This month we feature two outstanding stories:
“The Dry Sink” and “Terror Management.”
The Dry Sink
by Ash Krafton
“My sink is dry,” David replied after I’d asked him how things were going.
“I’m confused,” I said, moving the phone to my other ear. “Did you have a problem with the plumbing?”
My older brother and I have very different lives, and sometimes I’m amazed our genetic link remained intact when every other similarity seemed to have vanished. We’d grown up as complete opposites despite our similarities; sibling individuality was something you never outgrew, even after you’d become an adult and moved far away—or maybe those things magnified it.
We keep in touch the modern way—by email and cell phones—always in between some mad rush or another. We usually speak on the phone a few times a month. I’ll admit, with a fair amount of shame, that he usually does the dialing; as much as I look forward to the brief conversations, I don’t often initiate them. Just one more example of him being the better of the two of us, and another reason for me to alternately admire and disparage him.
I like his phone calls. They give me an excuse to stop folding laundry or reviewing homework. To simply sit and talk. Sometimes, when I’m far behind in my household duties, I feel a little guilty about these non-productive downtimes but most of the time I cherished them.
“It’s something Mom said,” David explained. “You know. Your life is under control when your sink is dry. Everything’s in order and the dishes are long done, so you can just sit back and relax.”
“Hmmph. That never happens in my house.” I thought about the particularly large pile sitting in my sink, waiting for chapped hands and sponge.
“Not with those two kids of yours.” He laughed and turned the subject to his niece and nephew. “Are they in bed yet?”
I flagged down a speeding child and handed her the phone. “Talk to your uncle.” She chattered away as I headed into the kitchen. His sink was dry. Nice of him to rub it in.
For some reason, that sink phrase stuck with me over the next several days.
My life is essentially defined by my family. My husband and I are graduate-degreed professionals, working full-time. But my career as mother and wife is the focus of my curriculum vitae. Our two elementary-school-aged children are involved in cheerleading, Scouting, and music lessons. My husband’s three-hour daily commute, housekeeping, and the volunteer work I do for the kid’s small Catholic school soak up many of the hours that we aren’t “on the clock.” There are no wasted minutes in our days.
As every parent knows, there’s always work to do, bills to pay, something to keep you from sitting down and doing absolutely nothing. I carry a tote bag full of notepads hoping for ten minutes of idle time. I can’t recline on the couch without seeing a rug that needs vacuuming or shoes that need picking up. It’s a disease.
My brother doesn’t have these problems. He and his wife have only one child, a cockatiel named Nibbles. Nibbles doesn’t leave a trail of toys and assorted debris from one room to the next. My sister-in-law doesn’t need to be chased with a bamboo spoon and told several hundred times each evening to brush her teeth. They have favorite TV shows that they watch every week. They garden for fun. They dine out with friends. They are individuals, not mere extensions of their offspring.
David does adult leisure things, while I mainly do child and work stuff. Our lives are completely opposite of each other, yet somehow we manage to connect. He calls when he’s relaxed and comfortable; I answer just to take a small break from my contented chaos. I won’t say we ever meet in the middle; it’s more like neutral ground.
Eventually I decided the dry sink phenomenon was nothing more than a myth. A symbol of utopia that regular mortals like me would probably never realize. At least not until the children were in college.
I’d just finished checking homework when the phone rang. A quick look at the caller ID showed it was David so I decided it’d be safe to answer the phone. The last two calls had been my scheduler looking for me to pick up extra shifts and a PTO parent asking for volunteers. I let the machine screen those calls.
“You sound tired,” he said as if it were something recently discovered.
I shrugged. When wasn’t I tired? “Kids want a trip to Baltimore this weekend. I’m trying to work ahead so we can go. That dry sink of yours has become a monkey on my back.”
David laughed, the full-throated superior sound he’d perfected when we were teenagers. “My dry sink? Why?”
“Just because your dishes are done doesn’t mean your life is perfect.”
“Is it ever perfect? Is it ever going to be perfect? Life doesn’t have a single finish line. It’s a collection of challenges, each with its own victory. Sometimes they’re big, like a promotion or a new baby.” His voice drifted lower, and he sounded pensive. “Other times they’re the size of a dry sink.”
Later that evening as I prepared for our trip, I thought about the things that I’d be neglecting by going away: perpetual piles of laundry, a basement that desperately needed organizing, the grape arbor with its fat bunches ready to be picked, juiced, and jammed. I shuddered to think what tasks might be waiting on my desk.
All of it made me realize I wanted time off with my family. It was the day after my wedding anniversary, which I’d spent at work on a twelve-hour shift. My husband had sent flowers. I spent more time with the roses than I did with him. I wanted time walking and holding hands with him, time to have fun with the kids and lounge around a hotel where I didn’t have to fix the beds or pick up the towels.
My brother’s voice echoed in my head as I remembered our last conversation, and I decided I was going to make that time. It was long overdue.
The morning we departed we were surprisingly organized and about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Just enough time to run the vacuum cleaner around one last time and straighten the kitchen so that the in-laws wouldn’t make faces when they came to let the dog out.
At the last minute, I ducked back inside. My husband tapped his horn and the kids called my name but I took a moment to wash the last few dishes and drape the towel over the faucet. It was a quiet little ceremony that only the dog and I witnessed. I headed back out to the car, making an excuse about forgetting to shut off a light and feeling a peculiar sense of accomplishment.
I smiled as we drove off. By the time we arrived in Baltimore where the sun shone off the harbor waters, I watched the kids sprint eagerly along the walkway towards the Science Center, and I knew my sink was dry, at least for one day. It was enough.
~ ~ ~
by Dawn Proctor
There is an unexpected moment, experienced only on a double Ferris wheel, when, midway between ground and sky, the car slows, trembles, and stops. Once intent on going around, the rider is now fixed, sitting up high, gazing out and down, with the entire second wheel continues to rotate. The passenger sits motionless, captured and held, helpless, within feet of this giant human fan, so close she can feel its breeze on her face. Talk and laughter rise up, grow distinct, then fade into the rising sound of the next. For a brief moment, she is an unwilling witness to the entire random, colorful community. Until, with a sudden and silky jerk, the wheel turns, spinning along once again. It is the beginning of the end. Of the ride. Of the summer. Of her life. And she knows it.
She went to the county fair every year. The lack of change drawing her there. Something about the fair was too cumbersome to change. There were too many details, too many small, moving parts. The animals, the exhibits, the rides, the booths, the games. This year, it felt urgent to return. Life had started moving too fast. She inhaled the thousands of tiny decisions and, finally, cast in favor of continuity.
Turning fifty had felt like turning twenty. As if the force of the world was suddenly aligned directly behind her, pushing her forward. Rather rudely. Like it or not. Faster than she planned. Much faster than she liked. From the milestone on, the world will see her differently. Its expectations of her will be altered and for some unfathomable reason, she will obligingly adjust. And no matter how hard she tries not to, she will see herself differently. She understood. Affairs with young secretaries. Impulse buying and red Corvettes. These seemed like rather mild reactions to the overwhelming terror of realizing her time on earth was undeniably limited. When she stopped to consider the ramifications of growing old, suicide bombings seemed less mysterious.
She passed the entrance to the fun house and was offered a dirty, fleeting view of herself. She looked much like she had at twenty, but wider and flatter somehow. Same colors. Same shapes. Less dimension. As if she has gone through many washings. The changes didn’t bother her as much as she was told they should. Admiration was a reflex, after all. Men’s eyes, once activated, reacted to the same colors, the same shapes. Not much of a compliment, really. These days, she felt mostly relieved from seeing herself through their eyes and from the self-consciousness of their appetites. From the daunting responsibility of satisfying their desire.
But she was alarmed by an unscripted softness in her skin. In the landscape beneath her throat, over her breasts and the slight swell of her stomach. Involuntarily, she stroked and registered the changes. By themselves they gave a pleasant, even inviting, softness. Her skin gave way to touch, was less defensive than the proud, taut bellies on summer display. But she knows, this softness is only a distraction from the disintegration to come—a Trojan horse of softness bearing its decay safely inside now but fated to conquer the city-temple of her body. She remembers what her skin felt like, tan and taut at twenty. Irresistible. Now, just the thought of anyone seeing her stomach was terrifying.
The cracked concrete walk had grown sticky and gritty along with the size of the Friday night crowd. There were so many young people at the fair, more than she had seen in one place in a long time. They were too loud, made giddy by the invincible smell of popcorn and flashing islands of neon, intoxicated by the expanse of uncharted night before them. There was power in numbers. Groups didn’t care how much attention they attracted. But she could also see the others, the loners, the awkward pairs, dressed oddly alike, wanting to be there and trying not to be different. This she understood.
At twenty, she had wanted more than anything to be cool. To belong. Maybe even be admired. But with the beauty of youth had come an all-consuming self-consciousness that kept her from feeling as good in any moment as she might have. Navigating days, wondering what other people thought of her, was the substrate of her life. Still, she felt oddly fortunate to be that aware. Not everyone seemed to be able to admit they were unhappy.
She escaped into the bright overhead light of the exhibit pavilion where people showed they could still make jam, bake pies from scratch, and handcraft clothes. She couldn’t picture the faces behind these proud, simple offerings. What had they been thinking, hunkered down for hours or days in attics, kitchens and barns, hoping for nothing more than blue ribbons? How happy were they, day to day? And just how aware of self were they, and the rest of us, meant to be? What was the right amount of self-consciousness, to set the boundaries and insulate us from the modern world, yet allow the freedom to express individuality and find fulfillment in a lifetime? On this planet and in this time, what would optimum intelligence look like?
Albert Einstein sought the Nobel Prize not to elevate humanity to heights of new insight and understanding. He owed the prize money to his ex-wife as delinquent child support. Somehow that made sense. Would anyone strike out in search of intelligence if it did not meet some immediate personal need? For money, success, or blue ribbons? She was confident there were no Nobels in her future, but she acknowledged there were serious debts to be paid. Unfilled promises. From herself to herself. The biggest promise of all, of course, crafted in her child mind while watching Disney movies, cast in cement by parental promises: Someday, she would be happy. She was still waiting for that day. What if she died before it arrived?
She entered another remote, air conditioned room, filled with oddly stilted, browning flower arrangements. A single dahlia in a cheap white milk vase. Wilted wedding bouquets. Maybe humans couldn’t afford to comprehend their own mortality. Was it a successful adaptation to be smart enough to comprehend the futility of existence? In this new century, over-thinking, not nuclear war, was probably the greatest threat to survival.
Maybe suicide was a uniquely self-directed form of extinction, selecting those too intelligent, too sensitive for this world. An extinction they had to carry out for themselves. Like lemmings to the sea. A selfless act of personal annihilation, made in the interest of the greater good. Ecstasy, the drug kids were so into these days, had been developed by scientists to treat battle fatigue. Taking it helped veterans reconnect with people, gave them a more positive outlook on life, reduced their stress. Meanwhile, stress aggravated the growth of cancer. It seemed logical to her. If we all took ecstasy, there would there be less cancer. And less suicide. Maybe then we could afford to get smarter. Smart enough to survive.
Entranced with the order of the displays, she was drawn into a small room and found her favorite part of the fair. Plain, open wooden boxes, probably built fifty years earlier. Wrestled from storage each year for this lone show. A foot square, painted white inside and out, they held a sampling of once fresh vegetables, arranged in precise rows, or laid out in artistic fans. Contrived and organic at the same time. A tidy formation of green beans. A regiment of tiny, red potatoes. Turnip exclamation points. Man-made order out of natural chaos. She wanted to see the face of each young person behind the boxes, look into their eyes and know them. Did they suffer each day, as she had, worrying about how they, and their box, would appear to others? Did they find relief in laying out these military honors to the miracle of soil, water, and light?
It was getting late, but she didn’t want to leave. Outside this fair, progress was relentless. She was a grandmother already. Not that it had been planned. A loveless liaison had produced a loving child. Where was the cosmic sense in that? When had children become the parting gifts of failed relationships? And no one had asked her if she was ready to move on to the next stage of her life. It hadn’t mattered that she was still struggling to master the cell phone, manage email, maintain a marriage, resolve her life. Someone else was looking to her now, for all the wisdom her position implied. She’d felt inadequate and found herself mimicking her grandmother’s routines, regurgitating her opinions, returning to what she knew whether it was best or not. And with that came the unfriendliest fact of all: Grandma would be the next to die. When had that become her agenda, her place in the universe of people in her life? It had happened with lightning speed. To the world, she was the elder woman now—the wiser woman. It made no difference that inside she still felt twenty.
Did every generation feel that way? Someone invented the automobile in her grandmother’s lifetime, but she’d never bothered to get a license. She was sure it was only a fad. What on earth was that like? Born at a horse’s pace and buried at a car’s. Or was this technology-fueled ride as fast and furious as it felt? Now, instead of rockets to the moon we were naming new galaxies, cloning dogs, and tracking down Jesus’ children. She wondered, did Jesus ever pay child support? How much did a carpenter make two millennia ago? And what was his motivation for trying to save humanity from its unmoral self? Maybe the Old Testament had it right, like Noah and the Ark, sometimes it’s better to wipe the slate clean and start over. Maybe the whole New Testament, the Jesus story, was wishful thinking. In this tale, people get another chance. With the delicacy of a neutron bomb, he selects only sin for extinction.
Passing into the final room, she found the science projects. The resurrection of papier-mache, keeping some obscure company in business. Hand-hewn towel racks and cutting boards, always of oak. Poster boards detailing the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption and building of Pyramids. The ancient Egyptians believed a soul split into two parts at death. One part went to heaven, surrounded by all the things accumulated in a lifetime and buried with the mummy. What if it wasn’t permissible to choose the things you were going to be buried with? What if, arriving in the afterlife, the departed was surrounded by all the things she’d thrown out, the garbage she’d made. Would that be hell?
But there was more, the second part that remained—Ba, it was called—was the soul, the personality of the deceased. This part had the power to affect the lives of people on earth. Strange, how the part that stuck around was the truly troublesome part. She wondered how crowded with personalities was the air she was breathing? She could certainly feel them here, as tangible as brick or those fantastic apron-wearing farm wives, arms as thick and strong as their husbands’, who rose early, cooked all day, encouraged their children, and never wondered if life had a point.
When did we stop caring about what other people thought? Would she just wake up one morning and it would be done? Like when she woke to a need for bifocals, seemingly suddenly and overnight. Would it be like that? At eighty, people don’t care at all. That’s what Bette Davis said. She said she thought turning seventy was great until she turned eighty. She couldn’t wait to turn ninety. That was going to be truly fabulous, she said, with her tiny, wasting frame and piercing eyes. What was she referring to exactly? It had something to do with laying down the expectations of others to allow yourself to keep learning. It was visible in Bette’s falling, sinking face. An openness that made so many things possible, an ever-widening horizon. Thank God, for an unwilling, self-conscious geriatric is a pitiful sight, indeed.
Maybe that was death. The day one stops caring what others’ think. The day we’re too tired or too set in our ways to learn one more new thing. The day we know all that matters. Maybe that was why John Lennon and Martin Luther King were plucked off the planet at what seemed to be the height of their contentment and wisdom. There was nothing left on this earth for them to know.
Now it was late. Reluctantly, she headed for the exit, wondering what was the compensation for longing looks lost? For relevance relinquished? Would there be an easing of self-awareness? Some people never seemed to suffer from it at all. Like Katherine Hepburn, who, it seems, never gave a hoot to begin with. Just how did you raise a person like that? What was the magic formula for someone to be fully realized inside their own skin? She wanted her grandchildren to grow that way and have their dreams came true just because they had decided it would be so—the American dream. Trouble was, America kept having the same dream: Freedom for everyone and the right to pursue happiness. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if everyone pursued their own happiness, they were bound to bump into one another sooner or later. That’s what was happening now. Everyone was bumping into each other all over the world, needing to choose who would give up some of their ground. Everyone had a good argument about why it shouldn’t be them. And so the wheel spins. For most, inadvertently, carelessly. For others, deliberately, and with unbelievable cruelty.
The lights and sounds of the fair faded as she walked and her own footsteps grew louder. Noise behind her tugged at her, and it didn’t seem right to be going at the height of the laughter, the pinnacle of the party.
Driving out of the parking lot she passed a shiny Model T just pulling in. Surprisingly, there was a young man at the wheel. Usually, there would be someone more the car’s same vintage there, gripping the trappings of their youth, grimly absorbed in the sound of the engine. She passed close enough to see his clean white t-shirt, cropped blond hair and slight, sunny grin. In that moment, he looked completely happy. For him, it was enough that the evening was beginning and that the engine was running at all. She felt the purity of his joy and recognized it as her reward, the offsetting allowance delivered precisely on time, as if due by age and experience. It was that ability to remember as real and feel another’s feelings—a sixth sense. She had heard, if you entered a room with a projection, a belief about people, it manifested, it became real, transferred like a vibration. People absorbed your energy, carried by ions in the air. It was a gift that could move both ways. We were all capable of giving it, in any moment, in any place. It was empathy. Consideration. Grace.
She realized she had indeed learned some things worth knowing: Carnival food will always leave you nauseous. Having children was a cheap way to make yourself important. And the height of summer was really the start of fall.