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September 22, 2017 |

Under

Marvin Shackelford

Under photo

Before Nathan underwent surgery he made a list for if he survived, though it wasn’t that severe or threatening a procedure. Largely exploratory, the doctor said. He’d never been under before. He imagined a cartoon sea, bright primary-colored fish, and consciousness floating to the bottom. Sweet dreams. Adena told him it was more of a blink. You’re talking. Then you’re waking, still talking but sore. Some in between you won’t remember. Simple, she assured him. She’d undergone a hysterectomy, two spinal surgeries, had a cyst removed from her sinus. Each left a scar, and each of those Nathan had kissed, carefully, many times.

“You’ll wake up,” she told him. “You’ll feel like hell. We’ll eat soup.”

And they had. Adena drove Nathan home, the rocking of the car nauseating, and that evening fed him in front of the television. While the late news flickered mutely and his wife slept in her recliner, head tilted just sharply enough to choke loose an occasional snore, he picked his list, a sheet of notebook paper folded into a tight square, loose of the mail heaped upon the end table. Adena had scoffed so at the idea of his list that he’d pretended he was joking, didn’t let her know he’d seen its composition through. It had felt good, somehow essential. He tucked it away again, pleased it remained.

He rediscovers it on a drizzly afternoon a month later, uncluttering the den while Adena attends some meeting at the club. His body is healing, strength returning, but of course he’s done nothing with the list. It’s not so much a list as a collection of lists of all manner and type. Instructions here, desires there, shopping items—a new rake, those tiny frosted cookies Adena abhors—regrets so minor and far past correcting they can’t be considered resolutions, and odd ideas and questions he doesn’t recall firing to electrochemical life. Middle of the page, number 42: How many Jews did Stalin kill? He’s never been interested in history or the Hebrews, though Adena’s great-grandmother, whose name her parents gave her, supposedly numbered among them. He tries connecting that thought of genocide to his wife and cannot.

43: Property taxes due. 47: Death in the Chess movie. 12: Pecan Ice cream. 8-10: passwords to his home and office computers. 14: Piss in G. Canyon. 64: Kicked Bill Sharpe’s basketball over fence behind school. 73: Dog’s name in that Cartoon Michael liked. Corgi. Nathan’s unsure if he meant to find out the breed and did or if he wanted the actual name. He thinks about calling his son and asking but worries Michael will think him crazy.

The list unsettles him. He casts for random memories to prove his mind remains intact: first kiss, first really good kiss, changing a flat tire, father’s death, mother’s near death, baseball game with Michael. Nathan thinks again of his surgery and then Adena’s blink of time.  He feels stuck there, or that perhaps the list belongs in that blackout, a drunken remnant of displacement, helplessness. He rereads item by item for an unseen admission or shocking confession but finds nothing particularly unordinary. His children’s names don’t appear, beyond the dog, but his wife’s shows three times, very evenly spaced. The cookies at 20, at 40 The song Adena’s alarm played in college, some unnamable folk tune, and 60: Adena—La Plaza. Her favorite restaurant.

If there’s meaning to be had from the whole of it he remains lost, but dinner seems reasonable. He calls, but Adena doesn’t answer. No doubt still busy. They plan banquets and soirées and all manner of musical, formal nonsenses better left to youth but delightful to her. Nathan goes about cleaning, loses himself until finally he grows hungry. Dark approaches the sodden oaks along their street. He calls again, isn’t answered. He worries. Around their home the accumulation of years and distance begins to fade as he paces through it, checking at the window for her candy-apple red sedan. Under cover of rain and night the neighborhood grows casually morose, too few vehicles at last fleeing work to any of the homes, and he finally turns the blinds closed.

Thunder, and the rain begins to drum thickly, impatiently. As a boy Nathan lived on an old dairy farm, and he fell asleep many nights listening to rain beat the tin of that farmhouse. After particularly heavy storms they’d ride along the Richland Creek valley and see it spread muddy and churning across wide, low bottomland. Miles and miles under water creeping to the raised bank of the road before the pavement finally turned away, uphill. For years after he dreamed of driving stretches of highway along unknown rivers and crossing stretches of water-covered road, something his parents never did. Nathan remembers one of those recurring dreams now: in the passenger seat beside Adena as she eased them onto a flooded roadway, steering too far to the deep water of the sloping shoulder and throwing a column of water, insistently maintaining her lane, until finally Nathan reached over and jerked the wheel to the center again, straddling the yellow lines, and woke to the dry channel of their bed.

He thinks of this and dials her phone again. He waits for her voicemail.

“Darling,” he says. “Don’t watch where the road goes—look where you are. Be careful.”

That’s the important thing. Nathan holds to it and sits. Lightning flashes through the room, thunder peeling so close behind he knows immediately they’re at the heart. He closes his eyes and opens them again. The power may fail. He listens for the hammer and flail of the wind to turn the low churn and chug of worse. Nathan taps his foot against the rising of waters and falling sky and closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he expects to see Adena home and safe and standing before him.

image: Tara Wray


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