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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"The Bell Rope," by M. J. Clement (September 22, 1999)
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't want to cause any trouble, no parent should have to go through this, death of a child is a cruel thing."

"Everyone Please Be Careful," by Lucia Nevai (August 25, 1999)
"He's more than a pet, my baby, less than an actual socialized man."

"Fundamentals of Communication," by Thisbe Nissen (July 28, 1999)
"Communications is not my field. I teach Fundamentals of Acting I and II. I used to do the Dramatic Monologue, alternating semesters with Advanced Improvisation."

"Vigil," by David Gates (June 23, 1999)
"I had a fool thought -- probably due to that pill, because I could feel it coming over me pretty strong now. I thought that she'd lived a good long life and for that reason she'd been chosen to take Bonnie's place."

"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"The hens have been my livelihood, but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War."

"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
A note from Atlantic Unbound's fiction editor.

See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

October 20, 1999

Be Here Now, by Lisa Zeidner

Alice bought a little blank leather book at a Barnes & Noble. She felt slightly foolish to fall for an "old-fashioned" object made in Taiwan. But she knew that every time her hand brushed the book, when she reached into her purse for her wallet or car keys, she would feel good. One had to surrender to these tiny pleasures, these intimations of bounty. It was as close as grown-ups got to Christmas' twinkling lights, bright surprises in the stocking.

She had a pen she liked too, a purple rolling writer. She resolved that every day she would write one thing in the book that was happy. It didn't have to be big. It could even be the feel of the ink of the rolling writer, the succulent noise it made as it slid, glistening, onto the paper.

This book
This pen
Paper DRINKS ink (how fresh pasta sops up olive oil?)
Sitting in the sun, writing
She wrote the lines above in her own backyard. The point of this yard had been for her children to have somewhere safe to play, but they were too old for that now. Neither Alice nor her husband was a gardener -- the most either did was run the mower -- so there were no Martha Stewarty tableaux, just a bedraggled picnic table, the gas grill with its carcinogenic crust that they really should scrape down, and the shovels, ladders, and buckets that never quite made it back into the basement or garage.

Around the garage, weeds sprouted. Every day as Alice relaxed at the picnic table after work with a glass of wine, her eye would snag on those weeds. The tufts looked like the hair that grows out of a mole. She would put the words "Weed Be Gone" on the shopping list that was merely mental, because the real list was in the kitchen. But she would not get up to write it down physically, which is why she never bought weed killer. Instead, the fact of failing to write down the words "Weed Be Gone" became a step in the line-dance of thought that began with the image of the mole sprouting hair and ended with the awareness that in the time it would take to stand up, go to the kitchen, find a pen (she had a bad habit of separating the pen from its appointed place near the pad, which aggravated her husband far out of proportion), and write down the phrase "Weed Be Gone," she could also walk to the garage and find whatever the tool is called that yanks out a dandelion by its root. A satisfying motion that causes, when you bend from the waist, a teasing, semisexual tension in the hamstrings. But why should she, when the whole point was to sit here and unwind? Especially since, when she came back, some kind of gnat would be floating in the wine. She would have to spill it out. And then it would not feel right, so close to dinnertime, to pour another.

Now, however, she had a pen and paper. Her leather book. Her purple pen. She could write, on the page that contained the Happy Thought about writing in the book, the words "Weed Be Gone." Circle them. Festoon the circle with arrows, tail ends baroquely doodled. Of course "weed killer" did not exactly count as a happy thought. Or a thought at all. It was merely a reminder -- though she did find the brand name clever. In saying it, by default, she became a bit Elizabethan (avaunt, damn weed!), an interesting posture toward unwanted nature. If she wrote "Weed Be Gone" in smaller print, next to the phrase "Paper DRINKS the ink," she would capture some of the feelings that the weeds provoked when she sat in the backyard drinking her wine, and that was a happy thought, finally. Happy in its very evanescence.

Thought Be Gone!

Thought was killed, anyhow, by some kind of weightlifters' or rugby grunt-shout from her son's bedroom, overhead. He and his friend had slain a computer opponent, or gained access to some horrific pedophile's Web site. The world was out there, always. This is why she never brought the newspaper with her for the wine at the picnic table. The world was for coffee, in the morning. Start your day with a nice color photograph of a civilian in Sierra Leone who had seen both of his hands chopped off with a machete and you could feel lucky to struggle through rush-hour traffic to a job that required no true competence, and not ask too many questions about your ultimate contribution to civilization.

Last year a close friend of Alice's had been diagnosed with cancer, had threatened to die. But the mastectomy and chemo had been successful. No matter how many times Alice had promised herself that she would more often pause to appreciate what she had -- family, friends, (relative) freedom, (relative) financial stability and, of course, health -- it seemed impossible not to slip back into taking things for granted. Hence this book.

Maggie OK
Maggie & me as each other's Maid of H.
Maggie & me at each other's kids' weddings
Everyone knows that misery is messy. But happiness, Alice thought, is messy too. Dense, busy. Weed-studded.

The next day, all she would think to write in the book would be "What part of NO don't you understand?": a phrase that irked her every time she heard it, as did "Who died and made you God?" But the dislike itself -- the very noting and consecrating of it -- would feel good.

"Be here now" was the slogan when she was in college, and "What, me worry?" Even during sex she could be made to feel inadequately bliss-centered, not cosmically enough tuned to the mysteries. Maybe you had to have children to recognize that rhetoric for the crock of shit it is. Kids offer the sundry Hallmark moment, but day-to-day with kids -- their endless needs, their bad taste in clothes and movies, their whining, their dirty hair and stinky feet -- you grow to accept how you love them through the irritation. The love is impure and the days are, too.

Mike home from work
Hard-day sigh/tie over shoulder
Stand up to pour his wine like good little wifey
What if, tomorrow, Alice should get hit by a car? This is the last time he returns to her, musty and rumpled. The last wine she pours. Their last supper. "Al? You out there?" He doesn't know yet -- the grim-faced policemen have not yet arrived at the door, badges glinting -- but he is not concerned. Their children are old enough to be trusted at home after school. Old enough to not be destroyed by losing their mother. Still. "Did your mother call?"

Her eyes sting as she pictures them fishing her purse from the wreckage to find her I.D. The leather book falls out, pristine. The dead woman's Happy Thoughts and so very, very few of them. Cut off in her prime! And still no weed killer!

Alone at the picnic table, Alice happily contemplates her demise. What would she do differently if she knew? Rush up to Mike, weeping, lead him right to bed? Make a huddle with the children, tell them gently and bravely? No, the noble thing would be to do exactly what she is doing now. Enjoy her sweet-and-sour solitude, proper happy-hour buzz on.

And there is her Happy Thought. Talk about Live each day as if it is your last: everything is just as it should be. She misses herself already.

Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Lisa Zeidner has published four novels, most recently
Layover (1999), and two books of poems. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in GQ, The New York Times, Salon, and elsewhere. She is the Director of the Graduate Program in English at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

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