We were at the back of a very long line that began near the Panda Plaza and wound all the way around the Elephant House. Nobody was very interested in the elephants or the pandas at the moment. Everyone was at the zoo for the baby Pippins. If just one of the three Pippin Monkeys survived to maturity, it would apparently be a major feat for the zoo, since no other institution had been able to keep its Pippins alive for very long in captivity. The creatures came from somewhere in South America. They were endangered and probably would go extinct soon. But before they did, Val wanted to see one up close: the gray fuzzy hair, the pink face, the giant empty black eyes. Val wanted to take a picture to show his friends.
The following is the title story from Thomas Pierce’s collection, Hall of Small Mammals. Pierce was born and raised in South Carolina. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Oxford American, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Virginia creative writing program, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and daughter.
A man and a slightly obnoxious diabetic twelve-year-old boy are waiting in line at a zoo exhibit. The line is going slow and the boy is not the man’s son. The boy’s mother is beautiful, but the man has his doubts about the relationship.
We all have to wait in line and we all have to decide how much we are going to take. We always have to wait too long. Sometimes we take too much. Every day. Every damn day. And that line moves to slow, until you need it to wait and then it speeds up.
I looked up “Pippin Monkeys” and they don’t exist outside of this short story. Shame, I’d like to see one, though I never really liked monkeys. I wouldn’t wait in line very long, however.
I was living in a city now, a city with many buses that could take you many places you might want to go and many places you would not want to go and I had to figure them out because I was afraid to drive for the same reasons and some additional ones: I didn’t know how to get to where I was going or where to park once I got there or if I’d have the right parking pass, if one was required, or whether the meters were active, if there were meters, and whether they took coins only.
Mary Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009), and Always Happy Hour (Liveright/Norton, 2017), as well as a novel, The Last Days of California (Liveright/Norton, 2014).
Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, New Stories from the South, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and many others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and is on faculty at the low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women.
A woman from Mississippi quits her PhD program and starts anew, alone, in Austin. A common story. It isn’t easy for her – transportation seems to be a particular monster.
I remember when I first moved to Dallas. I was about the same age, I suppose, as the narrator in the story… I never went to graduate school and had been working at a salt mine in Kansas for three years. This was 1981 – the economy was in the dumpster and the only place in the country where you could get a job was Texas.
I stayed with friends until I had enough money for an apartment. I moved into a cool, but extremely dated small apartment complex off of Lower Greenville (The Turtle Dove – it’s still there today). When I wasn’t on the road (Superfund toxic waste sites, chemical spills) I worked downtown. I rode the bus to work.
It was the Belmont #1 bus. Very easy to recognize. I could go to happy hour downtown (this was before the happy hour laws and they could offer three for one) and all I had to do was recognize the #1 bus and I was home. One evening I looked up as saw the Belmont #1 bus on its way. I looked down, fished my pass out of my wallet and made sure I had some punches left. When I looked up, the open door of the bus was right in front of me. I boarded and slumped into the seat.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong bus. Some other mystery bus had passed mine and stopped, with the number out of view overhead. By the time I realized it, I was somewhere in far East Dallas and I didn’t recognize anything. I waited for a while to see if it entered a familiar neighborhood but things kept getting sketchier and sketchier. I had no choice but to get off and wait at the stop across the street, going back the other way. This was decades before the internet and smart phones and definitely before Uber, and there wasn’t a pay phone in sight and it didn’t look like the kind of place I wanted to go exploring especially now that the sun was setting.
It took about an hour (which, of course, seemed like days) for a bus to come and take me back downtown. By then all the buses had stopped running and I had to find a pay phone and order a cab. Luckily, I had the cash on me.
From then on, I learned to be careful about the bus that I jumped on. You learn something every day.
“Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few. A new dirt road through the wilderness brings the city within view, but not within reach, of most Brazilian subsistence farmers. The new expressway expands Chicago, but it sucks those who are well-wheeled away from a downtown that decays into a ghetto.”
― Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity
We lay in the hammock at the end of summer. The uncomfortable sense of feeling pressed into the body of my friend by the slope of the hammock was also very pleasurable. I hadn’t chosen to sit that close. She and I had slid into that position as we submitted to the physics of the hammock situation.
—-April Ayers Lawson, Three Friends in a Hammock
I have been very busy with some things I can’t write about… and that makes it tough to keep cranking these entries out. So today… an online short story. Read it at Granta here:
A well-written and finely crafted story about… well, three friends in a hammock. The dynamic of this troika is examined in detail. One of them (The one in the middle, of course) is best friends with the other two – though the other two were not best friends with each other and… “but I knew from day to day and even moment to moment alliances shifted. You can’t be equally close to two people at the same time.”
I enjoyed this story. However (well, not really however however, this may be why I liked the story so much), I have trouble relating to the characters in the story. They seem like alien life forms to me. They think too much. I feel the same way about people I see (either on TV or in real life) having long lunches during the week at sidewalk cafés. I mean I would really enjoy doing that – but who has the time? There are horrible disasters that have to be averted, Herculean tasks to be undertaken… how can you get away with spending your life at a sidewalk table gossiping with friends?
I feel more than a little jealousy towards the three friends in a hammock… though their lives are very far from perfect. They might not be spiraling into disaster, but they definitely are closer to that than they imagine.
It’s quite a knack to be able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat, regardless of where you are and what’s going on around you. To steal some shuteye at airports and on flights, on break times and car rides, in public places and private spaces — in all the interstices of life. Not to mention how grand it is to be able to go out like a light as soon as your head hits the pillow each night.
It probably seems, however, that this is simply a knack that some folks have and others don’t, with the latter group being much larger than the former.
Yet the ability to fall asleep in two minutes or less, anywhere, anytime, is actually a skill like any other, and one anyone can learn. The technique for how to do so was in fact developed for Naval aviators during World War II, and today we’ll share it with you.
When I was a kid, I always had terrible problems with insomnia. It was a curse.
In college, on my own at last, I decided that I would conquer this evil. I started reading all I could (it was the 1970’s – that meant books) about insomnia and set out to systematically learn to fall asleep. It worked, I was successful and to this day (and to this decade) I can fall asleep, almost always, when I need to.
But learning to fall asleep in 2 minutes or less? That’s a pretty bold statement. Have to check it out.
For decades, the reptile has been vanishing from Texas landscapes. About 10 years ago, Texas zoos, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials and Texas Christian University researchers partnered to try to learn how to bring the critter back to certain pockets of the state.
When I was a little kid and living in Kansas, we had neighbors with a kid about my age. They would go to somewhere in Texas every summer and come back with Horned Toads. I was fascinated with these things. Cool ugly little bastards.
Now I live in Texas, fifty years later, and I’ve never seen a horned toad here. Where have they all gone? It doesn’t take much research to find out what happened. It’s a bit complicated… but really, it’s the fire ants. This introduced species are deadly to the lizards (they aren’t toads) and have wiped them out where ever they go. Every Texan hates fire ants and now there is another reason.
So the Dallas Zoo are breeding horned toads and releasing them to try and re-establish the population. I think this is admirable but it isn’t going to work, is it. What they really need to do is to breed horned lizards that eat fire ants.
“Tired, tired with nothing, tired with everything, tired with the world’s weight he had never chosen to bear.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
A watermelon in my bicycle panniers.
I was on a routine trip to the grocery store on my commuter/cargo bike with the grocery panniers installed. I had “watermelon” on my list, but there were only two left in the big cardboard bin and they were both really big. Would one fit in my pannier? Could it take the weight?
I figured I could walk home lugging the watermelon if I had to. But it fit and it barely took the weight.
Ok, I have a thing for gadgets… we’ve talked about this before. Sometimes… not very often but sometimes… a gadget is worth it. I think this one is.
Some history first.
When I was a kid, my parents made a pot of coffee every day in a percolater – the worst way to make coffee in the world. It is a machine that re-heats coffee over and over, burning it, and jetting it up a pipe and off a translucent glass doohicky to bounce down onto a ring of ancient pre-ground robusta coffee. I remember my parents wouldn’t even have proper filters – sometimes they’d use toilet paper to line the perforated metal ring. What a godawful mess. Still, you have to forgive them, they knew not what they did. Plus, as a kid I didn’t have to drink the stuff and the process of heating and bubbling and shooting up looked and sounded cool and even smelt nice up until until the coffee burned.
As a more modern style of human I’ve never had a percolater but I’ve made coffee in a lot of different ways – drip, cold brew, Moka Pot (nice because it is essentially a bomb on your cooktop), espresso machine (cheap useless home machine), Keruig (coffee maker from hell), pour over…. My favorite was the French Press – easy, good, simple. I have fresh beans and an electric burr coffee grinder. But even a French Press has a fatal flaw – it is so hard to clean out. It was so bad I had taken to going out in the back yard and squirting out the grounds with a hose.
So I was still searching for the perfect way to brew a cup of coffee. Up until three days ago I had no idea such a thing existed. It does… it’s called an Aeropress.
I had an Amazon gift card left over from my birthday and was looking for something that I would like but that I wouldn’t spend real money on. I have followed a group of folks that get up before dawn – ride to a common location on bicycles and then prepare coffee. That seemed somehow weird and attractive to me so I did a little research. I came across references to the Aeropress as the best portable way to make coffee. The descriptions though… “like a giant hypodermic” … “forcing hot liquid through a small paper filter”…”invented by a man who designed ring-shaped frisbees” … simply didn’t sound too appetizing. But, references to the thing kept coming through my computer from various directions (though I had never actually seen one) until I clicked on the “BUY IT NOW” button – as much for curiosity as anything else.
While I waited my long eighteen hours for it to arrive I started looking at Youtube videos on how to use the thing and on why it’s the best coffee maker ever. There are thousands of Youtube videos. People are nuts over the thing. There are international competitions to find who has the best way of making coffee in the thing. There are two main schools of thought – the “regular” method and the “inverted” method – with a thousand other variations of coffee type, grind, water temperature, filter type, filter pre-moistening (or not), stirring (or tamping), immersion times, extracting pressure… on and on. Despite all this brouhaha one message kept being repeated – even if you do it wrong… it’s still pretty good (that’s what she said).
So the box arrived and I took it out and made my first cup of coffee. And it was fantastic. It really does make great coffee. And it isn’t hard at all. All the picky details in the videos really don’t amount to a hill of arabica. Once you have the thing in front of you it’s all obvious.
For the record, I like the inverted method (because I can immerse the grounds a little longer without the coffee dripping into the cup) and the paper filter (which I discovered can be re-used over and over – for no particular reason). I’ve made hot black coffee – it comes out of the filter stronger than usual and can be diluted a lot with hot water and still make a decent cup. The hot concentrate can be poured over ice for a nice cold drink or mixed with milk for a passable latte – like beverage.
It is small and amazingly portable. Some of the Aeropress kits come with a tote bag – but that looks flimsy and I have a nice nylon zippered bag I bought at Goodwill for a buck that it fits perfectly. I’m going to go on a pre-dawn bike ride with the thing and carry it with a thermos full of hot water. Make some coffee somewhere and watch the sun come up. Really.
But the best thing… the very best thing… the thing that puts the Aeropress over the finish line a hundred yards over any other coffee maker… is the cleanup. Once you’re done, you remove the filter cap and give the plunger one last push and the coffee grounds pop out in a “puck” right into the trash. Quick rinse and you’re done. No fuss, no mess. Five seconds tops. That, my friends, is a game-changer.
So, if you like coffee… if you drink coffee… don’t hesitate – buy an Aeropress. They are available everywhere and the price seems consistent at twenty-nine bucks. The best gadget for making coffee. I promise.
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
I have written about it, here, many times before – All my live I have always wanted to live on a creek lot. For the last decade or so I do, sort of… it is more of a ditch lot – the creek is tamed into a straight line in the middle of the block, exactly between property lines. No natural watercourse flows in a straight line.
It is tamed in terms of location and direction… but not in terms of flow. Usually a quiet narrow strip of water barely moving, when it rains the water rises and becomes violent.
The last storm (not the big one, a couple days later) I took some photos from the Yale Street Bridge right when the rain ended and again, the next morning.
Huffhines Creek, From the Yale Street Bridge, upstream, under normal conditions.
Huffhines Creek, From the Yale Street Bridge, upstream, after a rain.
Huffhines Creek, From the Yale Street Bridge, downstream, under normal conditions.
Huffhines Creek, From the Yale Street Bridge, downstream, after a rain.
The crazy thing how fast this transformation occurs. Despite the buffering of the flood control ponds upstream during a thunder-boomer the water will come down in a wall and the creek will rise in seconds. When it ends the water drops almost as fast, leaving only a line of detritus as a reminder of the violence that was there minutes before.
These are by no means photographs taken under extreme conditions. That little bit of water visible in the before photos will almost completely dry up in July and August, evaporated under the deadly Dallas Texas summer sun and inevitable drought. This was only an ordinary spring thunderstorm, I’ve seen the water significantly higher (over the bike trail, for instance). I simply can’t get a photograph of that because of darkness and/or fear.
“We had a kettle; we let it leak:
Our not repairing made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe.”
― Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling
My Xootr Swift folding bike in the repair stand from Aldi – getting ready for a fresh pair of tires.
I am not a professional bike mechanic. If I was, I would need a professional bike mechanic’s repair stand. I would have someone’s bike in said stand all day, every day. What I am is a person that has to fix his bikes because he can’t afford to hand them off to a professional mechanic every time something goes wrong… which is often, if not every day.
Still, I have always wanted to have a bike repair stand. There have been too many scratched handlebars while I tried working on derailleurs with the bike upside-down on the driveway. Too many hours sitting on the ground or a stool, bent over, trying to wrench something that doesn’t want to be wrenched. I usually end up wrenching my back.
Once, when we lived somewhere with extra garage space I built a repair stand out of 2x4s and large Home Depot bolts and screws. It wasn’t much of an improvement. A professional work stand can run up to 300 bucks… I paid less than that for two of my bicycles together (maybe that’s why I have so much repair work to do).
At the end of our block is an Aldi grocery store – and it has been something very nice. I remember when it was first rumored to go in (I don’t remember what was there – some third-rate fast food place… I think) the folks on the neighborhood mailing list went nuts. “Some tiny European grocery store.” “All their own brands.” “You have to pay a quarter for a cart.” “Bag your own groceries.”
All of it was untrue (well, except for the “bag your own groceries”) – the place is our go-to for consumables. If they have something – you should buy it there. It has actually been expanded once, though it doesn’t seem any bigger. I ride my bike there – it is uphill (a bit) from where we live, so I can buy milk, water, anything heavy, and coast home. I have a pair of grocery panniers for my commuter/cargo bike (a converted Giant mountain bike I bought on Craigslist for 90 bucks) and it’s always a game to see how much I can pack in.
The only thing I don’t buy on my bike is eggs – there’s a set of traffic bumps on the way back and I seem to break them some eggs often, even though my bike has a front shock.
One odd thing about Aldi is that, small as it is, it has this one aisle with completely random shit in it. I call it the “random shit” aisle. You never know what is going to show up there – but if it is something you need, it’s probably going to be cheap. I rarely buy much from that aisle, but I always walk down it… which I guess is the point.
One day there was a dry erase board there for… like six bucks or something. I had been wanting one and been looking at them for twenty dollars at other places. I didn’t know if it would fit in my pannier, but I decided to go for it. It did fit, diagonally and barely, but I rode off. As I crossed the parking lot, some guy yelled at me, “Hey! Is that a Beto sign?”
That brings us to a few weeks ago. I was getting ready for a week-long business trip to Boston when my Facebook started blowing up. I belong to a number of “Bike-Friendly” groups and they were all posting about the weekly Aldi ad having a bike repair stand for twenty-five bucks. These had come through about a year ago and I didn’t jump quick enough – they were sold out in a day or so. And now they were back. But I would be out of town.
So I made arrangements for Candy to stop by the Aldi on Tuesday and get a repair stand if they had one. I received a text in Massachusetts that she had been successful.
I was really curious about the quality of the thing. How useful could it be for twenty five dollars?
It’s surprisingly good. Not professional quality – but it’s got a big base, very stable, very tall, and a usable clamp to hold your bike. It isn’t something to use every day, but for the shadetree bike mechanic – it’s just good enough.
My only complaint was the rubber jaws on the bike clamp fall off – but some glue fixed that. Now, I have a crazy idea…. I’ve wanted a serious camera tripod for long exposure shots. The stand is rock-solid and I think I’m going to try and build a camera mount on a cross-pipe so this bad boy can do double duty.