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Palmer Square: Summer IV


The next morning, I woke up and closed the job descriptions and threw the books off of my bed. I rubbed my temples for a solid five minutes and groaned.

I committed to writing for 30 minutes about the blueness of the sky outside my bedroom window. Its particular shade looked so deep that it seemed almost purple. Contrails from an ascending jet sliced a line of white across an upper pane. An icy brushstroke of exhaust. This felt better than data. It made me indignant. As in, you know what, why shouldn’t we welcome the opportunity to (c.f. Zagajewski) praise the mutilated world? Didn’t it ennoble us, refresh us, call us back to elemental appreciations when we stared without purpose at the ample beauty of the sky? Might there not be something useful in a political campaign to hire a writer who could remind a staff of data scientists to look up at its grandeur?

“Hey guys, I don’t mean to interrupt your coding, but this is your bi-hourly reminder to stretch those little legs and gape up at our celestial dome. A reminder that all is not work, that even our dear leaders will die, and we should take time to enjoy our senses, our bodies. The tick, tick, tick of cicadas. The pleasantly cool breeze coming out of the subway.”

But that wasn’t really about the sky, so I stopped typing. And then I made a mistake and read the news for what I realized—about 60 minutes later—might have been a problematic amount of time to let elapse.

I tried to stop reading the news but sort of skipped alongside or over it. Headlines, bylines, ledes. The paragraphs became blips. More shootings on the South Side. Confused scenes of bombs detonated in commercial districts on four continents. I watched a grainy video of a beheading. The act itself horrified, sure, but more horrifying was the after-shame of having searched for and watched a beheading. The act itself was blotted out digitally. But the ease-of-access got to me. Its right thereness felt significant. I found myself on some ethically sticky terrain where I questioned what’s worse: the fact that the beheading happened—that a human did this to another human—or that collectively, we had sanctioned its availability. That we all seemed relatively nonplussed by the availability of these images. The flashing of this thought convinced me to close my computer.

I went to the kitchen and made a banana milkshake with chocolate ice cream. I poured it into a large, sturdy glass and drank it all.

I decided to call my father and ask him whether he was fearful, and whether he could impart wisdom. Because, though I thought I was starting to really lose it, I knew times had been scarier. He saw tanks in streets! He watched cities burn and riot and rage.

I got him on the phone and told him all this. He paused and sighed. “I don’t know. Things are pretty scary actually. I think we need to get a bigger TV in the living room. I’m not sure though. I’m just really not sure.”

***

Liz from Coldwell Banker came to my apartment to assess its readiness for an open house. She told me to “thin out the books,” so people could see more exposed brick. And to make sure that my record player was more “front and center” for hipsters whose ravenous appetite for the neighborhood had started to feel downright animal in its tenor and ferocity. But this was a good thing! I told her I understood, and that I would put a compilation of rare 1970’s funk music on the turntable for just this reason. I couldn’t tell if my voice registered as adequately sarcastic. She looked puzzled and began to methodically confirm elements of our contractual relationship.

I said, “Sure, 6% commission sounds like what I was expecting,” but knew I was being taken in by a web of transactions that I didn’t understand. Within me, I wanted badly to believe, was a version of myself that didn’t feel screwed constantly by people who made their living on a capacity to seem just-friendly-enough to others.

On Saturday, I vacated the apartment so strangers could walk through my bathroom and my kitchen. They would evaluate my dishwasher, my linens, the leaky toilet and the thin cracks in the grout. They would consider my organized and polished collection of bourbon bottles and would—so Liz told me—imagine themselves drinking that bourbon on their couch. They needed to get comfortable enough in the walls that contained my own life before easing into it themselves.

“I guess I should get the skeletons out of the closet then,” I said to Liz on the phone.

Silence.

“Never mind, I don’t want to look in my closet anyway. I’ll just find my uncle John!”

Liz, bless her, mustered laughter. She said, “Make sure that you’re out by 10 with the air conditioning running. We’ll email you when we’re done.”

So, that morning, I put on bike shorts and went for a long ride south along Lake Michigan, taking my exile as an opportunity to empty my head. I couldn’t read the news if I was on the bike. I could hardly think about anything other than the lactic acid in my legs. About the rhythm of my lung machines. At Promontory Point, I took off my shirt and got into the icy water up to my knees. A woman bobbed up and down in front of me in a black bathing suit. Curly gray hair.

“Are you coming in?” she asked.

“I am in,” I said.

“It doesn’t count unless you get your head wet,” she said.

She told me that she was from “the islands,” and that that Lake Michigan sometimes looks like the Caribbean. Her husband was at a conference in Belgium. She didn’t want to join him and miss two weeks of Chicago in summer. Her children had left for college. She told me she didn’t know why she was talking so much and apologized.

“Oh I don’t mind,” I say, “It’s nice not to talk about politics.”

“Don’t even start,” she said, and dove.

***

I got back to the apartment and made myself a strawberry and kiwi shake with yogurt and honey. I drank it shirtless and sweating on the kitchen tile. To think about an upcoming large transaction and to pedal my bicycle as hard as possible proved effective distractions from the apocalypse.

There were gray shoe prints on the floor. I stared at them. Nothing in the apartment moved in my absence. The pillows still sat upright on the couch, perfectly fluffed. The shower curtain appeared to be folded in the same places. The books and plants stand stood in fixed positions. But the footprints, and especially the fact that they were ghostly and gray and inconsistently distributed on the white tiles, bothered me. I stared and dripped sweat onto the floor. Someone else had been in here, had occupied this space, had observed the conditions of my self-imposed solitude. I pawed at the footprints wildly with my socks, mixing sweat into the gray dirt, erasing them.

I called Tyler.

“Someone has been in my house. Lots of someones, by the looks of it.”

“That’s good, right? It means there’s interest?”

“Sure, but now I want to ask them everything about their impressions of the place.”

And what I didn’t say is that I didn’t care whether they thought the appliances needed upgrading (they did). Or whether the furnace was on its last legs (you bet it was!). But that instead I wondered if they could help me pinpoint whether something in the walls produced an affect of heightened loneliness. Did the windowsills, when these strangers ran their fingers across them looking for dust, produce a big and empty feeling? The books on those shelves: did they signify someone who wanted to know things, or who instead merely accumulates artifacts of knowing? Did these invaders feel desperation when they approached the writing desk in the bedroom’s southwest corner?

Instead what I said was, “Yeah, well, anyway, I guess we’ll see.”

When I hung up, I plugged in my phone to charge. I walked down Belden toward Palmer Square thinking about smells that reminded me of summer. Charcoal and suntan lotion, citronella and tennis balls. I felt that frustrating distance between myself and the world begin to break down a little. I sat down on the bench and watched a group of kids passing a soccer ball back and forth.

And to be honest, I knew there was no outside of this. No ending. Only momentary respite. Only pauses. There was only plugging away in structures that we inherit and doing what we can with them.

After a while, the man and Milös trundled into the clearing. This time he wore argyle socks and a cream polo shirt with cranberry shorts. I stood up and walk to him in the clearing.

“Nice dog,” I say to him.

“Thanks,” he says. “We’ve always thought he was a shepherd mix.”

I nod and we watch Milös bark at the trees.

“It’s a small park,” he says, “but it’s a nice one.”