Married with Kids: One Star, Difficult to Assemble
"Patience" a new short story by Courtney Maum, recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
For all the energy we spend consuming, much of it is devoted to becoming a better consumer. Whether it’s buying local or organic, boycotting Amazon, researching which smart TV to buy, or bargain hunting for vintage furniture, not only are we conditioned to spend, we are conditioned to be self-conscious of our spending. Intrinsic in that self-consciousness is envy; we compare ourselves to people on vacation, in freshly updated wardrobes, people who thoughtfully pack Tupperware bento lunch boxes for their children.
With three novels and one writers’ guide to her name, Courtney Maum has established herself as a bonafide cultural mood ring. Using a blend of wit, humor, and sincere pathos, she captures every shade of the bohemian bourgeois from beige to iridescent. Here, in “Patience,” are Mark and Laurie, a couple in mid-career (of both their marriage and their professions), and parents to Roxy. Roxy has received a malfunctioning drawing easel for her birthday, which sends Mark, via a passive aggressive Post-it from Laurie, to the product’s Amazon reviews.
Maum, who in addition to being a novelist is also a former trend forecaster and professional product namer, is particularly skilled at capturing the existential ouroboros of online shopping. “If the markers don’t work, the toy doesn’t work, and the markers don’t work,” says one review. Replace “markers” and “toy” with words like “communication” and “relationship,” and the sentence applies to Mark’s sense of his marriage and parenthood, too.
These reviews lead Mark to Debbie Meyer, a total stranger and devoted, evenhanded reviewer of products such as Happy Belly Decaf and Better Life floor cleaner. Her reviews, which never point fingers and remain serene in the face of obvious malfunction, signal to Mark another way to live—another way to consume, really—one that is more thoughtful, deliberate, and present. Fortified with Debbie as a distant example, Mark seeks to find more meaning in his life, and to bring Laurie with him. Whether or not his project is another capitalist ouroboros depends on what kind of consumer you aspire to be.
– Halimah Marcus
Recommended Reading, Editor-in-Chief
Married with Kids: One Star, Difficult to Assemble
by Courtney Maum
After putting his daughter Roxy on the school bus in a parka he had won a battle over and flip flops he had not, Mark returned to a kitchen bright with detritus from the night before. Crusted cake dishes, garbage bags of torn up wrapping paper, pink sequins here and there. It was a milestone of consequence: Mark had weathered a princess party with something close to grace.
And then he saw an object on the kitchen table that hadn’t been there earlier: an opened birthday present with a Post-It note attached. It was immediate, the disheartening. His swallowed coffee burned.
This was the gift that had caused problems; the low point of the night. Initially, their four year-old had been thrilled with the LED “Glowbrite” drawing easel whose neon markers made your sketches look all psychedelic, but there was no way for mortal humans to wipe the markers off the screen. After Roxy had presented them with a slate full of “R”s and demanded room to make her “O”s, he and his wife had tried soap and water, even an ancient burp cloth, but the markers were immutable; these efforts only transformed his daughter’s letters into a beaming smear.
Well after Roxy had been bribed into bed, Laurie had been sore about the botched cleaning, turning the scratched screen over and over with calculated sighs. Because his wife had been out of the room when Roxy had actually opened up the present, Laurie remained convinced that the challenge they were facing was Mark’s fault. That he’d misplaced the instruction manual, even though there hadn’t been one.
Research? the Post-It on the easel asked, the question mark so coy it made Mark want to go back upstairs and take a sleeping pill. Tomorrow is another day, unfortunately, a college friend wrote recently on Facebook. Mark had pressed the heart button and liked it. And then he unliked it, because he didn’t want anybody to think that he didn’t like his life.
Mark sat down at the kitchen table with the offending item, the room almost indecent with October light. These Post-Its were a sickness. A manifestation, their upscale hippy friends would say. Laurie knew Mark was being visited by existential questions and she used it to her advantage. He’d spent most of last Friday researching toddler size 9 waterproof boots because of a sticky note he’d found on his own shoe.
Mark looked up the Glowbrite drawing easel up on his cell phone. The company didn’t even have a website, just terrible Amazon reviews. Only two of the markers weren’t dried up when we got it, read the first one. Impossible to clean. What a headache. Worthless and scratched.
Mark scrolled through the various ways that strangers felt cheated by their products. And then he came to this: If the markers don’t work, the toy doesn’t work, and the markers don’t work.
He sat very still. He held his phone and waited. He had a feeling that this consumer review might hold something magical for him. Then his phone pulsed with a phone call. It wasn’t even 8:00 a.m.
“Hello?” he asked, his question mark, hopeful.
It was his assistant producer. The lead in their new feature film quit.
It wasn’t that Mark Lambros was an opera buff, exactly, but he was interested in the story of a once-famous opera star who, in the 1860s, refused to sing in public anywhere but her country house in Winsted, Connecticut, a humble river town which, back then, was reached by horse, train, horse. She spent her weekdays refusing different public concerts, and on the weekends, she would cart her favorite friends out for days and nights of opera, her singing it, them enjoying it, all of them discussing how much such singing meant.
Mark wasn’t entirely sure why he was drawn to the project. The arbitrariness of this woman’s decision, her wish for control, maybe, her wish for something special that took place entirely in private. The director was young and fiery and convincing, and he’d done prize-winning shorts. Plus, he’d thought, how beautiful would it be to hear opera in the woods.
What r we going 2 do?!! his assistant producer texted, even though they had just spoken. The star’s deflection was urgent; the calls coming were urgent. But Mark did not feel moved. At forty-six, he’d done this twenty times. It was so exciting in the beginning, producing indie films. The undiscovered talent, the electrifying hustle, even the gummy turkey wraps at film festivals and the weird seasonal beers. But now, distribution, the goal you used to aim for, and once in a while, get, had become such a pipe dream, that it didn’t really seem worth it to make movies any more. He could post a video of his daughter singing about poop and have more eyeballs on it than he’d ever have for his three-million-dollar doc/fiction-blend about a niche group of opera fanatics living in the woods. Who cared? No one really did.
A duck fell out of the sky into the small pond outside his office. The pond was man-made, and had seemed like a charming water element when they’d visited the house. Now Mark spent as much time parenting that pond against infestations of filamentous algae and duckweed as he did his daughter against head colds and Lyme. Shouldn’t there be two of them? Shouldn’t that duck be south?
The director called. Mark let it go to voicemail. When he thought about the size of the thing he needed to accomplish, the cinematographer and the Belgian lighting director and the wistful supporting actress who’d all signed on to the film because of its big star, when he thought of the important people who would also quit when they heard that Mark had lost her, well this was a hurdle he wasn’t ready to run toward at 8:30 a.m.
He put his cellphone in a drawer where he kept the expired family passports and searched until he got back to the review about the toy not working if the markers didn’t either:
My two year-old received this easel as a birthday gift, and we decided to put it away until she was three, because at two years old, she could not properly handle the markers that came with this product.
Waiting for another birthday might account for why some of the markers were so dry by the time we gave it to her. We stored the gift in its original box which took up a lot of room in our house. Maybe it needed a different environment, the basement, for example.
This product is almost impossible to clean and it looks scratched after the first time that you use it. Before this, our daughter was only allowed to draw on paper though so she is very proud of it. Even our six year old plays with it sometimes.
The reviewer’s dignity was striking. No agenda other than the sharing of a personal opinion, an opinion that didn’t point any fingers at the children who maybe left the caps off of those markers, or the husband (Mark bet it was a husband) who’d bought the wrong thing at the grocery store, again. Together, as a team, these parents had decided to delay the giving of the gift until their child could have a successful experience with it. It was awe-inducing, truly.
Mark looked above the review for the person’s name. Debbie Meyer. Debbie’s community activity board showed a smiling woman wearing a fleece coat. She appeared to be holding something, maybe a falcon. Her reviewer ranking was 2,250,249. She lived in Salt Lake City.
The drawer started rattling from the vibrations of his cellphone. The less quickly Mark responded to the assistant producer, the more frequently he texted. Mark looked at the other products Debbie had reviewed. A baby sun hat. A Nalgene water bottle. Metallic two-tone shoes. A “Better Life” floor cleaner that smelled like citrus mint.
Something in Mark’s heart twinged at this last product. Was he not living his life right? Should he have fragrant floors? There were a lot of people he knew who were having shameful problems in their home lives, but Debbie Meyer maybe wasn’t one of them. This was a woman who had kind and good solutions, who was probably raising a child who faced forward at the dinner table, instead of backward, with her feet up by her ears. Was she a pragmatic wife and mother and a falcon-tamer, as well?
Mark turned back to his computer, his hand shaking a bit. The most recent thing that Debbie had reviewed was a box of “Happy Belly Decaf.” She’d given it four stars. Delicious and FRESHLY ROASTED was the title of her review.
Mark got up and walked around his office. He felt moved—maybe irreversibly—by this woman’s praise. He let himself imagine what it would take for him to be the kind of person who took the time to leave four-star reviews of a bag of decaf coffee. When I got this, Debbie had written, it had only been roasted five days earlier. How awesome is that?
Mark felt sick to his stomach. He turned off his computer. He’d do the breakfast dishes, now. There had been a Post-It note about this, right next to the sink.
“Have you ever reviewed anything on Amazon?” Mark asked his wife that night after they’d reheated the food their daughter had refused to eat and eaten it themselves.
Laurie was cutting up that day’s school notices into an ever-growing scratch pad. She didn’t like to waste paper, and every time Roxy’s backpack came home stuffed with all these notices, she threatened to say something to someone at the school. From the stack of flyers in front of her, Mark noticed two identical ones about “Socktober.”
“Books,” she said, cutting both notices in half. “I’ve reviewed books.”
“Never a product?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” he said, disappointed that she wasn’t going to surprise him. “What would make you want to leave one?”
“Of, like, what?” she asked, her eyes meeting his.
“I don’t know, a thing. Or a kid’s toy.”
“I guess if it caught on fire or something, I’d want people to know that.” She shrugged.
“Would you ever review, like, coffee? If it was really, really good?”
“Well, no. I wouldn’t.”
She squinted at him. “Because who has time for that? And also, there’s too many kinds of coffee. People are totally out of control about caffeine.”
“What about a decaf? Like if I found a really good decaf?”
Laurie looked to the lacquer tray they kept above the fridge with the unfinished bags of potato chips and an ancient Fed-Ex envelope of pot edibles that had a Post-It taped to it, DON’T EAT.
“Are you high?” she asked.
The next morning, after learning of the star’s departure, the film’s supporting actress told her agent that she felt like she was working “in an unstable film environment” and Debbie had a new review up. It was for a “Utah Riffic Snapback Trucker Hat” from a company called, “THATS RAD.” It was fifteen dollars and forty-nine cents, and she’d given it four stars.
What a fun hat but toooo big for this lady! was what she’d gone with as a title. Except, no, she wouldn’t have “gone with” anything, not Debbie. She didn’t question herself, try to present herself as anything; she cleaned her floors with “Better Life” floor cleaner and did not do coy:
I got this hat to hike in because my toddler pulls on the neck protector of my other hat. I am a woman with an average head size, I would say, but this hat was really big! What a disappointment because the hat was very cute. Unfortunately, this hat only comes in one size. So I had to return it.
Mark indulged himself in the flood of good feelings that this news brought to him. Debbie had been excited about something, and it hadn’t worked out, but she was going to keep climbing up life’s mountain, regardless. Faced with the revelation that she didn’t have an average head size, Debbie hydrated her children and sunscreened the lot of them and went on without a hat. It occurred to him, as it did sometimes, in a burst of adrenalized clarity, that there was beauty in his life that a simple change of attitude could help him to admire. Obstacles were challenges. Challenges were opportunities. When life put a big rock in front of Debbie Meyer, she just climbed around it.
This mindset was challenged when Mark went into the kitchen and found a new Post-It note attached to the coffeemaker. The note read, Beans?☺
The thing was, Laurie hadn’t always been a castrater. (The couple’s therapist asked Mark not to call her that the first-and-only time he’d tried to; she suggested “deflector,” instead.) Laurie was a novelist who worked around the clock when she was inspired, and in the beginning (“their salad days,” as Laurie liked to call it, which wasn’t right, really, because they ate way more salad, now), they’d had a loosey-goosey life. A lot of things—a lot of them—fell through the cracks. They had to pay back taxes one year. The car would sit with the same sludge of unchanged oil for months. Or years, until something cracked. They’d run out of coffee and it would be something they complained about until one of them complained the hardest and finally made the trip out to the store, which was kind of far away, because in their early thirties they’d made the decision to leave the city for the country so they could have more time for art.
Laurie had weathered that move phenomenally: she produced untold amounts of work in the new peace and silence. In the beginning, Mark had been inspired, too: he’d produced some award-winning shorts, and even written one himself which made it all the way to Tribeca, three hours away, but a big deal in the film world. And then, the projects had stopped appealing to him, or stopped feeling urgent, and he’d started tinkering with the house, learning a little carpentry, which was useful to the both of them because the house was kind of falling apart, and he was no longer doing the two-film a year thing that would keep him in the scene, and his name started to carry less weight, until it didn’t carry any weight at all. And the real problem was that it didn’t really matter because Laurie’s books were selling gloriously, so she told him to take time, take all the time he wanted. When really, if he really looked back on it, what she probably wanted was for him to fix more things around the house.
He had pushed for a child. He wasn’t allowed to forget this, by the way. And it felt awful to admit this about a being who brought him so much simple joy, but their little girl kind of decimated their marriage. Or at least, Roxy changed the way they were married to each other. They were married worse.
To Mark and Laurie’s credit, they’d fought off the operations management roles that parenthood auto-suggests. They tried not to have the mundane “checklist” conversations they’d witnessed other parent-friends tick through with defeated eyes. Do you have a snack, the bottle, do we have diapers, do you have the disheveled T-shirt blanket that probably is riddled with Ebola? They skipped these domestic check-ins because doing so felt like proof that they were still “spontaneous” and maybe even “in love,” but these forced inattentions usually resulted in Roxy pissing in her car seat because each of them thought the other one had put the diaper on.
It had never been a conversation. Something about parenthood had depressed Mark, in the full sense of the word, it had filled him and had slowed him, and it hadn’t done this to Laurie, so she was still working furiously and making money and he wasn’t, or he wasn’t making much, and so without either of them really talking about it, he’d become the eighty-nine percent-of-the-time caretaker of their child, and Laurie was the winner of the whole grain, sprouted bread. And the fact that they had never talked about it, hadn’t used words like “time out” or “depression,” hadn’t used any words at all, really, but just kind of shifted into these new positions that saw Laurie leaving Post-It notes that were punctuated as love letters but were obviously chores, had Mark feeling immobile. He resented his wife, and she resented him, but he needed her, and she needed him, also, but not for the kinds of things that he wanted to be needed for.
That night, Mark asked Laurie if she had an Amazon wish list. In between trying to find a replacement for his opera star and convincing the panicked cinematographer not to jump ship also, he’d been tracking the things that Debbie wanted. She had a lot of stuff on hers.
“A what?” Laurie was separating the school notices at the kitchen table, again. There was going to be a field trip to the fire station Friday. Their child was going to have to walk through a “smoke trailer,” and if they didn’t want that to happen, he was going to have to call the school.
“An Amazon wish list. Where you put the things you want.”
Laurie squinted. She was always squinting at him. “I just buy the things I want.”
“Exactly,” Mark said, pleased. There was an apple on the table for some reason, and he decided to eat it.
“Are you accusing me?” she asked.
“Of what?” he crunched.
“Of, I don’t know.” She was holding onto a blue piece of paper. The Socktober notices had changed color. The need was urgent, now.
“Well, what would you have on your wish list if you had one?” he asked.
“I would have less notices from this stupid school.”
Debbie Meyer’s wish list had 27 items on it. Mark monitored it daily. She wanted a book of poetry by Mary Oliver, a replacement mop head for her spin mop, and a travel memoir by Bill Bryson. But she also wanted a lot of books about God. How incredible to see someone’s desires listed out so plainly! It made Mark dizzy to imagine a world in which he could see what Laurie wanted. The transparency, the happiness, the access of the thing! To know with a single click that you were living with someone whose heart sung for an expandable pull-out cabinet shelf, waterproof adult sandals, a 6.5 inch cast iron pan for making homemade donuts, and a turquoise shawl. It made him start with longing. It was a freedom—a freedom with a framework that he would never know.
Mark and Laurie had composed wish lists once, under the supervision of their therapist. They’d had to fill out sheets that read, “What would make me feel loved?” at the top. It was bad, definitely, that Mark couldn’t remember what Laurie had on hers. He’d put “speak to me with the same face she uses for her girlfriends,” on his.
They’d made it three sessions with that therapist. Things improved, so they stopped going. Then things got sad again a year later, so Laurie called for an appointment, but the therapist had moved. To North Carolina, the voicemail said.
Socktober passed; 272 pairs of socks were gathered which didn’t come close to the 383 pairs received the previous year. “Humanity is fucked,” Laurie said when she fished the disappointing news from the “Parent/Teacher Communication Folder” in Roxy’s glitter backpack.
Well it was true, wasn’t it—there wasn’t much hope left. They’d started 2016 with so much fury, tipsy with the potential of their specific rage. Laurie set up automatic payments from their checking account to ACLU and Planned Parenthood; they attended sign-painting parties with Roxy, and took those signs (and Roxy) to crowded government lawns; they hand-wrote postcards to senators; bought sheets and sheets of stamps.
But you can’t stay in the fury stage; it’s followed by defeat. If you bang and bang on a door, and nobody opens it, barring the exception of the person who actually knocks the door down, most people walk away from the door with a new hunch in their shoulders, burred shame in their heart.
Mark’s wife was a fighter, but she disliked wasted time. Laurie wanted results for her actions that she could track online. At a dinner party the other night, she announced that the lack of action around gun laws had gotten to a point where she fully expected to be shot. That every time she went to some big chain place like Target or Trader Joes, she wondered: Is this the day it happens? In the patio and garden department, considering a pouf?
It was a lot to reckon with. It was. In so many ways, Mark understood why Laurie left him all these Post-It tasks. They ran out of coffee beans, and he got some. Roxy wanted to be a mermaid for Halloween, so he found her a costume. Laurie was worried she’d trip on her mermaid tail getting into the school bus, so on the 31st, he put it in his Google calendar that he’d drop her off at school. On the micro level, their world was manageable and functioning, they were winning every day. He ordered things from Amazon and like clockwork, they showed up. There was a gaping, spreading hole underneath their driveway, enlarging weekly, widening its gullet to swallow the whole world, but at least Laurie could go down knowing that Mark had stocked the fridge.
A lot of his friends seemed like they were on the brink of losing it. But nobody did.
That Thursday was date night, every second Thursday was. They’d chosen a new place their friends had raved about that had an eighteen-dollar burger. Was this considered a good deal? The burger came with fries so Mark supposed it was.
The waiter handed them the menus, and they took time looking through them even though they’d probably order burgers. While they were waiting for the waiter to return, Laurie made an announcement.
“I’ve sent the new manuscript to my agent,” she said.
“That’s great!” he answered.
“She’s going to hate it,” she added, pulling at the menu’s tassel.
Mark didn’t say anything else because this was probably true about the agent, who didn’t like Laurie to take risks of any kind. His wife wrote romantic chic-lit comedies about busy moms who did things like send their kids to school plays in an Uber. She’d put some lesbians in this one.
“Well,” he said. “What now?”
Laurie actually looked at him. She had put on earrings. The unexpected effort both flattered him and made his stomach clench. Three years ago, she had asked him if they should try an open marriage. While they were folding laundry, he recalled. He said he’d rather not. He really did not want to have this conversation again.
“What now is…” she faltered. The waiter had come back. But then he left again because he’d forgotten his writing pad.
They both searched for something to say in the gape of the waiter’s absence.
“How’s the opera proj—film?” Laurie course corrected. There had been hot water over this at the therapist’s, the fact she never called his films films, she called them “projects.” “That’s because so few of them actually become films,” is how she explained it to the therapist. Right in front of him.
“I think what we’re going to do,” he said, picking at a tear in the menu’s lamination, “I think what we’re going to do is change the filming dates. To…accommodate her new schedule. So, like, April probably, instead.”
Mark watched Laurie work through the way this information would impact her own schedule. Her lips tightened, brow furrowed, the whole thing.
“You couldn’t have mentioned this before?”
Mark stopped himself from saying that he was mentioning it now. He stopped himself, but it didn’t feel very good. “If we don’t get her back, the whole film will fall apart.”
His wife was going to say something, but the waiter re-appeared.
“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asked.
“Um, we’ll have the burgers?” he replied. “Medium, for both?”
Laurie exhaled. She shut her menu. “I’ll have the mussels, actually.”
“Oh,” said Mark, once the waiter had left them. “Wow.”
“I know,” said Laurie. “Wild!”
Her earrings made a swoosh-swoosh sound when she laughed her little laugh.
In November, the cinematographer quit because April didn’t work for him, and Debbie added a new book to her wishlist: The Uncertain Church. She also posted a two-star review of her garlic press. We have now been using it regularly (a couple of times a week) for 8 months and the metal has become bent and rendered itself useless. It is possible, she accommodated, that we pushed too hard.
The fact that Debbie seemed to be flailing in her life and her belief system made Mark want to be strong for her. It made him want to be strong for the entire world. It made him want to be the exceptional person who knocks down the fucking door.
He called up the cinematographer and used strong words. He ordered a drain cap and installed it in his gutter so that the leaves and chipmunks and whatever wouldn’t keep going down the S drain and clogging everything up. He went to a new Tai Chi class at the town recreation center and let everything flow. And when he found a Tupperware in his fridge with a Post-It note that said Really bony whitefish? Mark stuck another note on it that said, This is NOT my problem.
That night, for the first time in forever, Laurie initiated sex.
By December, Mark had convinced their original star to come back into the fold using the age-old solution of flattery and cash. They’d shoot the film in May, which was a terrible month to shoot in (black flies, persistent mud), but they’d shoot the film with her. Mark celebrated by taking Roxy and Laurie to the local church.
It had been something he’d been thinking about for quite a while now, going to a church. The catalyst had been the underlying piety of Debbie’s careful wishlist (she’d purchased a new copy of He Whispers Your Name, but had bought God Has a Plan for Your Life, used), but also, there was the quagmire of Roxy’s current age: she didn’t take what her parents said as fact any more, for each question, there were more questions—her mind was like an existential set of Russian nesting dolls.
And then there had been pet week: the disastrousness of that. One day, Roxy came home with a missive in her Communication Folder to bring in a pet photo: this was what the kindergarteners were doing, bringing in photos of their pets. This was going to be difficult for Roxy, because the Lambros’ family pet was dead. Or at least they thought he was dead: Muffins had not come home one night and after three days of steel-hearted optimism, Laurie told Roxy that he’d gone to Coyoteland, which she had meant as a euphemism, obviously, but just made things more complicated. (“When will he be back?”)
So an irate Laurie had sent Roxy off to school with a picture of their dead cat, Muffins, when he’d been alive. (“What kind of public school assumes that everyone has a pet?” she asked.) It did not go well. No it did not go smoothly, and now Roxy was talking about death all the time, and because Mark didn’t have the answers, he had started thinking that they should go to church to find them. They had one right across the town green, a nice place that flew the rainbow flag and offered monthly “maker space” activities where the elderly passed on their knowledge of…well, Mark didn’t know of what, exactly, because they hadn’t been yet, but the young received instruction in something from the old. Aside from gratis activities and the fact that they had something to do on Sundays other than make pancakes (which, honestly, took Mark all day to digest), there was something stronger pulling him—all of them—to the Northwest Congregational. Wasn’t it kind of irresponsible to raise a child without religion? Not that religion was ever something he or Laurie had. Laurie’s parents were admitted atheists, and Mark had grown up thinking he was “epa-skopp-lian.”
But still. A person should have answers. Especially right now when everything…felt hard. A person should be allowed to indulge in the belief of a master plan holder if it enables them to floss, drive on the right side of the dotted line, not phone all of it in.
To Mark’s astonishment, Laurie was enthusiastic about the church outing when he found the courage to suggest it. She spoke of it like a field trip—like a trip to the museum. At an ice cream social fundraiser for the school’s roof (which needed reinforcement, an assurance of some kind), she regaled their circle with a teaser about “their upcoming trip to church.” What she didn’t tell their friends is that—after that initial visit—the Lambros’ had kept going.
Roxy loved the little “houses” for the Bibles in the backs of all the pews. She liked to follow along in her prayer book like a “real” reader, and sing the grown-up songs. As for Mark, he loved the Pastor. (It was “Pastor,” right? The Fathers were Catholics?) Mark loved Pastor Rick in a way that made him think (worry?) that he was opening to the wonders of the world outside his house. Plus, he was so progressive! PR—as Laurie called him—was tall with boyish skin and a pair of glasses that weren’t interesting at all. He was a new kind of hip—earnest, vitamized. PR incorporated pop culture into his sermons and he ran around the neighborhood in freshly laundered sports gear; if Mark and Roxy made it out of the house five minutes earlier than usual, they could watch Pastor Rick run by in his ironed clothing while they waited for the bus.
It was becoming very important to Mark, the church-going, but it was a fragile thing. He had no idea why Laurie was encouraging it—participating in it—and he was too afraid to ask. If he asked, he worried that it would wake her from some reverie, cause her to announce that now that they were expected there on Sundays, it was time to stop.
So Mark didn’t prod and Laurie didn’t say anything, and soon enough the holiday gauntlet was upon them, and they powered on. The church-going felt even more restorative and significant during the holidays—plus, it distracted Mark from the guck of daily life. In church, Mark didn’t need to consider whether Roxy was too young for the computer tablet she desperately wanted for Christmas, or ponder where he was going to find three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of lighting equipment with the hundred-thousand dollars he had left to light his film. No. On Sundays, Mark could think about babies in mangers, and what myrrh actually smelled like, and whether there was any way—like, scientifically?—that there actually was a God. Church kept him from, well, grinding, really. It sprung him from the cog. And it got him thinking of the big things—the great big, great beyond.
The best thing was the sermons, though. Thanks to these, Mark was finding answers to questions he didn’t know he’d been holding in the closed-up interrogation room inside him. Last week, Mark had spent hours mulling about the Pastor’s view on credence: “Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period.” But two weeks ago was the really good one; Mark’s favorite so far. Pastor Rick talked about Tom Petty, who had stopped living, recently. He used some of Petty’s lyrics to explain God’s relationship to his flock.
It’s alright if you love me
It’s alright if you don’t
I’m not afraid of you running away, Honey
I get the feeling you won’t
“God waits,” the Pastor said. “He is patient. He’s the most patient man there is.”
Laurie was changing, too, from church, and definitely for the better. Normally, by this time of year (post Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas—or rather, the “Winter Holidays,” as Mark had recently been corrected by a woke gaffer), Laurie would have had Mark researching different thread counts and scouring holiday listicles for teacher appreciation gifts that made elementary teachers feel “seen,” but this year, she declared an entirely different tack. They were going to focus on giving experiences instead of things; privilege memory making over buying. So far, all of the ideas that Laurie was culling off of lifestyle blogs actually did entail buying things, but Mark was game. They were looking at different camping tents, and Laurie really wanted to find an ice skating rink for a family outing—they could rent the skates and get one of those little hobbly things for Roxy, who had never been on skates before. They were going to bake, also. They were going to bake for other people. Roxy was not going to take the news well that she would be giving, rather than getting this Ch—holiday season. There would be no tablet. But they agreed to present a united front about it. They agreed to stay the course.
Meanwhile, in Utah, things were not so good. The formerly steadfast Debbie Meyer seemed to be experiencing a real form of malaise. She was adding all kinds of funky items to her wishlist, but her actual purchases remained run-of-the-mill, which made Mark think that her soul’s song wasn’t being heard. For example: she wanted a weighted blanket; she purchased a second set of “Tike Right” drink trainers which she only gave three stars. Worse still, she left a one-star review of the choose-a-sheet paper towels she’d switched out for the basic family roll from a “bulk retailer” she’d previously favored. (“This product might be appropriate for a family who can’t easily make it to a supermarket, but I plan to switch back to my old paper towels after this because those towels were cheaper.”)
It was just defeatist, this attitude, defeatist and not like her. The Debbie who had taught Mark something important about faith and its rewards would have credited her children for making fewer spills than they used to, so she was one of the lucky few who didn’t have to be concerned about a superior absorption rate for a higher price. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9, she might have added, the Debbie he rooted for.
Even though it would break the “memories over materialism” credo that he and Laurie had aligned on, it just didn’t seem right—it didn’t—to let Debbie go ungifted. It was in Mark’s power to buy something off her Amazon wish list—he had looked it up, it was a new service they were offering called “Be an Awesome Neighbor.” And while Mark recognized that it was a little weird to buy something for someone that you had never actually met, the truth was that they had been through something together, he and Debbie, and so it wasn’t invasive, what he was considering doing. It was modern friendliness; a long-distance version of goodwill.
Mark had been eyeing the Warm Tartan Checked Shawl that Debbie had had on her list forever, but then—two weeks before Christmas— it went out of stock. (This occurred before Debbie checked the item off as “purchased,” which pained him, on her behalf.) Of course there were the Mary Oliver back titles, but even Mark recognized that the sending of poetry was a step over the line. Laurie—if she knew any of this—would consider it all over the line, that you didn’t buy things for strangers that you had effectively been surveilling, but Mark had come far enough along in his intrapersonal efforts to recognize that this would be Laurie’s criticism of the situation, not Mark’s. As for Debbie? Debbie in Salt Lake with the falcon and the spills? Debbie would appreciate having her bird call answered, even if it was by a customer named “Spyro the Dragon” with no customer reviews.
Reminders about the Mitten Tree and the Cookie Drive flooded Roxy’s backpack; Laurie’s purchases of buckwheat flour and silicone oven mitts and Healthy Cookie Cookbooks flooded their mailbox. It became December 18th, 20th, and still Mark hadn’t found the perfect thing for Debbie. In search engines bearing mistletoe logos and chili pepper Christmas lights, Mark browsed gift lists for friends who were “having a hard time.” He found a furry worry monster with a zippered pouch that you could put your scribbled doubts inside of, compression socks with affirmations on them, non-stick egg rings in the shape of hearts. Mark paused —not for the first time—over the weighted blanket that had been on Debbie’s list for months now, his internal sensor zinging because of 1) the price and 2) the fact that Laurie would think it way over the line to give a stranger an item for her bed.
Grey and queen sized, non-toxic and hypoallergenic (which were kind of the same thing?), the blanket that Debbie wish-listed had glass beads inside that aided Deep Pressure Stimulation for an epic sense of calm. One-hundred-and-forty dollars (without shipping!) was way more than Mark should spend on a stranger—honestly, it was approaching the most he’d ever spent on Laurie from his own account—but still, the blanket felt just right. This was his parting gift to Debbie, proof that Mark wished her the very best on her particular path, which couldn’t be his path any longer—Laurie was keen on them doing a digital detox for the new year, so his access to the Internet was going to be severely pinched.
Mark ticked the blanket from her wish list and followed the “Be an Awesome Neighbor” instructions that an Amazon video tutorial had showed him how to do. He manifested the happy life he wished for Debbie inside of her new blanket, along with dreams that smelled of Nalgene bottles and citrus mint-cleaned floors. In his stomach, in the dark part where he kept the things that even PR hadn’t troubled, Mark registered that he was going to miss Debbie’s children and the things they spilled on floors, miss the demanding titles of the books she wanted to read, the real-time tracking of the money that she was saving up to spend. But you had to let go of an apple seed to grow an apple tree. (Pastor Rick that Sunday.) And so, with a sentiment closer to resignation than acceptance, Mark confirmed the buy.