When the world stops making sense
I make a new alphabet.
As I drove to the meeting last week, windshield wipers feckless and smearing the blizzard across my vision, I wondered who had filed a complaint against the superintendent. In a small town, rumors radiate in the time it takes for a snowflake to float from my house to the frozen shore in a whiteout. The night before had been clear. I imagined the moon, high above the storm, waxing crescent. And the Big Dipper. I turned left onto the bypass and slid sideways into a bank of drifted snow. Pfooompf, like a fist hitting a pillow. For a moment I was relieved to have an excuse to miss the meeting. Conflict makes me uncomfortable. But the new truck has four-wheel drive and I backed away, easy as a fist from a pillow.
My daughter signed up for the spelling bee. Third grade is the first year kids can compete. She has a list of 350 words to study. In the evening while I’m making dinner, I quiz her and she asks, “Can you repeat the word?” “Can you use it in a sentence?” “May I please have a definition?” “Is there an alternate pronunciation?”
It might be two women who filed complaints. The first received an invite via text, to a hotel with a king-sized bed at an out-of-town conference. The second woman refused a late-night drunken plea for companionship that didn’t go unnoticed by other residents in the apartment building. Still, rumors.
When I was nineteen, after my first year of college, I took a year off and moved to Seattle. Each morning I rode my bike from the house I shared with seven macrobiotic college students in the University District across the bridge over Lake Union, past the St. Vincent de Paul, past the car wash with the giant pink elephant, and downtown to my job at Pike’s Place Market, at an Italian deli. A Cucina Fresca. On days it wasn’t raining, I would arrive just as the sun floated into the sky. On days it was raining, I arrived in the rain. Sometimes I stopped for an Egg McMuffin because, despite the story I told to get a room in the house, the diet was killing me.
I’m not a real reporter; I earn extra money covering the school board meetings for our weekly paper. But I do know this: I cannot report on rumors of allegations I have only heard about from my neighbor in hushed tones over coffee in my kitchen while the dog is yelping like a lunatic because the children are shrieking and tossing pieces of dog food back and forth across the living room, trying but not trying to catch the kibble in their mouths. I’m pretty sure I need more than that.
“Mama, do you know what hacienda means? Hacienda is my favorite word in the list. Try this, mama. Try to use hacienda in three sentences that aren’t even about the same thing. You have to do it in ten seconds so . . . GO!”
The owner of the Italian deli hired me the afternoon I saw the Help Wanted sign in the window. He was on his way to a nearby café and asked me join him for an interview. I ordered coffee and sat across from him as he chewed on small pieces of raw fish. He scooped some onto a cracker and thrust it toward me, “You eat ceviche?” Droplets of the lemony fish juice fell into my cup. “This is a hot batch,” he said, gulping from his beer. “The hotter the better.” I took a sip of my coffee.
Ceviche: fish pieces used for bait.
A young woman who works at the school district office just quit her job. She told a friend at church who told a teacher who told her daughter who told my neighbor, who is also a teacher, that she was uncomfortable working with her boss.I’m helping her with those confusing endings: –ent, –ant, –ence, –ance. I think of a mnemonic. The point is to associate words ending in -ent and -ence with being in a tent, which will remind her that the final vowel sound is an e, like subsistence, a word from the list. I told her, “Just think about what it means to do a subsistence activity. You’re hunting, or fishing, or picking berries. You’re out there in the country and you’re sleeping in a…”
“Yes, but you’re inside the sleeping bag inside the…”
“Do I have a headlamp, or is it still light enough to read?”
“I don’t know. Probably, yes. Anyway, it’s tent. Get it? So when you hear the word subsistence, you think of being in a tent, and then you know it’s t-e-n-c-e.”
“But tents is t-e-n-t-s, mama. Everyone knows that. Now, ask me hacienda again!”
Two or three mornings a week, when I got to work, I would ignite the giant gas burners to char red and yellow peppers until their skin was black and bulbous. When they had cooled only a little I sealed them in a plastic bag to sweat. Later I would peel away the flecks of burnt derma, slice the peppers and set them to marinate in boiled vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic. Roasted marinated peppers were a big hit.
Setting up your tent the same way each time requires consistency.
Sitting at the school board meeting is like listening to a performance of Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor at a town community hall. Minutes into the piece you feel an interminable sense of the fidgets, like the theme has been trapped in your head since 1824. You start to ascribe words like “this thing will never end” to the relentless melody. Then the piano ritardandos into what sounds like a slow and natural end, the viola answers, the piano curls around again with tune-slowing taper, and BAM! The viola jumps up again, as if on prescription tempo drugs, in a staccatoed allegro. Then you accept that the movement is nowhere near over, but you never stop hoping that each refrain will be the last, all the while resenting every drag and yowl of the brittle bow as it dances in the ring with the plunking keys, droning on until you wish one of them would just get it over with and knock the other out cold. That’s a little what it’s like.
“Mama, do quesadilla again.” My daughter lies on her back in front of the heater with her feet pressed against the grate. We can’t get warm in February because the wind skulks between the cracks and each time I chink one up I anger the wind and it finds another crack and funnels the force of the one it has been denied.
“You already know quesadilla,” I tell her from the kitchen where I’m attempting to resurrect limp lettuce.
“And use it in a sentence, but not with cheese. Make it a gross one.”
I do not want to write about the superintendent’s perhaps nefarious behavior. I’m sure I can’t call him up and ask him about it. And I can’t very well contact the women who are accusing him because, even though by now I’ve been told by several sources who they are, they have not made their identity known and they likely have a gag order. And, like I said, I really don’t like conflict.
If you hear scratching noises outside your tent, you may be in a predicament.
The school board will say nothing. They are bound by confidentiality. The complainants have not come forward. And no one is saying the words inappropriate, harassment, allegations. They say, “confidential personnel matter.”
Early in his novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo presents the villainous innkeeper couple, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier:
There are souls that, crablike, crawl continually toward
darkness, going backward in life rather than advancing,
using their experience to increase their deformity,
growing continually worse, and becoming steeped
more and more thoroughly in the intensifying viciousness.
The musical version of Les Misérables utilizes the couple for comic relief, but Hugo’s was a savage vision.I am not on the receiving end of this guy’s harassment, so I wonder if I have a moral obligation to pursue this issue, especially since no one has asked me to. I’m afraid to accuse someone when it might just be a misunderstanding. When I ask my editor how to approach the story, she says, “I’ll tell you what I told the teacher’s aide who called me. Girls really need to tell these guys to ‘Buzz off!’ and mean it. That’ll give ’em the message.” So, four women?
In an article that appeared in Hypatia, Carol Hay claims that a woman who has been sexually harassed has a moral obligation to confront her harasser, to preserve and protect her own autonomy (“self” + “law”) or moral agency.
She seems to have a knack for spelling, like her father. For me, it becomes less important the older I get. Still, I encourage her because she is so dedicated. Really, I just want her to protect her own autonomy before she is obligated.
Some mornings, after I had arranged the dishes of antipasti across the ten-foot bed of shaved ice, I prepared arancini. To make the “little oranges,” I scooped a palmful of herbed risotto made with traditional Arborio rice and pressed it into a ball around a smaller sphere of grated mozzarella. After I had formed about forty, I rolled the balls in flour, gently dipped them in a bowl of whipped eggs, and carefully submerged them in a bin of sandy breadcrumbs before I laid them on a tray. The chef would fry the arancini until the crumbs were crispy and golden and the cheese oozed into the starchy rice.
This morning, before coffee, my inner voice told me, “When you don’t know about something and don’t do anything, well, you can’t help that. But, if you know about something and don’t do anything, well, then you’re culpable.” (from culpare: to blame, from culpa: guilt.)
The chef taught me to combine flavors without separating the cheese. With patience I simmered the Bolognese, rolling the words around in my mouth. One day I didn’t burn the garlic bread and I never burned it again. At Christmas, our boss and his wife invited “the crew” to their home: me, the chef and his family, and the guy who came in twice a week to squeeze sausage into hog casings. Their two children were home from college for the holidays. Together they had prepared baccalá, pasticcio di tortellini, struffoli.
If you spend more than a week in your tent, you will feel a sense of accomplishment.
When I approached him with my idea, my boss said, “Well, now that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” So we made a deal. On weekdays I would continue to artistically display antipasti and to keep Pavarotti playing near the open door to draw in customers, and on the weekends, to earn extra money, I could make the restaurant deliveries. I could be the pasta delivery girl. That was spring, 1989. In Alaska, the Exxon Valdez had just struck Bligh Reef and ten million gallons of crude oil gushed into Prince William Sound. I was saving my money to take the ferry back home. I wanted to see the damage. I wanted to help clean up the spill.
I don’t want to have to out the superintendent as a pervert. I do not want to sift through gossip and rumors and squinty eyes and words that sound like spitting. And still, what if it’s not true? Part of me feels sorry for him, sitting up there, feigning consideration to budgets and house bills. What if he’s getting a bad rap? Something in me hates to make trouble for another person. Even, apparently, for a sexual libertine. I stop short of talking myself into his innocence.
On our way home from school my daughter tells me she doesn’t want to be in the spelling bee because she’s afraid her dad and I will be mad if she goes out, especially if it’s an easy word, or if she forgets because she’s nervous.
The cassette player ate the Pavarotti. O Sole Mio warped and garbled to a not unwelcome end. Because my boss insisted the music play nonstop at the threshold, I replaced it with the Paul Simon tape from my Walkman. A couple of hours later the cassette player ate Graceland, too.
If you’re setting up your tent in the wind, you need to be patient.
Each time I write “superintendent,” I spell it “superindentant,” and the red squiggly line appears and steals my thoughts. Still, I do not want to play the tent game with superintendent.
I have to be careful. I shouldn’t tell her that I care nothing for her ability to spell, because I do. She has a particular mind and it seems to enjoy the arranging of letters. I say, “I promise you we will not be mad. Even if you get out on dog. I think it’s important that you are interested in something and that you see it through. You have been studying these words, you go to practice two days a week after school, you are enjoying yourself. That’s what I care about.” She had stopped listening to me.
I had just packaged the last of the Quattro formaggi when he drove up in the Econoline to take me on the route. As we wound our way through the late afternoon traffic, I noticed all kinds of things I didn’t see from my bike. The expanse of green over the hills. We got on the freeway and crossed a long bridge. Behind us the sun was setting on Puget Sound. The tiny whitecaps on the surface of Lake Washington. Miles of ticky-tacky houses, and I realized I’d never thought about how many people lived there. I remember feeling a shake of excitement at the thought of the extra money that would take me back to Alaska. He pulled through a park entrance and turned off the van beside a pond and picnic tables dusted with little cones and crinkly, leftover leaves. The shadows from the trees blocked the sinking sunlight and I felt a chill. Camping in a tent is a good way to get closer to your environment.
It’s frustrating trying to Google the superintendent because he shares a name with a man who was executed by lethal injection last year for killing his young daughter, his estranged wife, and her parents. Even more confusing is that they both hail from Tennessee.
Even though she’s no longer listening, I also tell her I’m interested in people who are kind, and who have a sense of self, especially when they need to be strong and stand up for themselves, or when they need to stand up for other people because it’s the right thing to do. “Ugh,” she says, “but what if it’s a really easy word and I accidentally say the wrong letters before I know it and it’s too late to take it back?”
In 1990 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published the Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment, which said, “In determining whether harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile environment, the harasser’s conduct should be evaluated from the objective standpoint of a reasonable person.’” Further, title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should not serve as a “vehicle for vindicating the petty slights suffered by the hypersensitive.”
When I asked, he told me we’d stopped to look over the orders and he climbed into the bench seat. He motioned for me to join him and he shoved the clipboards, splaying forms and addresses, onto the floor. I heard the crack of an empty pasta container as he heaved himself sideways onto me. My hand stuck to the Naugahyde seat and I felt his tongue slide across my cheek and into my mouth.Did you know that Naugahyde is a trademark? Naugahyde™ is a vinyl coated fabric so versatile that it has a plethora of uses. You’ll find Naugahyde™ in almost every seating application imaginable.I can’t seem to stop the tent game; I play it by myself, in my head. Incandescence? Well yes, especially if it’s dark out. You could build a fire. Grandiloquence? I could do it but it’d be a stretch.The allegations against the superintendent are still hush-hush, but folks are showing up to talk around the issue. One young woman told the school board they “owe the public and staff an explanation of what steps were taken and what policies were followed.” And the grandmother of a fourth grader said, “It boils down to that one person hired by the school board is making it very miserable and uncomfortable for certain teachers who are non-tenured.” The school board said they had taken action; they just can’t say what the action was.“When you spell efficient,” I tell her, “imagine winter camping and how, while you’re setting up your tent, you must be efficient so you don’t get hypothermic.”
“Couldn’t we just be efficient in the summer? We don’t even go winter camping!”Una bella lotta. I put up a decent fight, I would say, but I admit I was scared. I wish I could tell you I kicked open the door and ran out into the night. But I didn’t. At some point, with all my fidgeting, my boss became irritated, then soft. So we made another deal.I call the Professional Teaching Practices Commission. The director confirms the board is looking into allegations against an administrator in our district, but that “we have our regulations, and we have to follow due process.” I’m relieved she tells me nothing.If your mom and dad give you a tent for graduation, you are the recipient of a very cool present!
“Whadaya mean?”My boss picked up my hand and curled it around his flaccid cock. At work, I had helped the chef wrap prosciutto around raw scallops and, just before they went into the oven, I drizzled the aperitivi with melted butter and sprinkled them with chopped basil.
The word prosciutto derives from Latin pro (before) + exsuctus “to suck out [the moisture].”I’m picturing the stick of sweat on flushed skin. Slick and stinking like droplets of gin cupped in the pores of a ruddy face. And the blurry, slow-motion movements of a waning party. Bad decisions waiting for a good time to trap memory in the time warp of early morning, to wrap memory in a gauzy cloth that obscures truth from not-truth and teases reality through tiny holes with the sharp point of a pin.In 1991 the Ninth Circuit replaced the term “reasonable person” with “reasonable woman” in sexual harassment cases because “a sex-blind person standard tends to be male-biased and tends to systematically ignore the experiences of women.” That is, we hold males to a different standard because, given their sex, they are not able to understand or appreciate the connotation of inappropriate behavior. Therefore, a panel of reasonable women, those females who can impartially assess a particular behavior and ascribe an emotional reaction to that behavior, will better perceive the hostile behavior that might be unrecognized by a man.
from harer: to set a dog on
My daughter stomps into the kitchen and yanks the list from the counter. My hands are submerged in a bowl of sourdough and I have just told her that exuberant and protuberant are not “tent” words, for obvious reasons. “Mom! This doesn’t make sense anymore. Not everything happens in a tent!”
Some days, when the lunch crowd thinned, I would set out a tray of cannoli shells and fill them with a sweetened whip of ricotta and mascarpone. If I held one of the blistered shells too tightly, the fragile casing would crack and the creamy mess would ooze through my fingers before plopping onto the tray.
Citing circumstances beyond his control that require him to be with family, the superintendent has resigned, effective next week.
It was a cooperative effort. My skin. His grip. Together we pumped and pulled him to an incompliant climax.
The PTPC board and the Commissioner of Education have “severely reprimanded” our superintendent in response to several complaints against him for sexual harassment.
The origin of cannoli dates back to Palermo, where it was prepared during Carnevale season as a symbol of fertility. If the dough is not rolled thin enough, it will not blister, and good cannoli should have a blistered surface.
I still don’t officially know the identities of the seven complainants; maybe they were advised to remain undercover. The allegations against the superintendent will never reach a court of law, so it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone considers these women reasonable. But I hope they do. Consider themselves reasonable.
It seemed like a gesture; he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and patted the back of my hand.
The British pronounce harassment with the accent on the first syllable. Try it: harassment. Eloquent, no?
I will raise a reasonable person. “Give me hacienda again,” my daughter told me, “and use it in a sentence. And make it a good one.”
Kristine McRae lives with her husband and daughter in Nome, Alaska, where they lead fairly exciting lives in a small town at the edge of western Alaska. This summer she’ll finish her MFA through the low-residency program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her work has appeared in Cirque and Ice Floe.