"Lay Brothers' Refectory" by tj.blackwell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last year I sat in a room darkened by automatic shades where collections of pixels were cast over my head to the wall-swallowing screen in front of me. I think there were nine of us in total, not counting John, charting the spectrum of sleep deprivation when we took our seats in the same room every other morning. John gave us time to set our bags down and take the plastic lids off of our cups, steam casting shadows on the screen. Then the lecture would begin.

My favorite one happened toward the end of the year, after we left Yamini on the bus to the art museum and before the solstice. John assigned us an article on the effect of daylight over the course of a year in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, one of the dusty, orange-scented temples of Renaissance art. A west coast professor with a name like “Justin” or “Jason” had created a digital simulation, one that projected light through the windows of the refectory and onto its most famous inhabitant: The Last Supper. The article was accompanied by a video of the simulation, the graceful and harried arc of the rectangles of light—reverse shadows, as I thought of them—thrumming through the room towards and away from Jesus. Their edges were stark, then soft, glancing off when you thought they would slow to a stop. I watched it over and over, thinking of the years Leonardo must have spent drafting the composition. I imagined his mythical hand reaching to trace the corner of the reverse shadow, how he must have accounted for every celestial position, every season, in the cartoon. Puffs of pigment embedded in the wrinkles of his hands as he worked. The careful precision in adapting a sketch—unbend Jesus’s finger, inflate Paul’s robes—to brush up against the light in a perfect suggestion. Different meanings for different days, different morsels on the table illuminated. A Christian’s Stonehenge.

I do think John may have been considering, when he assigned us this piece, the ritual of our mornings in the classroom, staring at the screen. I had taken an afternoon seminar in the same room, felt the frustration of light from the windows blocking out the slide. Though my other professor was more meticulous in her analysis, made no claims that couldn’t be supported, she wasn’t as careful about switching down the blinds as John was. He did try to insert himself into the art, in the well-intended way teachers do. He had a habit of twisting himself around to mimic the paintings he showed us. In the darkened room, drinking weak coffee with too little cream, I would feel somewhat drunk on the few stimulants of morning. Reclining in our chairs, we took in the projection, the Titian, the Donatello, the Ghiberti. And in front of the screen, distorting the streams of light, would be John, posing: contrapposto. Figura serpentinata. Pietá. Venus pudica. Sometimes, he said, “Come on! Everybody do it with me. It’s early, get up. Get moving,” and, begrudgingly, we would rise from our seats, slowly resting our hands on opposite hips, dropping our knees and looking up. None of us tried as hard as John. He was unbound by the judgments of his nine students or by the confines of his 6’2”, 210 lb body.

I know his dimensions because his Tinder profile was visible to everyone on campus, either because he hadn’t figured out how to adjust his settings to exclude 18-year-olds or because he was open to meeting 18-year-olds. Even with a wide radius, our village totaled only 2,000, townsfolk included. He had to have known. 

We did laugh at him, that year. I’m sorry for it because now I think he couldn’t have known that we weren’t laughing at his impossible poses, his attempts to mimic Mannerist sensuality and to make us laugh early in the morning, but at him. The village was small and we were young. We didn’t think ourselves capable of objectification; we had learned to be better than that. We thought we knew everything about him.

I am curious—I check the course catalogue. He’s offering the same class this year, High Renaissance Art. The students will have just turned in their final papers. I wonder if he is still allowing any topic for the final. Mine was on a reliquary, a Baroque one, which contained something—a finger? a wrist bone?of St. Zenobius of Florence. When I first went to John’s office hours to run it by him, he asked me if I had been to Florence, and I said that I had. He pulled up Google images of the duomo, the baptistery, the Galleria Uffizi, all famous sites for people like us who see them first in dark rooms. I told him about St. John’s, the Baroque cathedral in Malta, and Google showed him the skeleton mosaics in the floor, the glass reliquaries barely covered in shadow, shabby bodies openly decaying within.

“So you’re into this, creepy stuff, right?” He asked me.

“Um… I suppose?” I did like studying relics. I had seen an exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute about them a few years prior. Religious art requires so much imagination, so much suspension of disbelief. Relics are the closest that academic atheists get to that spectacular nothing; we can hold them over Medieval Christians’ heads. Here is the last shred of your saint. Here is his miracle rib, turned to dust lifetimes ago. Work your miracle now, we tempt. I dare you.

And yet, our study of their ways proves that their miracles are real—that their saints return.

“You have to go to Milan next time you’re over there,” John said. “They’ve got some really wacky creepy stuff.”

I nodded, said it was on my list. A few weeks later, when I emailed him to change my topic—too much of the research I was finding fell outside of the High Renaissance—he just replied, “Cool stuff.” I don’t think he knows how to change the settings on his Tinder.

Late in that semester, we took a field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was college-student early on a Saturday morning, the night after a sorority formal themed “Sinners and Saints.” John’s email had said to meet at 7:45 by the village post office, so that’s when I arrived, shivering in my cheap wool coat and squinting at the sun glaring off of the curb’s whiteness. It was early winter in Ohio, and I knew that the bright crust of snow wouldn’t last the morning. It was the kind of weather that gave me migraines—I never understood the effect that the barometric pressure of dark days had on others. I was nauseated by the sunlight and the stale drunkenness in my stomach. I started seeing rainbows against the slush in the street.

Only John was there when I approached the post office. He was wearing a hand-knitted cap, breathing out what could have been smoke but was probably just the warmth of his breath. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him alone that early, especially after I’d witnessed his Friday night routine earlier that fall: eating alone at a Taco Bell the next town over. I’d seen him from a corner booth I shared with some friends after band practice, but he didn’t see us. The next Monday, he told my class he’d been out of town for five days.

I passed him and went on to the village market, its customary bowl of water for visiting dogs frozen over. The market was closed, as was the bookstore, as was the tiny coffee shop on the corner of the campus’s one main street. The sun rose as I made the slow loop to tug on each door handle. I kept my eyes on my boots and their impressions in the thinning snowbank.

When I returned to the post office, the bus was there, and a few other students were milling about, most of them hungover. Someone had had the foresight to buy saltines the day before and was handing them out like grade school valentines.

“Good to see you again,” John said to me as he stepped onto the bus. I lifted my head up to glance at him, to make sure he was talking to me, and winced at the unfiltered sunlight. A couple of other professors appeared, and one by one, the bus was full of academics disguised as fleece bundles. We reclined in the dust-ridden seats as we did in the classroom, blinking slowly to invite any touch of a daydream. I screwed my eyes shut for the ride. My friend Yamini, a sophomore, threw up on the way there.

When we got to the museum, I hadn’t seen Yamini, and I wondered if she was in the bathroom rinsing off her shirt. I told John.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” he said, shrugging at a Michelangelo sketch. It was hung in aging silver against a deep orange wall the same color as the artist’s chalk. The figure was gnarled with muscle, strange growths ready to pop out of him like bubble wrap. “She’s a strong young woman.”

We stared at the sketch together for a moment. Then, he said, “I hope she didn’t get kidnapped.”

I turned to him, incredulous, and said, “Why would you say that to me?”

For a moment, John was unblinking stone. Then, quietly, he said, “I dunno.” It was the last time he brought up his missing student.

I moved on to the American wing and he remained with Michelangelo, gazing not to admire but to appreciate. When I saw him later, in a hall of Greek sculpture, John was walking slowly with my prettiest classmate, laughing and gesturing to the crumbled toe of an ancient marble king.

Yamini showed up later that day—she had been locked in the bus bathroom when we got off and had to beg the driver to take her back to the museum. Fatigued, she sat beside me on a bench, fanning herself with a special exhibit ticket. I faced away from her and sketched the Cleveland Apollo, staring at his back until I felt like I could see the oxygen eating away at his bronze skin, turning him green.

Four months later, all students were told not to return to campus, and we stayed inside our bedrooms for class, staring at smaller screens with strained eyes. I began to drink every night, not binging like on campus, but full glasses of wine with twisted stems I could twirl between my fingers. My computer was next to my window, so every day at around 3PM I had to move it or to stop working all together. The light cutting over my screen made me ache, for darkness, for colder days, for the long gravel path I would take to and from lectures, to and from the shops, to and from my apartment, always circling, a dozen times in a day. The village was laid out like a twig, a long, thin path with a number of branches, but we walked it like it was an egg, a circle, a revisiting, because every day brought us the same stones in our shoes, the same hopeful people, the same wild and electric shadows cast on the lawn. The same outlines of scandal that we clumsily filled, the same eyes sending glances of wonder and gratitude and disgust. It is difficult, I have found, to suspend one’s disbelief when there is no sense of constancy in the future. How cruelly we all were separated from our revisiting.

John is a statue now. The way I remember him—the way many of us do—will always be those last class sessions, walking the Etruscan hall, the strange and invasive screenshots we all had of his Tinder profile. We can’t go back, so we can’t revise our conceptions, and the selfie of him hoisting a horseshoe crab off the beach is growing as strong as my memory of him in the classroom, obstructing the screen. I wonder how much of that image he would reclaim, if he could.

All this I’ve just remembered because I sent John’s article—about The Last Supper—to my godmother, who is a self-described pagan, and dedicates a surprising degree of faith to the world decaying around her. It occurs to me now, watching the refectory simulation again, that Leonardo must’ve spent much of his years of work waiting, just to see all the permutations of sunlight for this mural overlooking a cafeteria for nuns. Were they little adjustments? The angle of Jesus’s left pointer finger, erased and redrawn on the solstice to brush against the corner of the window’s light? Did he have to adjust the perfect symmetry of a face to avoid an accidental anointing? Or did he sit in the refectory, sketching the outlines of the windows first, standing in the path of the migraine light when it came? When I think of him now, he is always waiting patiently, perhaps smoking or just breathing. Waiting for the year to reveal to him where Jesus would point.


Photo at the top of the page: “Lay Brothers’ Refectory” by tj.blackwell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. 

Fear Fact(or), Fear Fiction

If, one day while watching TV on the couch, your wife offhandedly mentions she went to college with the tall, dark-haired guy in the Bud Light commercial, under no circumstances should you…

  1. Suspect that “went to college with” is code for “once had amazing sex with” (Good luck with that…);

  2. Notice that when she tells you his name, she does it in a way that seems like she’s only pretending to have to think about it;

  3. Read anything into the way she remains outwardly neutral when his commercials come on, and my god are on all the fucking time (Her neutrality, you surmise, has to be some kind of affected disinterest to mask the way she’s fantasizing about him);

  4. Ruminate, while being intimate with your wife, about how, though you’ve had more sex with your wife than any other man has, he’s probably a kind of high-water mark for her that you’ll never reach;

  5. Look him up on IMDB and find that he’s acted in or produced movies with direct-to-DVD titles like Sidewalk Blondes, Hollywood Escapades, and All American Zombie Drugs (you didn’t even have to make that last one up) where he played characters with names like Dougie, Judd, and Colt;

  6. Care enough to note that he’s appeared in commercials for both Bud Light and Miller Lite, Burger King and Carl’s Jr., Honda and Chevrolet, and DirecTV and DISH, and then use this observation to judge him for being nothing more than a corporate whore without a shred of loyalty (I mean, what kind of guy does that?);

  7. Compare yourself to him because in nearly every measurable way—height (definitely), looks (likely, if we’re talking industry standards), sexual aptitude (probably, ‘cause let’s be honest…), creative output (sure, they’re mostly commercials, but there are so many of them), finances (ha!)—you fall short;

  8. Comment to your wife that you saw “Commercial Man” or “That Guy” (as you’ve taken to calling him, breezily, of course, because hey, you’re cool about all this…) had a small recurring role on a wildly popular—but you both agree a very unfunny—TV show as a kind of test to see if her opinion of the show begins to change;

  9. Reveal that you saw the above info on his Twitter profile (“I act in stuff”) that you are now following;

  10. Construe, a couple days later when she changes the channel as you enter the room, that you’ve caught her in the act of watching said unfunny show;

  11. Work into causal conversation with your wife after yet another one of his commercials, that previous to his “big break” on The Amazing Race, he appeared as a contestant on a Christmas episode in season four of Fear Factor where his listed occupation was “dog walker” (Highlight of the customary banter with Joe Rogan prior to his competing in the first challenge: Rogan: “What are you going to do with the fifty thousand if you win?” That Guy: “Turn my garage into a mind and body relaxation studio”);

  12. Find it gratifying watching him whine and complain to Joe Rogan for being eliminated (“It’s not fair, man!”) after eating, but failing to swallow, the ant-covered cod egg sack in the allotted 20 minutes because he was cracking a bunch of smartass jokes the entire time;

  13. Fill pages in your notebook with Roger Ebert-like screeds on his acting abilities after you watch the “acting reel” his agent posted to YouTube;

  14. Go on the Message Boards on his IMDB page and write anonymous threads where you refer to him as “Hollywood,” criticizing him for getting his teeth capped after his reality show “career” took off, and start a rumor about a certain sexual fetish that involves a harness;

  15. Imagine a fantasy scenario where you and your wife encounter him at her college reunion (do they even have those?), and when she sees him, it becomes clear from the smitten look on her face that they did, in fact, have wild, animalistic sex, (probably in his dorm room under some fucking Bob Marley poster), but when she approaches him, he doesn’t appear to remember her, which for some reason pisses you off even more than the porn-loop images burned into your brain of your wife fucking him do;

  16. Be as bothered as you are that by some cruel twist of fate, he shares the same birthday as your son;

  17. Observe that in his 30 commercials he delivers what would amount to less words than you’ve written here up to this point;

  18. Study his commercial “work” deeply enough to realize he’s got a pretty shallow bag of tricks as an actor: a charming, slight head tilt, smile, and eyebrow raise; a kind of wide-eyed, chicken-necked look of surprise; and a twist-of-the-mouth-plus-shoulder-shrug good for an everyman “huh?” gesture;

  19. Waste precious time trying to understand his appeal—what is it, exactly? He’s handsome, sure, but in the totally normal way your neighbor or the teller at the drive-thru window at your bank is handsome; he’s unremarkable, is the point;

  20. Conclude that since he plays an Average Bro just-cooking-some-burgers-on-the-grill-sitting-across-from-a-date-at-Applebees-looking-for-cell-phone-reception-having-some-beers-with-buddies-kind of character, it must be his very ordinariness that makes him appealing;

  21. Wonder if, at this point, he simply keeps getting commercials because he’s gotten them before…he’s recognizable as “that guy from that one commercial,” so casting agents get him more work;

  22. Attempt the (for you) very complicated math to understand how it is that That Guy’s commercials air, seemingly, every goddamn commercial break, but soon realize you need help and so craft a bit of a fiction in order to get a math instructor you work with to help you (you tell him you are working on a “story” and provide him with a mostly contextless word problem featuring your best Google-aided approximation of the number of commercials that air each hour, the number of hours of commercials that air each day, the average number of channels, and the number of commercials an actor has appeared in), but he points out that because there are too many variables—how many distinct commercials air each day, how many of the actor’s commercials are currently airing, how often do they repeat, etc., etc.—he needs more context and so you don’t reply to his email;

  23. Tell your wife that once, when she and your son were out of town, you tried to stay up for 24 hours to count how many times you saw him on TV (you fell asleep, but not before making 9 tallies in your notebook, which seems, somehow, mathematically impossible…);

  24. Disclose that you found a streaming-service-only show where he’s the male lead; the show is about a couple who meet at a bar and it follows them through their relationship, and that—goddammit—the show actually looks decent;

  25. Concede, even to yourself, that as you’ve immersed yourself in his work, you started to kinda understand his appeal, and, well, sorta like him (Don’t think of telling anyone);

  26. Ask your wife, straightaway, if she ever slept with him; instead, stew over it long enough—several years or so, but who’s counting?—that you feel compelled to write some kind of hybrid-story-essay-list thing in the hopes of somehow working through your, admittedly, petty insecurities (Good luck with that…).


Bearing Weight

As kids, my brother and I always fought over our stuff. Especially once we graduated to our own bedrooms, the sanctity of square footage and toys became real. Doors slammed, ripping off toenails (once) and smashing fingers flat and black (multiple times.) My brother’s hairy chimpanzee, Sam, with the plastic face and feet with elastic straps so you could walk with him on top of your shoes, was frequently ransomed, and my stuffed Mighty Mouse with the blazing yellow chest and red cape was repeatedly hidden—inside and out—until my shrieking cries forced Mom to referee. I scooped up errant green Army men and buried them beneath the trash. He set my Barbie’s hair on fire with our uncle’s Bic lighter, hid her until I was convinced she was lost, and didn’t confess until years later.

I would like to know what became of Sam. Mighty Mouse was ultimately stolen by the neighborhood bully who also stomped flat my brother’s aluminum Greyhound bus.


My parents have an estate sale tomorrow in Indiana, at their home of 40 years. Every room, upstairs and down, is sectioned wall to wall with church tables covered with the evidence of their married lives: ragged felt Christmas stockings and tinsel angels; a stack of LPs including my father’s favorite Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, the one with the girl covered in whipped cream on the cover; a crocheted toilet paper cozy that sat on the back of the tank in their guest bath for years until it yellowed and cracked; embroidered towels I gave my mother for a birthday gift that she complained were too thick; a handbag she bought in Florida while vacationing with her girlfriends—faux leather with a leering flamingo in sunglasses imprinted on each side.

Mom intends to go to the sale tomorrow and buy back her own stuff that she either 1) couldn’t find when she moved into their senior-living apartment or 2) forgot she treasured. My dad thinks the estate sale people have stolen some valuable maps.


I read recently where creativity is eclipsed by the very nature of our lives being too busy—to which I say Amen—but also because we are surrounded by and dealing with too much stuff. The article went on to give advice about slowing down, breathing in and de-cluttering. I frankly get pissed off when people tell me to slow down—introverts, mostly, who take naps and drink smoothies—but I admit to being too cluttered. In basement and in mind.

There’s the physical stuff that on a daily basis you have to wade through and ignore, but there’s also the mental electrical storm of a million stimuli vying for attention: like the dentist appointment you’ve already rescheduled twice, a birthday card to your niece that even if you mail it today will not arrive on time, a pop-up ad on the widescreen of your new iPhone in better-than-living color that reminds you Cancun beckons.

Poets can’t be bothered with all that stuff. They have only the sweet, cold plums or the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater. All of which is invisible in the course of my average day. (And if I got to eat a plum, it wouldn’t taste like childhood anyway.)


I live three states away from my parents and work long hours. My brother lives five minutes away but commutes 400 miles a week for his job. There’s just the two of us, and we’ve worked out a mutually acceptable routine where our parents are concerned. He is on hand for emergency room trips and the occasional Sunday dinner when they both feel well enough to attend. I nurture them long-distance, calling regularly to check in and cheer them, not forgetting birthdays, holidays, even St. Patrick’s Day. (Did they have corned beef in the cafeteria? What? They ran out! That’s pretty rotten.) I also remind them of their maintenance: pharmacy refills and dietary cautions, sensible shoes and glasses repair.

It all seems disproportionate in weight to worth.


My brother’s Sunday dinners are massive—cowboy-like with slabs of red meat and whole fish grilled over cedar planks and mesquite chips. He cooks all the sides, too, unless Mom is up to making deviled eggs or potato salad. Texas beans, twice-baked potatoes, asparagus spears, corn on the cob, coleslaw. He’s not big on dessert, however, so if you have a sweet tooth, you have to supply your own.

It is unnatural to consume so much food, and when you leave his table there is the insistent bite of your belt buckle nipping into flesh. After dinner, his girlfriend—a mature woman with two children of her own—is tasked with the kitchen, on a mission to package and stack leftovers.

She scours off the meat blood from the counter.


At home, I clean out closets. It is a first and probably feeble attempt to avoid leaving my own daughters a legacy of rooms overflowing with unwanted stuff. I’ve stacked ten shoeboxes of old Nikes and heels and four Hefty bags of outdated, outgrown clothes by the back door for Goodwill and consider this a reasonable start, rewarding myself with a glass of wine. When my phone pings, I hustle to find it under a stack of t-shirts and mismatched socks yet to be sorted.

My daughter leaves a message saying she and her partner are going to a mass grave for clowns this weekend.

She lives in Chicago, and I foster no illusion that she will be coming back. She’s making the world her own with big, broad brushstrokes.

I call her back.

I’ve sorted some things for you. They are in the big bedroom closet downstairs. Some art projects. Your ballerina jewelry box. Vacation souvenirs from when you were little. You can check them out when you come home next and decide what you want to keep. Or maybe, your sister?

Mom. She is clear. No one wants that stuff.


My brother has just become engaged to the sensible woman who scrubs his countertops. She will be his fourth wife. He tells me this when I come to visit for Memorial weekend, and the three of us are enjoying a steak dinner at a nouveau Italian restaurant in suburban Indianapolis. I always forget it’s the Indy 500 when I buy a ticket for this weekend, and coming to pick me up at the airport inconveniences him. I would pay for the dinner to thank him and to celebrate, but the menu is outrageously priced, and he pays for me instead.

Later on in the weekend, fairly drunk, he tells his new fiancée that I was petted and cooed over every minute of my entire life, and I flush with unintended memory and guilt.

I read once that sibling relationships are among the most influential in our lives, yet they are rarely studied. It occurs to me, and not for the first time, that growing up with me in first-chair position, my brother was intimidated to the point of rebellion and self-sabotage. Rather than give up out of fear of failure, he chose to kick up a riot to distract everyone from my glow.

Set the fire; don’t whither in in the shadow of the sun.


Six months after their move into The Village and one week after their house closes and sells to a nice lesbian couple, my mother complains that the apartment feels like living out of a hotel room. She cries a little and accuses us with making the decision while she was under the influence of powerful drugs following her last surgery. I have to get tough, reminding her that she was the impetus for the move; my father would have been content to die at 100 in his backyard garden picking beans.

Dad is convinced someone is stealing their morphine.

After dinner—it’s prime rib night—Dad has me follow him into the walk-in closet and shows me two plain-Jane boxes on the shelf, bracing upright a stack of Look magazines. (My mother as a cheerleader is on the cover of one, a story on small-town Midwest basketball during high school tournament season.)

The taller one is your grandfather, he tells me. The shorter one is Grandma. I guess you will have to figure out what to do with them.


I sometimes wonder about the weight of things.

Like, can the weight of a Midwestern July actually be measured? Because surely that air—so dense you have to swim through it to get from your refrigerated house to your air-conditioned office, heaving it through your lungs like a tadpole—is infinitely heavier than the crisp of October or even the dampness of May. And, is it possible that your head weighs more when a migraine explodes there? Or maybe pain is just an overweight illusion, a trickster in steel-toed boots. And what does that plastic patch of garbage the size of Texas weigh in the ocean, choking sea creatures and poisoning the planet’s lifeblood?

I remember the exact eight pounds, thirteen ounces of each daughter I birthed.

It is a miracle, really, that any of us can move at all.