, what I guess is raisins or petrified blueberries. I take it apart until I can’t and start cleaning, scrubbing, scraping. The further into the thing I get the more petrified the crumbs are and I have to operate with tweezers and even a safety pin. The walls inside are caked with decades-old grime, bits of food preserved in each ring of history like minerals and gems.

A heavy rain starts up all at once, as if somebody threw a switch. I plunge down through the layers of time until I’ve scraped past when Heidi and I met. By the time I get to the conductors and coils at the bottom I’m excavating the relics of Heidi’s childhood, the dusty ruins last cradled and buttered by her mother while my miniature wife must have looked on from her high chair. I guess Kermit was there too, at the table with his sister, his peculiarity already etched in his little brain, and I think that the bits of life that break off inside of us and harden into our makeup can’t ever really be scrubbed away.

When I finally remove the last crumb of the first waffle Heidi’s mother ever fed the toaster and wipe it clean, I feel an intimacy with her, as if she’d placed it there for me to find forty years later. I see Griff opening it decades from now to clean it for his family, and his marveling at our charred, blackened lives on display inside, the three of us all the way down. I bend to the toaster with unbreakable, focused precision, carefully oiling and polishing as I fit the pieces together.

Lightning cracks nearby and the windows clatter. When the kitchen lights flutter I hurry and plug it in, press down the lever and hold my breath. It clicks and stays. I lean in close with my nose right over the slits and stare deep down into the seeming endless dark, when the coils along the bottom flare up in a line of light, as if from a tear in space, pink as sunrise, and pulse brighter toward a brilliant burst of orange. I gaze into the gathering glow and heat even after it seems that I can’t possibly stand it any longer.