In college, I used to haul myself through a night at the library with Andes mints. Fifty pages of philosophy reading = one Andes mint. (That must be a lie, because I can’t imagine getting through even ten pages of philosophy reading without wanting to claw my eyeballs out, but the number 50 sticks in my head, so I’m staying with it.)
An hour of listening to Chinese tapes in a tiny white soundproof room in the sub-basement of the language lab = two Andes mints.
Managing to complete one tiny problem in Baby Physics (I think the class was actually called Physics for Non-Majors, but I’ve always thought of it as Baby Physics), while all around me others were sailing through, having taken Baby Physics as their easy class for the semester (hello, Cecil Marlowe, I can still see you zipping merrily along in that lab while I sweated helplessly nearby) = three Andes mints.
That’s how it went, people. To this day Andes mints have a peculiar power over me.
Last summer at this time was when I set myself a personal challenge of Doing One New Thing Every Day for a month and chronicling it here. Learning how to count to ten in Mongolian. Devising a Signature Cocktail. Taking the cat on a walk with a wee little cat harness and little leash (do not attempt this at home). Typing an entire blog post with my two big toes. Etcetera. I contemplated doing the same thing again this year, but decided against it for reasons that have much to do with a) a dream I had the other night and b) laziness.
Also, it’s hard to believe that an entire year has passed since my month of doing new things. I mean, I’m sitting here typing this at the same table, on the same crappy laptop that literally burns my lap if I set it there, wearing the same exact sundress that I wore all last summer. I choose to take all this as a sign that the newness of last year has not yet worn off.
But I still want to challenge myself. So I will tell one tiny story here every day for a month. You’d think that as a fiction writer, the word “story” wouldn’t intimidate me, but it kind of does. Which is why I’m calling them Andes Mints instead.
A few nights ago I had a weirdly vivid dream. (If you’re the kind of person who hates it when other people start blabbing on about their dreams, my apologies.) In it, I had taken a job as pastor of a small one-room country church. Yes, I know, me, a pastor, but still, this was a dream, and that’s the way it went down.
The tiny country church was frame, painted white on the outside and left unpainted on the interior. This was my first Sunday on the job, and as I walked up to the door (which was on the side of the one-room church), I realized that I hadn’t prepared a thing. No idea what hymns to sing, what scripture to read, what sermon to preach. (Apparently, this was a traditional church; that they hired me as their pastor makes no sense to me either, BUT: dream.) (Just trying to reinforce that this was a DREAM. Got it?)
It was one of those horrid dreams in which you realize that you’re completely unprepared, and there are people counting on you, and you’re going to fail epically, and your heart is pounding as you walk into the tiny church. Beyond that, you barely know any scripture, and the only hymn that’s coming to you is Amazing Grace, and why the hell did they hire YOU to be their pastor. Etc.
At that point in the dream, it came to me that I could tell the congregation that I had somehow managed to leave all my notes and sermon in Vermont, and here I was in the Dakotas, so obviously I was going to have to wing it, and my huge, huge apologies; this would never happen again.
(That this would be a total lie didn’t bother me one bit. The onus was on them, right? They were the ones who had hired a pastoral idiot to be their minister.)
Just tell them a story, a voice said to me at that point. That’s all they really want anyway.
Instantly, the dream changed from one of those nightmare anxiety dreams to a dream of great calm. I knew exactly what story I was going to tell them. It would be about my son and his first tattoo. So I walked into the church and that’s what I did.
(Story below if you care to read it.)
* * *
Once there was a baby boy. He was an intense and passionate baby. Before he was born, a couple of weeks before his official due date, his mother sensed that he wasn’t yet ready to be born. She could feel that he needed a little more time, just a bit more, so that all his nerves would knit together and he would be ready for the outside world, with its unpredictable loud noises and its occasional bright lights and the sensation of air all about.
But the baby was born anyway, despite his mother’s sense that just a little more time would have been a good thing. He took a long time entering the world – three days – and by the time he made it they, they being others who were not his mother, felt that extra caution was necessary in case he was sick after his long and difficult journey.
So in went the tubes and on went monitors and there he lay in a bright room with a paper cup taped to the top of his head. His mother held him in her arms in a rocking chair and fed him, and a few days later home he went, minus the tubes and the paper cup.
Soft lights. Quiet. Tight swaddling in a baby blanket. Constant touch. These were things that he seemed to crave.
Many years later his mother thinks of the word “swaddle” and can feel her hands moving invisibly: smooth out the square of flannel, fold down one corner, lay the baby diagonally down, up with the bottom corner and then across – tight – with one side and then across – tight – with the other. Presto, swaddle-o.
The baby wanted to be held all the time. If not held all the time he screamed and shook and made himself sick. So his mother held him all the time. She had a contraption she called the “Red Thing” that she strapped on when she got up, and into the Red Thing he went, so that he faced out. His thin legs dangled down. His thin arms dangled out. His head lolled until his neck muscles were strong enough to hold it up.
From dawn till late at night, the baby boy’s back lay against his mother’s chest and he faced out. She cooked with the baby dangling before the flames – dangerous! but she was careful – and she vacuumed with the baby swinging with the rhythm of the long vacuum pole, and she never sat down with the baby in the Red Thing because if she sat, he screamed.
They stayed in motion. Much of the time, the mother ended up pushing an empty stroller down the sidewalk because the baby screamed if he wasn’t in the Red Thing. When the weather turned cold, the mother buttoned her long winter overcoat all the way up and put a stocking cap on the baby, so that oncomers smiled at the mother and then shifted their eyes downward and smiled at the baby boy. It was a two-for-one smile.
When the mother did sit down, she took the baby boy out of the Red Thing and sat him on her lap with a stack of books beside them. They read their picture books together, baby boy on lap, mother propping each book up while he reached out and turned the pages.
Where the Wild Things Are.
Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel.
Good Night, Moon.
Outside Over There.
Ferdinand was the boy’s favorite, the story about the little Spanish bull who didn’t want to fight, the little bull who wanted to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers.
How many hours did the mother and the boy spend together, sitting on the couch, reading picture books? Many. Many many. Many years’ worth of many. It was their favorite thing.
When the baby turned into a boy, he went to sleep every night listening to stories on tape. He and his mother went to the library and checked out the stories on tape, and sometimes they bought them, and the boy knew the stories so well and loved them so well that once he was in bed he reached out and blindly pressed “Play,” not caring that he wasn’t anywhere near the beginning.
Once, on a long car trip, the boy woke from sleep to look at his mother and say, “Is this where we are?”
Years went by. The boy grew and grew. He grew until he was very tall and very thin, so tall that he towered over his tall mother. More years went by, and the boy turned eighteen.
One day, the boy sent his mother a text message: “Would you kill me if I got a tattoo?”
The mother would have been happy if the boy never got a tattoo, because she had been there at the moment when he was born. She could still see his newborn skin, so soft and paper-thin that touching it was like touching air. She could still remember crying in fury and sorrow the first time a mosquito bit that skin. That first scar.
But the boy was eighteen now, and 6’4,” and his body was his own. His body had always been his own, his mother reminded herself. She wanted to wrap her arms around that body and keep it safe, but. . .
What sort of tattoo would he get, his mother wondered, and where would he put it? She thought of the needles drilling down through the layers of his skin, the ink pushing below the surface, and how much it would hurt. She tried to think of other things. It was hard.
“Not as long as it’s a heart on your bicep with an arrow and the word ‘mom’ in the middle,” the mother texted back.
The boy did his research and saved his paycheck, and the day came when off he went, to St. Sabrina’s Parlor in Purgatory. He got his tattoo. There it is down there. It is not a heart on his biceps with an arrow and the word “mom” in the middle.
But it could have been.