My earliest memory was a costumed prospector biting into a bullet of golden chocolate. By then I was already too large for the ornamental railroad, but that didn’t stop my father from folding all my folds into the front seat, then waving as the engine croaked forward. I wasn’t a baby’s baby. At christening I gripped chain crosses that relatives slathered around my neck. My mother refused the heirloom ankle bracelet, claiming it looked like bondage, but I don’t think she meant it that way.
Decades later I would garner recognition for my scholarly article on the withdrawal method. It involved substantial field research and observable outcomes. I pasted Venn diagrams on the walls of my carrel in the library. Thankfully the philosophy professor who shared that space never tampered with my wet mounts. I had to relate everything back to post-structuralism. My prospectus earned a special commendation from the graduate college.
Sometimes I have a dream of walking onto the stage of an amphitheater, thronged by fans of my intellectual property. And then I realize it’s just another job interview. No matter how many times I do it, and how much the jitters fade and the adrenaline kicks in, whatever the operating system, hooking up projection cables will give me palpitations. I pretend to be in my previous incarnation as figure model for the rehabilitative art class, where I was just a series of widening circles.
I didn’t expect infiltration of the natural family planning seminar to be so depressing. Sure, I made great casseroles, but they were for somebody else’s husband. I stuttered and told everyone my name was Madrigal. Like the feast. We started with a familiar prayer. Halfway through I shimmied out the rectory window and landed in a boudoir of wet, trembling yews. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that it was all old news to me, or quoted my substantive findings.
Of course there were one or more men who made up the control group. Afterwards we’d ride the train together, intentionally choosing the un-flocked seats. There was a downtown apartment building where children packed the rooftop pool at all hours. I’d cross and un-cross my legs according to what emanated from my headphones. Maybe I would also sing a little, then phone in an order for spicy take-out. Next door to the restaurant, ninety watts of blue neon shouted: skill games.
Tell me about a time when things did not turn out as planned.
If you self-identify as a “gentle giant,” please omit that detail
along with the story of stale snacks left in your desk drawer
by an unknown predecessor. We’ve all hazarded a taste from
that box of crackers, and prefer not to revisit the moment, so
stick with ideas for new elevated ingredients, deleted scenes
from another one of those films you invented in a moment of
panic. Some colleagues keep gossip like a baby. Others pride
themselves on bundling years of smack talk into a fine layette
and then perambulating the river walk. Ask somebody how to
operate the electric stapler and you may end up in a camp for
the sad, a retreat on community policing with endless blank
coloring books as curriculum. In the most avant-garde films
from your terror dreams, the cool kids hide away for group
quizzes in remote quadrants of the forest preserve, or so you
tell the group of bystanders assembled at your pizza lunch,
a downgrade that feels deceptively hospitable. Please share
any questions that may erupt like the host of bats that shot
from the ceiling when we attempted hanging red streamers
to celebrate the new fiscal year. If a film is too saucy then
kindly reconsider detailing the depth of every crevice, or
how the paper shredder addressed nobody in particular yet
dragged every desk to the corridor like a wet railroad song.
Mary Biddinger is author of five full-length poetry collections, most recently Small Enterprise and The Czar (both from Black Lawrence Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, jubilat, Grimoire, Pleiades, and Five Points, among others. She lives in Akron, Ohio, where she teaches at the University of Akron and edits the Akron Series in Poetry.