Where I Write #8: The Strange Nooks of Our Bodies

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They’re all means of transportation, if in various states of disrepair: a crooked wooden airplane I bought from a street vendor with a smile equally askant, a rust-covered turn of the century iron wheel a friend found buried in her backyard, a weighty brass figurine of a horse attached to a chipped wooden base. Below them are two terrariums that only require watering once a week; a faded photograph of my mother, holding a giggling infant I’d later call my sister, determined to love her; and a bouquet of yellow tulips I bought in an effort to expedite spring. Behind me there’s a bed that hasn’t seen anyone but myself since I purchased it four months ago when I moved across the country, and I make it every morning.

Directly out a sliding glass door roars the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Sometimes it’s a comforting mythology, all the people going away and coming back, and on other occasions I resent the trembling it incites–I supply enough of that on my own. The walls are decidedly bare, save the shelves I mounted to hold my books. I don’t hang photographs of friends anymore, not because I don’t love them, but because I understand thoroughly now that families built on circumstance are just that. Three blocks away is a park Walt Whitman commissioned, and I sit on a bench I imagine he loved particularly, make my own promises to California, and negotiate poems concerning my longitude and latitude. The children there are spectacular: clean, loved, laughed with. The other Saturday I watched a little boy run up a hill and call back to his friend, some twenty feet behind: “Are you having fun, Marcus? Are you warm? Are you happy?”

*

At this time last year and through the spring, I was wrestling with a longer work in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I spent afternoons scribbling in a hazy pool hall that didn’t allow women until the late seventies, where men sat on ducktaped barstools quite content to die under signs that read “Harassing Me About My Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” and “A Quaint Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.”  Almost exclusively the only other females that entered were either grizzled into a kind of gender ambiguity or young prostitutes with pretty eyes but bad teeth, and both sorts looked at me like they either wanted to drink my blood or draw and spill it. The men, the majority of whom were there every day, betted hundreds of dollars on an involved game of pool called Golf that lasted upwards of three hours. They wagered more than they could afford, and frequently I overheard requests for loans, which were gladly given by those who also understood the need to make solid things move and connect. The only immaculate aspects of that place were the felt on the tables and the clean tinks of one beer bottle saluting another. The bartenders generally turned their heads when fights broke out, which they did in spades, and almost predictably right around when the sun went down and the losers started panicking. At this point I started back to the leaning house where I stayed and wrote some more in one of the porch’s several half-broken camping chairs. Sometimes I stopped to consider the pulsing coming from upstairs, where my roommate, a twenty year old with a mess of brown curls and a room painted pink and turquoise and yellow, took Adderall and made insane music under the title of Messy Sparkles.

*

I returned to San Francisco in time for the summer, to a railroad flat in the heart of the Mission District that featured, in dingy lights, a revolving cast of tenants navigating different varieties of lost; I felt grateful for the lock on my door. I kept the windows open and listened as the bars full of people I’d kissed let out and the transvestite just across the way screamed into a telephone. “GIRL,” he’d screech-gossip all day long, “THAT NASTY, NASTY, NASTY.” A filthy string of bells hung on the front door, which quivered and slammed, and two dusty cats ran up and down the hallway all evening. On some nights their owners, a couple descending darkly into their thirties in the back room, laid on the floor by the heater with telling dilated pupils and transmitted drugged murmurs that snuck into my room through the vent. I digested the many rhythms as best I could and hit the keyboard with exaggerated force.  With the city’s rare gift of a warm evening, I’d sit out on the marble stoop in sight of the library’s elaborate crown molding, but it was nearly impossible to accommodate my narrative there; there was always someone beautiful stopping by and leaning across the iron gate, on their way to languish in the park or on some rooftop, and one day I woke up and realized that I’d spread all things interior and precious so thin they’d snapped. I’d been greedy with California’s gifts and could no longer accept or value them, and so when a girlfriend of mine with red hair and an unyielding Michigan-bred optimism said New York, I said yes.

*

I could claim that I started writing seriously in my hometown, but I’m hesitant to prescribe a location or assign an origin; the way I see and know it, words always begin in the strange nooks of our bodies and work their way outward. In any case, growing up, I put words to paper on the aching docks of a filthy estuary everyone felt content to accept as a river. It ambled weakly beneath views of a decomposing railroad that hadn’t carried anyone in years and a long-obsolete mill, the roof of which proved accessible by a series of complicated maneuvers and angled downward so that it provided privacy like a city all its own; I wrote there, too. Later, a tiny, sweltering bedroom in Southern California that I sloppily painted olive green, the large windows of which opened onto the farmer’s market where I spent my little money on sunflowers; airports and airplanes, always generous with time and space; busses and trains full of people smelling like too many years and breathing on each other. Once, when I began weeping on a crowded 6 or 7 snaking its way down from the Haight and through the bad stretch of middle Market street, an old man looked me boldly in the eye and told me to give it to god; I nodded like I understood and wrote that down, too.

Tonight, it’s Brooklyn, in a bland modern building that rose to face six lines of freeway traffic six years ago, the walls unadulterated though there’s still much else hanging in front of me, my bed made and clean and ready to lie in, and two terrariums of green spikes and dirt and pebbles that don’t ask much. I look up at them fondly, relegate the winter to whoever wants it, and think: little, but green, but growing.


Kathleen Alcott’s first words were “Ooh, the lights,” and they will probably be her last. Her debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is forthcoming from Other Press in September of 2012. She came of age in Northern California, studied in Southern California, fell in love with San Francisco, hid for a while in Arkansas, and presently resides in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, American Short Fiction, Rumpus Women Vol. 1, and The Bold Italic. A copywriter by day, she is currently at work on her second novel, a book that traces the lives of four tenants of an apartment building in New York City and their rapidly deteriorating landlord. Excerpts and thoughts at kathleenalcott.com. More from this author →