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September 2017

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Twice now I’ve been to Finishing Class at a terrific little workspace called Good, started up by a wonderful arts organizer and her partner, who recently moved back to town.

Finishing Class is a monthly event wherein you show up to sit down at a long hand-made table with other people who want to Finish Something. Once greetings are given and tea is made, together you each set to work on your Something, and try to get it or some stage or draft or piece of it Finished by the end of two hours (but this is not strictly enforced).

At the end of Finishing Class, you get a gold star. At the break, you get a home-baked treat made by the proprietor herself. Last time it was a perfect brownie. This time it was a maple butter tart.

Even though the process is more than half a game, the focus and the title and the deadline function, underground in the mind, to make you want to Finish your Something.

Last time I had no idea what I was going to work on, and felt a bit nervous about that, and then my brain very kindly offered me the use of a short story idea. Without the class I don't think I'd have written it at all. Last time, I drafted the story to the end, and tonight I second-drafted it and patched the ending together a bit. And by posting it here, I finish my Finishing for tonight.

I like that it arrived, I'm glad that it stayed, but I don't know what it amounts to. Not that it has to amount to anything. It was a happy thing just to make it.

Anyway, here it is.

The New Sea

At that time, the best part of my day was the walk to work, and only the early parts of that were truly pleasant. There were some crowded half-wild gardens near the swimming pool on West Dairy Road that I liked. I often tried to take original and interesting pictures of the flowers, but when I scrolled through the images afterwards I could not remember why they were supposed to be interesting.

My phone didn't take pictures very well. The shutter speed seemed to have become fixed at a very slow setting, so that all images came out like time-lapse photos, and any casual shots of people looked like ghosts. The phone was given to me by a friend that I no longer spoke to. She'd put a sticker on the back of a happy skeleton eating a rose, so I felt sentimental about the phone and did not want to replace it.

The white cat swirled like a contrail through the poppies. It left a long tracer of itself that flowed and faded in the shadows under the leaves. I did not want to look directly at the cat, but sometimes it ran ahead and I saw it smear its long white self along the gray road, attenuated, multiplied. I glanced away, meeting the eye of the yellow house with the four unequal voids in its face, its uneven masses and fence of asymmetrical security stone. I looked back. The cat was disappearing under the fence of the dairy.

The dairy stood at the end of the street. It prevented me from walking directly to my bus stop. Instead, I had to detour via a small side street, then back to the main road. The dairy did not usually have a smell except for the exhaust of the delivery trucks, but today I thought there was something sour in its atmosphere.

The white cat was spooling its very slow self in among the steel scaffolding at the base of the milk tanks, a cluster of blank towers. I glanced up the great central canister. I am not a very good judge of distances, but I thought it might be twenty stories tall. I tried to think about all of the milk inside it at once, the dense white milk from top to bottom.

"How would you like that?" I asked the cat. It was really only a half-grown kitten, quite young to have learned already to smear itself through visible space and perceptible time like a chalk line. "You'd like it at first," I said, "swimming around in the milk and drinking the milk you were swimming around in, but later you’d get tired and you would start to be afraid."

The cat had crawled in under the round railings, into the shadow that lipped beyond the tank. It pressed its face into the ground and its face spread out into a white pool. I looked away, observing it from the corner of my eye. It was only an adolescent kitten drinking milk from the splashes on the dark pebbled concrete.

I watched the cat for a little while, alternately using full vision and corner-vision. I checked the time, deliberated, then walked to the grimy blue door of the main building and knocked. The dairy machinery hummed roughly to itself like a giant feeling very upset but not admitting it. No one answered my knock. I went back down the stairs and looked at the cat again, melting and reforming. A man in a white cap and dirty white overalls appeared and began to climb into the cab of his truck. I waved at him.

"Excuse me," I said, "I'm sorry, but I think one of the tanks may be leaking. Or perhaps some milk has spilled."

"Oh yeah?" He looked vaguely where I pointed.

"The cat's drinking the milk," I explained.

"Well, then, he's taking care of it, isn’t he?" My eyes stung with embarrassment. "I'll let someone know," he said, and smiled a very small smile, a single-point smile in the centre of his mouth almost collapsing into itself and emerging as a new smile somewhere else.

"Thank you." I said. I stepped back so that the truck could pull away.

I was now very probably late for work, so I also left. The cat must have stayed.

The bus stop was two long blocks further – not very far, but you never thought of the dairy once you were past it. You only thought of the traffic and of whether the bus that came first would be the express, and get you to work early, or the local, and get you there late. Or that is what I thought about.

Sometimes I thought about how to say good morning to my office mate with the proper level of optimism. Jim was very intelligent and very nervous. He did not like me to eat my lunch in our office because of the smell. Taped above his desk were the high achievement certificate he’d won four years ago and a map of James Joyce's Dublin. Jim was content; I was mostly forms, though of course there’s always overlap. It is true that boiled eggs often smell sulphurous, so I ate my lunch by the printer or, if it were fine out, sitting on the parking-lot planter under the holly bush. Sometimes I brought a damp paper towel to wipe the dust from the holly leaves.

Neither the express nor the local came, only three Not in Service buses and then the airport shuttle.

There was always a difficult moment just on the last leg of my walk where I detoured around the dairy, because on the little side street there was another bus stop. This stop was for a small neighborhood bus that travelled in the opposite direction, back the way I had come. In fact, it went almost directly to my house. I invariably struggled at least a little bit with the impulse to get on it and go home. On the day after my last day at work, I did exactly this. I walked only as far as the little side street. Because the journey was so automatic, I sometimes forgot between one step and the next that I was not going to work as usual, and I felt sad. Then, on the next footfall, I would remember, and feel sad in a different way. I waited for the small neighborhood bus, which took longer to arrive than I expected, and I rode it home. Of course, it was not all that satisfying, since I was not doing anything to resist a real imperative – just a now-useless habit that would have dissolved on its own.

On the ride to work (the express finally arrived) I had to stand, and I could not really think or relax. The bus windows were streaky and blocked by columns of frowning standers, so I could not watch the passage of the eroding farmland and the blooms of middle-value condominiums. I could not really think or relax at work, either. I had to spend a long time fixing something I or someone else had done wrong the day before. Privately, I felt sure it was someone else, yet even more privately I admitted it was probably me. I was only mediocre as a producer of forms. Like everyone else, I wanted to be content, but Jim showed me once what he did, and it was really mostly forms as well. And, of course, forms in themselves are a sort of content. I once overheard someone breaking down the design of passport applications and was almost fascinated.

There was nothing on my desk except a shiny white china cat with a hole in its back for pens, and the pens, and some rubber bands and dead memory sticks. I know it seems unlikely that I would both have a vision of the smeary white cat and also witness a white cat pen holder on my desk, but that is because coincidences are difficult to judge. Convergent events seem unusual that are not really all that unlikely. I did not see the white cat, the living white cat, every day, but I did see the pen holder every day, every working day. In fact, I did not remember seeing the living cat before that day.

I also did not think often about what was on my desk (nothing, except the computer, and the cat, and sometimes a travel mug or a plastic sandwich bag with eggshells in it, although Jim did not like this.)

It is possible that I noticed the living cat in the first place because of the pen holder. Alternatively, perhaps I am only reminded of the pen holder now because I am thinking of the living cat. In fact, I am not even sure that the holder was still on my desk at the time I am describing. One day it fell off the desk and broke. It was taken away to be fixed. I did not particularly like it. It was not my style. I don’t know how it came to be on my desk.

I remember how it came to be on my desk. The HR director put it there on the second of January, saying brightly that it was a gift for me. This was a joke. There were several items left over from the holiday gift exchange, gifts no one wanted. She was circulating through the office, putting these objects onto people’s desks. By and large these items remained where she put them, at least for a few days.

I remember how the white cat got smashed. It broke during the earthquake. I never notice the small tremors that affect this part of the world fairly frequently. Some people are woken from sleep by even faint tremors, but I am not. Sometimes I wake up feeling as though the earth is shaking, but when I put out my hand to touch the wall, it is cool and still. When I check my newsfeeds, there has been no earthquake. None close enough for me to sense, anyway. None that even a dog or a cat would respond to.

On the bus home, we encountered more traffic than usual. The woman sitting in front of me was singing along, quietly but emphatically, to her headphones. It was an angry song, a song of embittered love and revenge, and she whispered each of the harsh words precisely while she stared at the woman sitting in front of her. This second woman’s shoulders were becoming gradually more hunched as the ride went on.

The bus got more and more crowded and moved more and more slowly, as though the weight of its population were slowing it down. The woman sitting next to the whispering woman began to join in the whispering. It was not clear if this third woman knew the words as well as the first woman. I stood halfway up to pull the cord. While neither standing nor crouching, with my hand on the cord, I took a small package of heart-shaped mints from my pocket. These mints were tiny and light, almost like snowflakes. They would vanish immediately you put them in your mouth. I shook the package gently, and the mints spilled out over the women’s hair like confetti. They turned to stare at me.

“Oh no,” I said, “I am sorry.” I left the bus.

I was still far from home, though in fairly familiar terrain. A block in from the main road there was a small corner store that sold sandwiches, which I told myself I was planning to buy, and cotton candy popsicles, which I was actually planning to buy.

When I reached the store, I saw it had closed down. Brown paper was taped up inside the windows, but the edges did not meet, and I could see strips of dusty interior. There was nothing inside except a display of stale-dated New Year’s decorations. I thought of buying them and having a party where we celebrated the beginning of a past year.

I walked on into the sour evening. The cat ran out ahead of me, leaving milky footprints in the road. The pavement gradually dipped down there towards Creek Street. Bubbles clustered in the gaps of the sewer grating.

Eventually, we came to a line of yellow tape that blocked Creek Street. The cat scampered under it, but I stayed outside. A police office in rubber boots with polka dots was pacing the inside of the line, where scaffolding had been erected. About a hundred meters beyond, the lake of milk was softly swashing.

Some of the buildings in the lake were gently collapsing into themselves, and some were tilting like sleepy giants nodding towards the earth. Nothing fell violently; the security stone collapsed softly, like sugar. If you were inside, you would still be crushed, but almost noiselessly, in a drift of crumbled matter that smelled of fresh-cut grass but was hypoallergenic.

The police officer warned me that I could not cross the line. Could I take pictures? She shrugged. She did not see why not. We stood side by side while I took slow photos. It is difficult to show perspective on a flat white sea. Eventually, the police officer and I would become quite good friends.

The moon rose on a shoulder of pink cloud. We stood together and inhaled the lawn smell and the creamy milk smell and the encroaching sour smell.

“There is more milk here than can have come from the towers,” I observed as I scrolled through my pictures. In each image, small white cats’ heads were poking up and disappearing in various parts of the lake. I looked up. There they were, rising and falling, smirking cattily at me. I tilted my head and used my peripheral vision. They were still there.

“Breached the underground tanks,” said the police officer. “And then it just catalyzes the whole process, you know.” I nodded as though I did know. “It’s under control now,” she said with a burst of authority. “The shore has already retreated about twenty meters.” Of course, that turned out simply to be the tide.


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