Clay (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Patricia Sammon_McGlinnSecondPlace


Sam asks, “What are we doing here?” and you don’t know if he means here, in Flanders, or more generally, here on God’s green earth, which here, in Flanders is not green but mud-covered and cratered and incapable of sending up any other crop but barbed wire. Or if he means still here, at the edge of this pit—because the horse that was drowning in the mire is now still.

So you tell Sam that “What are we doing here?” is a rich man’s question. Then you step back inside the billet and tell Charley that if the three of you set off right away for the trenches there’ll be time for a quick swim before you have to report for duty. Charley can understand what people say to him just fine. It’s answering with any sense that’s impossible for him. Charley picks up his helmet and canteen and says, “Hymn 34, all rise.” The three of you set off across the three mile distance from the billets to the trenches as easily as if you were still sewer workers living in Manchester and setting off down Portland Street for another day of tunneling beneath the city.  A Red Cross wagon swerves in front of you. Charley chimes, “Lord High Mayor likes butter on his toast” and at once such a happiness seeps into your raspy mood—not unlike butter into toast—because the two best people to have in a tunnel with you are Charley and Sam. Down in that deep dark, inside that scraping silence, you want to be with men you’ve known all your life. The time the sewer main caved in, and the heavy hand of earthworks was pinning the three of you in place, infiltrating nostrils, eyes, lips, Charley whistled a tune – and you knew it was his wordless way of saying what he had no words for: Be absolutely still. Panic uses up the little air we’ve got. Rescuers will be here presently.

Yesterday an officer with an important look about him pulled you aside and said, “You sewer moles are easy to spot— you’re all too small and too old to be soldiers. A German spy with perfect English could overhear that simpleton in your crew and strike up a friendly conversation, asking how the tunneling is going. Your fellow will chat away about how the tunnel is now all the way across No Man’s Land. How, in fact it’s almost directly under enemy front lines. How we’re just a day or two from setting our mine and blowing a few thousand Germans to Kingdom Come. That daft fellow of yours is a danger to our mission.”

In response, you stepped up onto a crate of canned meat and you faced the officer, very close: eyes, nose and mouth. You didn’t say, “The one thing Charley can’t do is join in a chat.”  Instead you said, in words as solid as a landlord’s fist to a door, “Charley is Charley. Nerves-of-steel.” To which the military man said, “If you were a proper soldier, I’d have you court martialed for…” But just then the klaxon sounded and everyone, even the officer, had to put on a gas mask, and that was that.

Walking along with Charley and Sam toward the front lines you concentrate on keeping clear of the motor lorries rushing officers to and fro, and the mule teams laboring to bring rations and water bags to the trenches, and the general supply wagons hauling armament so that the low thud of shelling and the high clatter of machine gun fire need never cease. Sam points to a German aeroplane lifting into the blue. When the three of you reach the canal you see that there will be no swim. A thousand concussed fish, floating on their sides, are staring up at you as you stare down. You look back at the scene behind the billets. An immense observation balloon is being winched down. The man in the balloon’s basket is still aiming his long lens at the German lines. Not for the first time the basket puts you in mind of the one that’s said to be positioned at a chopping block to catch the head of an executed man after the axe falls.  You are grateful never to have seen such a sight. Sam has told you that here in Flanders, someone guilty of desertion or cowardice is killed by firing squad, and you’re glad never to have seen that sight either. The shadow of the oblong balloon washes over the three of you, conferring some kind of luck, or perhaps not.

When you enter the reserve trench, you hunker along, careful to keep below the lip of the sandbags while also being careful not to lose your footing on the slick boards. Twenty yards along, you take a left, up a communication trench and you nod to a group of soldiers swallowing scoops of mud colored bully-beef. One of the soldiers says, Hey, sewer moles, how’s the peace and quiet down there?—and you laugh because, fair enough—these Tommies have only to raise a helmet on a stick to find out how many snipers are dedicated to goal of killing them. You continue along another support trench and eventually approach the sentry who is guarding the mouth of the tunnel. Today’s password is Lord Nelson. The three of you wait for a length of time that is equal to a quick dip in the canal and then, sure enough the night tunnelers appear. As they climb up the ladder of the shaft, they are blinking. They give you their report: seven and a half feet dug. Good progress. Candle went out twice but probably not monoxide because the mouse in the cage didn’t swoon. No sounds of Fritz digging. All in all, a quiet shift. Then the off- duty tunnelers unwrap the pads from their boots and hand you the cotton batting and then they set off on their three mile walk to claim the cots at the billet. You don’t tell them about the fish in the canal. They’ll know soon enough.

The sentry pours each of you a measure of rum which, when gulped, briefly and warmly acquaints you with the entire reach of your throat and the hollow of your stomach. You wrap your boots and descend the shaft and begin to make your muffled way along the tunnel. There is a sequence by which the sounds of the surface world fade: the first to be lost are the small sounds such as the moans of wounded men. Then, a hundred feet along, it’s as if machine guns were never invented. Another hundred feet of trundling, and the shrieks of mortar fire are no more. You continue your crouched journey, your helmet skimming the dirt ceiling, your shoulders almost fully claiming the breadth of the passage. You have to mind your footing as you step along the tracks for the wagon trolleys while you also try not to step on the air hose.  At regular intervals you have to step past a single wagon trolley. You’ve traveled almost the full half-mile length of the tunnel, aware of the warm smell of earth and the cold smell of stones, all the while thinking of home and you’re worried that thinking about home could be a bad omen. You think of the cellar room in the alley off Portland Street. Your wife, sitting at the wooden bench, taking up her knitting. Her cousins, Nellie and Mary, home from their shifts at the cotton mills, both as stooped as you are as you continue jogging the distance. In the dark of your head you persist in contemplating the whole lamp-lit scene of the room, all the while wishing you could stop because maybe the oblong shadow meant today there will be an invisible pocket of monoxide, Or maybe today you will accidentally breach the wall of a German tunnel—and then what you would come upon is not your wife, setting down her knitting needles but the whole lamp-lit surprise of three Germans setting down their shovels and reaching for their revolvers.

You reach the utmost end of the tunnel. The night crew has left the lamp to dig by. The candle and the caged mouse are both trembling though the air seems satisfactory. You place your hand to the working face of the tunnel, a little ritual you perform at the beginning of every shift, for no particular reason.  Then you lean back on the diagonal of the wooden board. You take up the grating tool between your legs so that your feet are on the cross bar, and your hands are on the handles. No one had to tell you Flanders clay is just like Manchester clay: same sweet slip of almost oily earth. You press the grafting tool to the wall of earth and kick out the first brick of the day which Sam grabs and drops into a burlap sack and which Charley gathers as the first sandbag of the day and sets in the trolley. Within moments the three of you—kicker, bagger and trammer, have the rhythm. You are deep inside the elation of knowing you are good at your work and that you’ll never have to stop because the war will never end.

Behind you a sapper quietly guides the full trolley back up the track a ways so he can unload into the waiting trolley and return.  Another sapper is carefully setting down a few wooden boards to have at the ready.  As you press and twist and tug, you indulge a lovely thought: wouldn’t it be fine if you and Charley and Sam were the very crew that completes this particular tunnel. After so many months of rotating shifts and a half mile of digging, you’d have the great excitement of having the sappers rushing along to you, unspooling the detonating wire, packing the explosives into the earth, tamping them well in place. Then all of you would be making a waddling sprint for the shaft ladder and up on the surface you’d be finding a hiding place so you could look across No Man’s Land and see thousands of tons of earth lift high into the air and hang there, heavily aloft, for several additional seconds, before relenting and returning to the surface in the form of dead men and armament and wood and steel. And what had once been a hillside would be dirt that belonged to nothing.

Press of feet, twist of hands, you kick out another slab and another—like a succession of stillborn babes being dropped into sacking and consigned to eternal rest. You’ve never seen a baby being born, stillborn or alive, but you’ve seen three young children, each wrapped in a winding cloth and lowered into a pauper’s grave with all the other typhus victims. Yes, you’ve seen that. To shiver off the thought you almost say aloud that it would be fine indeed to be the crew that completes the tunnel, but of course you say nothing. There’s no talking down here. The work must be conducted silently. The boots must be padded. The burlap bags must be placed, not dropped into the trolley, because, as close as your tunnel is to the German front lines, there must surely be Hun tunnels setting off in the opposite direction, perhaps no more than a few feet above or below, and the enemy diggers must not learn of your existence.

The sob comes on you of a sudden and almost in time, you manage to muffle it in the crook of your elbow. It was just the choked thought of that beautiful horse that lost her footing and slipped into the muddy crater. Just the sight of her clambering uselessly in the slime. You knelt down on both knees at the edge of the crump hole, and looked into her great, searching eyes. They were the color of rich earth. Her whole body was the color of rich earth. There was no way to tell her that rescue was impossible. That she could not be hauled up out the sins of mankind. That her thrashing was only hurrying her drowning. So, yes you took out your revolver.  It was a merciful thing to do in a wrongful world.

Sam signals Wait, Stop. You know he’s mistaken your sob for a burst of monoxide that is theoretically possible because you deviate from time to time out of the clay and into jumbles of shale and gravel. You oblige and hold up the little mouse that seems untroubled by any monoxide, or by the fact that he is in a cage, in the companionship of men under No Man’s Land. You reach into your pocket and crumble a little iron cake into the cage—just for the pleasure of seeing the mouse’s pleasure—the quick tongue, the twitch of whiskers. You crumble another bit of rations.  A few weeks ago Sam pointed to the fields behind the infirmary and said that one day farmers would have to crumble lime onto the ground because so much chlorine gas had rolled across this place. The thought startled you—that the ground itself would need to heal.


Charley has the steady nerves and Sam has the keen hearing. Sam’s pointing upwards, wide eyed. You can hear nothing except the feeble issuance of the air hose but you continue to look up at the blank of the overhead clay.  Sam nods, excited, alarmed. Charley hands you the long stick that’s stored near the trolley. You slide the stick into the ceiling of the tunnel and then you bite the protruding end, clenching your jaw. Instantly you can feel an intermittent trembling. Minute vibrations are buzzing through your lips, jaw, sinuses. Sam is right. There are Germans digging very nearby—above and off to the right.

If it were not the case that your tunnel now reaches almost to the German front lines—if the tunnel were perhaps only halfway across or even three quarter’s across, then you’d dig in a fury towards these enemy diggers and you’d attack them the way a lamprey strikes through the dark waters and latches onto the side of an idling trout. But with the tunnel so close to being able to deliver a mine that will blow up a thousand Germans in their trenches, you do not attack the diggers. You do not reveal yourselves. But your mind, thinking of them, is like an unexploded shell in their midst.

Sam gives the signal to keep digging. Making not a sound, you slide the grating tool into the yielding clay. Sam guides the brick into the burlap bag, passing it to Charley. In an hour you have achieved almost a foot of distance. You set a plank on either side to support the newly won distance.

But then, loud—a sneeze. You look at Sam and Charley. You know. It’s the German diggers. They have also been making progress. They are now directly overhead. And they are not taking care to be quiet. Perhaps they feel safe because they’re still so close to their own front line. One of the men is dragging a shovel or spade. He’s tired. One of them, perhaps the one who sneezed, has a runny nose. There is repeated sniffling. You and Sam and Charley take out your revolvers and make ready for the possibility that the Germans will tumble through. For some un-clocked amount of time you remain halted, motionless, while they proceed overhead.

Eventually the sounds of their digging become barely discernable, faint as the smell of coal smoke in the socks that arrive in a package from home. But Sam is Sam. He delays giving the start gesture so you spend the time wondering if the reason you keep thinking of home today is because  the next letter from home will bring bad news, or because your wife is about to receive bad news about you. When the mouse squeaks for no reason, you flinch such that you almost tumble from the board. The tempting notion that it would be your crew, today, that would complete the tunnel was fanciful; and now the time lost to motionless waiting has ensured this will not be the case. Nonetheless, when Sam gives the start gesture you slam your feet onto the tool and you twist it fast. Clay to bag, bag to trolley and another board up. The only sound is the slide and suck of clay as it is being claimed from its quiet and sent up to the surface as stacked sandbags.

If talking were allowed, and if you were a talkative type, you might try to find words for a mysterious quality possessed by the clays of Manchester and Flanders. When stared at directly they have a brownish-gray color, but as you look away, they gain a momentary bluish cast. The gliding blue is not an ordinary color—it is the departure of a color. The day you were departing Manchester, you and your wife stood in the crowded square. You told her goodbye and she said she’d send you wool socks. Then she said something else but the sense of the words was submerged to the general noise because you were already turning away, attending to the orders of the sergeant calling for the tunnelers to file in. You’d like to tell Sam and Charley that the flash of blue in the clay puts you in mind of how your wife said one more blue thing to you and how it was beautiful because it didn’t have to become ordinary words such as “Mind, be careful, Luv” or “They say you’ll be home in a month.” The blur of sound remained everything she would have said if she had words sufficient to the pride and fear and anxiety she felt. Continuing to dig, you decide you will not speak to Sam and Charley this evening, as you are strolling back to the billet, about a shade of blue that cannot be directly considered. The words to speak of it glide out ahead of you.

As you work the grating tool you wonder if perhaps the clay of Manchester and the clay of Flanders are not merely similar. Perhaps they are one in the same. Perhaps the layer of clay you used to dig through to construct the sewers continues southward beneath places you’ve never seen—Birmingham and London, then beneath the English Channel that the ship crossed as it carried you and Sam and Charley to the war, such that the layer of clay reached into the depths of Flanders. You have just learned that such a distance is not so very great. In the most recent letter from home, written in the hand of the minister’s wife, your wife told you that recent explosions in Flanders were said to have shaken the windows of London and startled Prime Minister Lloyd George and wasn’t that a remarkable fact. But perhaps your wife had not dictated that sentence. Perhaps the minister’s wife had read an article in the Manchester Times and suggested to Annie that her husband might like to know such a remarkable fact and Annie, puzzled—even frightened at the thought of rattled panes of glass, had agreed to the sentence being written and then she’d folded the letter and placed it into the parcel with some tins of condensed milk, some tobacco, some thick wool socks. But now that you think of it as you press your feet to the cross bar of the grating tool and grip the handle, maybe it wasn’t your wife who’d sent the several pairs of woolen socks. Maybe it was Charley’s wife or Sam’s. The three of you always share whatever arrives in a parcel—not just the socks and tobacco but also the news about people who are nothing more than names to you.

Sam relieves you at the board. He’ll do the clay-kicking for a while and you will load and bundle the burlap sacks.  If the war never ends that would mean the parcels would never cease coming and this is as pleasant a thought as the one about being the team who completes this tunnel.

The ground all around you shudders violently, causing the three of you to jounce about. Never before have you experienced such a cataclysm. Sam is grinning. He gestures that some gargantuan shell must have landed just above. And he smirks as he points to himself and then moves his hands apart. Yes—it was probably a British shell that almost killed you, falling just short of German lines.


Coming to, the first thing you realize is that you were knocked out. You reach for the grating tool, the plank beside you, the mouse in its cage, the nearness of Sam and Charley but by the flats of your hands, your feet, your forehead you know you are trapped in a man-sized gap of air. Sam, Charley you call out and the immediate dirt keeps the names for itself. Cave in you inform yourself. You wonder if you are on your belly, facing the entire thickness of the world that includes China, or if you on your back looking up through a mere forty feet of dirt. Without strength or space in which to kick, you manage to arch your back. You turn your face so you can take a deep breath. Dirt falls into your ear.  Entombed. It was the word you had meant not to think but now it is the word that is keeping you company as you consider the casket of your predicament.

A small part of you—perhaps the quivering mouse that is your heart, is desperate to tell you, before you lose the ability to think, that perhaps you are thinning to oblivion because carbon monoxide, which is the true enemy, is already moving through the passageways of your bloodstream. At this thought you send up a great foisting of panic that does not enlarge the gap whatsoever. You whistle some notes over and over. They are not part of any tune but they don’t need to be. When you have stilled yourself, you conduct the interview that Sam would conduct when checking for gas poisoning: headache, confusion?

If Sam were here he could hold a lamp and check you for a bluing of the lips.  You don’t think you are suffering poisoning. The slump of your limbs is due to the cave-in, not gas. You feel yourself to be alert. In fact that is all you are. You are a buried alertness. You are something that the earth is thinking about—with fixed concentration.

The warmth of your body joins itself to the warmth of the dirt in a general numbness. You are no longer awake but you are not asleep. You are gliding in place. By means of shoulder blades and kneecaps, ankles, wrists you are traveling the pebbled layers, the gravels and the boulders, the totalities. Stuttering along, you come upon all the dead men—those buried in an instant by a land mine or a mortar shell, or buried with care in the infirmary cemetery. You know them to be young men from Dorset and Bavaria, Brittany and forests of the Ardennes. In a juddering embrace you hold them all. You are the slants of water tables. The secrets of seeds. You are widespread. You are too vast to be rescued. What stretcher could hold you? What stretcher bearers could bear the weight of you? You are all of Flanders. You are a trembling that is matched to no shell or exploding mine. You are the tremendousness of the ground itself.


Quick as the scraping sound that startles you, you shrink back into the smallness of a man: two arms and two legs, hungry lungs, eyes meant for sky. Someone is approaching by means of a shovel. You fill the inch of air above your mouth with shouting. Even if it is a German tunneler about to come upon you, well—better to be found and then shot and become the color of rich earth and no longer foundering, than to live for some forgotten time before ceasing to.

Some sort of rod strikes your belly. You gasp and dirt falls into your mouth. There is an odd snort of expelled dirt that is different from your own snorting and spitting. The rod is a tube. Someone is blowing through it to clear the end of dirt and now he is speaking to you. Could it be the very officer who was in a flap about Charley; has he come all the way to the end of the tunnel to supervise the rescue.  In your wild relief you can make no judgment about a high born accent.

He is giving you an instruction.  “Wait for me to move the tube from my mouth to my ear and then give me a shout.”

How long ought you to wait, you wonder? What is the distance, measured in time, between lips to ear as he turns his face?

“Here!” you shout. “Here!”

You listen to his response. “Conserve your air, chap. We’ll very soon have you on velvet.”

Already you are forgetting you were once someone fully alive in the living ground, joined to its mineral quickness, its trickling and seeping. Already you are forgetting what it was to be held by the dead earth, to be joined to all the stones and bones within it.  Already you are becoming someone who, if told the blue in the clay was like the earth thinking of the sky or like the earth thinking of the water, would have no idea what that meant.

Already you have shrunk into yourself. And who else should you be but one of the diggers of the 170th tunneling company and proud to be so.

Already there is lamp light. Arms reaching. And then a voice making the report. “We’ve got the third one.  We’ve got Ed.”

Patricia Sammon was born and raised in Canada. She graduated from Cornell University and then returned to Canada to complete graduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She now lives with her family in the United States.  Her stories have appeared in December, Narrative and MidAmerican Review.  Among her awards she has won a Nelson Algren (back when they had several winners a year), a Cecil Hackney and an Asheville Writers’ Workshop.  One of her stories is being anthologized in this year’s Best Non-Required Reading.





Mysteries of the Universe (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)


Mysteries of the Universe

The premonition hits as I walk down Park Street to the university. One foot up in the air and bamm! Knocks me back like a punch in the gut or a mysterious pain in the chest. A premo that sends a chill down my spine despite the warm spring morning. I try to shake it off. I have things to do.

Crows squawk in the maples and oaks, a holy racket. In the distance the university band rehearses for the halftime show of the first home football game four months away, another holy racket. The smell of fresh baked bread and donuts drifts from Sweet Melissa’s Bakery on Lake Avenue.

I try to wash the ugly inkling, the déjà before the vu, out of my mind by concentrating on the cottonwood fluff floating in the air, the noisy crows scolding me, the fat dandelion blossoms blanketing the lawn. A large limb from a sycamore tree has fallen across the sidewalk in front of the physics lab. The dew-covered grass in the shade of the red bricks and ivy of Rodman Hall needs mowed. Cleaning up downed limbs, mowing, trimming, mulching flowerbeds, seeding the muddy areas around the greenhouse. Maintenance stuff. My job. Need to get everything looking tiptop for graduation.

The premonition gnaws at the sunny day. It’s a dark thundercloud threat just over the horizon, lightning flashing, thunder booming. I hope it’s a false warning, a fake forecast.

I’ve had a few, both good and bad, fake and not. Take the one when Sloane and I were camping in the Boundary Waters, our first date, although we didn’t think of it as a date. We’d known each other three weeks. Morning fog blanketed the campsite so thick we couldn’t see the water a few feet beyond our beached canoe. Dew dripped from the needles of the pine trees, landed on the rocks with little plops. I closed up the camp stove, and we took our cups of coffee inside the tent, sat on our sleeping bags with Yogi hunkered down bear-like between us. “A moose,” I mumbled a few minutes later, just as the coffee was beginning to cool.

“What?” Sloane asked.

“Outside the tent,” I said. I hadn’t heard a thing, no hooves crunching on pinecones or sloshing through water, no chomping of aspen, no snorting. Pure premonition.

Sloane gave me her Ph.D. in theoretical physics look. I couldn’t even recite the title of her doctoral thesis, which had something to do, she explained, with cosmic rays called Oh-My-God particles. I had no clue what Oh-My-God particles were despite her attempts to explain, but I took comfort in her admitting no one else knew much about them either. Sloane says space-time is curved by gravity and that virtual particles pop in and out of existence, but she doesn’t buy into premonitions, prophesies, omens, or signs.

Holding onto my cup, I crawled to the tent flap and flipped it aside. Ten feet away and staring at our red canoe was a giant moose although, I guess, all adult moose are giants. I touched my finger to my lips and pointed. Yogi, curious but cautious, watched, sniffed the air. No growl or bark. The moose grazed around our campsite then stepped into the lake and urinated, which sounded like a bucket of water being dumped or a waterfall dropping from a respectable height. “Premonition,” I said a bit smugly.

Sloane shook her head.

I tried throwing a little of her theoretical physics stuff at her. “Didn’t you tell me yesterday as we were paddling across the inlet that quantum things in the future can influence the present? Maybe the future moose in front of our tent signaled it would be there.”

Sloane smirked. “Future events influencing the present is only true in the quantum world,” she said.

Sloane is driven in an indoors/office/journal reading sort of way. Although she had traveled to conferences in several countries and a dozen major cities, this was her first camping trip. I wanted to ask how one thing could be true in her quantum world and not ours, but the moose had moved on, and she was packing up, preparing to move out.

Later that day, the moose day, two young women wearing nothing but hats paddled by us, which has nothing to do with this story.

“Morning,” I said, doing my best not to focus on their as yet un-tanned breasts.

“Morning,” they answered.

After they’d rounded a bend behind us, Sloane, sitting in the bow, turned, cocked her eyebrow. “Well? No comment?” She spoke softly as sounds carry over water, and she didn’t want the topless paddlers to hear.

“I’d worry about mosquitoes and sunburn,” I said, “but it’s a free world.”

Sloane puzzled over my answer for a second. “In the spirit of sisterhood,” she said, and then facing forward, pulled off her sweatshirt and bra.

I stared at her back, the way it narrowed near her waist, the smooth skin, the soft bumps of her spine. “Oh, look,” I said, pointing at an island behind us, tricking her into turning around. “Thought I saw a bear.”

She squinted at the island, and then at me. “Yeah, right,” she said, daring me to stare.

A bare-breasted theoretical physicist sitting in the bow of my canoe. Who could have imagined?

Sloane says we met by mistake, but I say we have a cosmic connection. When the science department has a lecture I attend. I like seeing slides of galaxies, nebulas, the colorful clouds of Jupiter. When I was in high school we had careers day, and I signed up for cosmetology, which I had mistakenly assumed was cosmology. The instructor, a woman with fluorescent blond hair and bright red lipstick, asked each of us to describe our interest in cosmetology. “Wrong class,” I muttered.

Sloane, applying for a position in the physics department, gave a lecture on dark energy and mistook me for another prof. Instead of wearing my maintenance clothes, boots and a blue shirt with Russ, my name, stitched in red above the pocket, I wore a sport coat and tie, having come from my niece’s recital. (Lucy’s only ten and plays the violin.) After the lecture I complimented her, and she asked about my research focus. “Oh, I go in circles,” I said, referring to mowing the lawn, but she thought I was talking code for work with the Hadron Collider. We went to dinner where her mistake became obvious as I had no clue what she was talking about: Hilbert space, vacuum energy, the fine tuning problem. She laughed when she discovered I mowed the lawn, and when we returned from our Boundary Waters canoe trip she moved in with me, saying I was a mystery and she liked mysteries. We’ve been together nine months, something my mother calls a pregnant amount of time.

Her look: white blouses and not a wrinkle in them. Black skirts that show off her long legs. She’s thin and has reddish-blond hair, which she wears in a no-nonsense, professional above-the-collar cut, a style the instructor in the cosmetology class might have liked. Her lips stretch across perfect teeth and her hazel eyes sparkle when she smiles. She doesn’t wear glasses, which is surprising her being a theoretical physicist who is always buried in a book.

Anyway, all this has little, maybe nothing, to do with my premonition, but, as Sloane says when describing her quantum particles, we really have no idea what is real and what isn’t, so I’ve included it here in an effort to be as honest as possible even though honesty is a seldom admired characteristic today despite lip service by politicians, religious folk, the FBI, and the Boy Scouts.

The spring semester is almost over, and dandelions cover the campus commons. Arnold Dickey, the head of maintenance, ordered ten gallons of Roundup and told me to spray last spring and fall. I don’t trust Roundup despite assertions by DuPont that it’s safe. I got rid of it, burned it in the incinerator, then sprayed the lawn with water. I don’t understand Arnold’s love of Roundup. He was in Vietnam, got sprayed with Agent Orange, which has been linked to his Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was made by Dow Chemical, which is now part of DuPont, so you’d think he’d be suspicious of chemical sprays and chemical company claims.

Arnold catches me as I approach the maintenance shed. Before he went through chemo Arnold looked like Willie Nelson what with his beard, western hat, and long, white pigtails, but his hair and beard are gone, replaced by bald, although he still wears the black western hat. I think he’s going to warn me about the dandelions, which isn’t really a premonition as much as a hunch. There’s a difference.

Arnold owns a hangdog expression and gets right to the point. “Sloane,” he says. “How do you feel about her getting the trip?”

Trip?  I squint. “What trip?”

He waves his hand in the air, trying to remember the name. “The Antarctica thing.”

I don’t know about any Antarctica thing. Sloane going to the South Pole is something I can’t imagine. Our canoe trip to the Boundary Waters was her equivalent of going to the moon.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe she’s going to surprise you.”

“When?” I ask.

“Maybe over dinner. I don’t know.”

This is the way Arnold talks, expecting you to fill in between the lines. Arnold also has spells, gets confused, maybe the chemo, maybe something else. Arnold calls me Wes sometimes when I’m Russ, maybe a beginning dementia thing, maybe exposure to Roundup. “No,” I say, “I mean when is the South Pole thing?”

He looks up in the trees, maybe trying to remember, maybe watching a squirrel. With Arnold, everything is maybe. “This summer, I think. Going to be there six months.” He pauses, points at the dandelions and shakes his head. “That Roundup ain’t doing shit,” he says. And then remembering, “Maybe she said something and you forgot.”

Sloane works late, sleeps late. Much of her work is done at her office desk. Most of it is math without numbers, just letters and squiggly lines, sometimes a graph. I’ve seen it. Why would she want to do that in Antarctica? “Must be a mistake,” I say. “She’s a theoretical physicist. They go to conferences in big cities, sit indoors. They don’t go to the South Pole. We’re going camping this summer.”

“Can’t be in two places at once,” he says.

But you can, or at least those quantum things Sloane talks about can. Here and there at the same time. Unbelievable. It’s like a habit with them.

I haven’t talked with Sloane since lunch yesterday. She nudged me with an elbow to the ribs when the alarm went off this morning, but she went back to sleep before I rolled out of bed, so we haven’t had time to talk about the South Pole or her being in two places at once.

Arnold, like me, has not had much luck in his love life, and he tends to be cynical about relationships. That’s why he worries about Sloane. He thinks she’s stringing me along, which has nothing to do with the string theory of the universe she often mentions.

I dismiss Arnold’s off-hand warning the way I dismissed ten gallons of Roundup and this morning’s premonition. I toss Antarctica in my mental incinerator. Melted. Gone.

I’ll stop by Sloane’s office later, after I take care of the sycamore limb blocking the sidewalk next to the physics building, after I pretend to kill the dandelions. We’ll have lunch together, and she can tell me something new, maybe explain how gravity curves space or how those quantum things can be in two places at once. I’ll ask about the Antarctica thing, which goes to show my mental incinerator is not working.

When Sloane goes for a walk to ponder, she takes Yogi. What a sight! Yogi weighs 140, twenty pounds more than Sloane. When we went to the Boundary Waters, Yogi and I swam despite the water being so cold my fingers, toes, and personal body parts went numb. He stayed by my side, kept an eye on me. That’s the Newfoundland way. His chin is white and his eyes are milky. He is slow to get up, and he sits gingerly, but he loves to swim.

Students greet me as they head to their classes. “Hi, Russ, “Morning, Russ,” they say. My name is stitched in red letters above the pocket of my blue shirt, which I have already mentioned, so they know me and that I can unlock their dorm room doors when they forget their keys. They watch, a few do, as I cut up the sycamore limb and haul it away. Sycamores love water and the physics building is on high dry ground, so I have no idea what the tree is doing here. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here, too.

Anyway, by the time I finish taking care of the limb and pretend to Roundup the dandelions, it’s lunchtime, and I enter Rodman Hall, the physics building. Sloane’s office is on the third floor, the floor with the view of the football stadium and the river. I knock on her door and it swings open. “Oh,” she says. “Is it that time?”

In the beginning we ate lunch together a couple times a week at one of the tables in the faculty lounge off the cafeteria, days when she didn’t have meetings or a class, but we stopped doing that for reasons I don’t know. It happened. A mystery. When the weather warmed up and everything began to green, we sometimes walked home and had lunch there, sat on the back steps and watched Yogi sniff around the yard, cock his arthritic hip on the bushes.

Today, however, the day of the bad premonition, I order delivery from Busy Day Café before heading to Sloane’s office. I don’t have to specify what we want. It’s always the same. “Lunch for Russ and Sloane,” I say. I’m in Sloane’s office five minutes when Jerry whose-last name-I-don’t-know shows up with the white bag holding our sandwiches, a vegetarian wrap for Sloane, a steak sandwich for me. Sloane drinks Coke despite my warnings about it being a lot like Roundup. I drink water.

We make small talk. She’s amused by my granting amnesty to the dandelions but otherwise she’s preoccupied. Sloane is desperate to understand the universe. “Is it those Oh-My-God particles?” I ask, nodding at the papers on her desk.

She goes, “What? No. Just thinking. We need to talk.” She looks at the office door the same way Arnold went blank staring off at the squirrels and for a second I think something is going around, a distraction bug or virus.

I wait for the talk we need to have but none comes. I avoid the Antarctica thing because I don’t believe it’s true and because I’m afraid if I ask it will be, sort of like those quantum things that come into existence when you observe them. There’s a connection here I can’t explain. “Hey,” I say, trying to drum up a little enthusiasm. “I’m looking forward to the lecture tonight.”

She sips the Coke, leaving a smudge of lipstick on the straw. “Oh, Russ, are you sure you want to go?”

I take a bite of my steak sandwich. It’s huge. Her veggie wrap is green and small. Maybe that’s how Sloane stays so thin. I’m confused as to why she thinks I might not want to go. I go to all the physics lectures. I like hearing about the unknown, and I’ve not made a fool of myself by asking a question, stupid or otherwise. I just listen. “Sure,” I say. “I’m going.”

“Going where?” a voice behind me asks.

Rocky, the grad student she’s supervising. I want to say, Oh my god, it’s Rocky, but what I actually say is, “Hey, Rock. The lecture tonight.”

Rocky’s eyes never look straight at you but off to the side, like you’re really six inches to your left. He’s thin and pale and cultivating the Einstein look with his wild hair. He wears dark-rimmed glasses and needs to change his name or switch his major to geology.

“Excuse me,” he says to Sloane, stepping behind me and my steak sandwich. “Do you have time this afternoon to look at my calculations . . .” and then his voice trails off as he mumbles things like Planck’s constant, dimensions, and vacuum energy.

Sloane gives me a look that says she needs to take care of this and it would be a good time for me to run home and let Yogi out for a few minutes. She can say all that with one look, a twitch of an eyebrow, pursed lips.

I grab my sandwich and thermos of water—no plastic bottles for me— and nod to Rocky, who flinches despite my not touching him. I save the last two bites of the steak sandwich for Yogi, who will give me a look that says thanks.


Later, after sitting on the back deck with Yogi and him giving me the look that says thanks, I walk back to the university where right off I’m confronted by two students, a young man wearing flip-flops and a tie-dyed shirt and a tiny, wide-eyed, granola-type girl, who may or may not be his girlfriend. Both are holding cell phones, like this might be the way they talk to each other. “Russ,” she says. The tone of her voice suggests she’s locked herself out of her room. Again, this is not a premonition but a hunch based on voice, body language, and her blocking my path.

“What can I do for you?” I ask, and she points at the grass, at the tiny pink flags warning that the dandelions have been sprayed with an herbicide and they should stay off the lawn for twenty-four hours.

“You’re poisoning the environment,” she says. Her tie-dyed friend nods.

“It’s not poison,” I whisper. “I put flags there so everyone would think I sprayed the dandelions.” I hope this doesn’t get back to Arnold who would be sorely disappointed in me.

The girl, wearing a Greenpeace badge on her jean blouse and half a dozen silver rings dangling from her ears, takes a defiant stance. “Herbicides are poisonous,” she says. She snaps a picture of the pink flags with her cell phone. “You’re killing microorganisms in the soil. Animals will track this back to their homes. Birds will eat poisoned worms.”

I bend down and snap off a dandelion. She jumps back like I’m going to attack her with it. I bite the dandelion. She gasps. The guy stares at me. “Cool,” he says.

For a second I think the dandelion has a sickening sweet smell, a bitter taste. I worry that Arnold came out with more Roundup, real Roundup and not water, and dowsed the dandelions. I pick another, a fat, bright yellow one with moisture still clinging to the bloom. I sniff. There’s no sweet smell and the blossom tastes like salad without the dressing.

The girl is confused. Maybe I’ll die in front of her and maybe I’m telling the truth. She tugs at the sleeve of her boyfriend’s tie-dyed shirt, and they slip away, careful to not step on the grass.

Another thing I learned from Sloane was that things, quantum things, exist only when they interact with other things. If they don’t interact, they don’t exist. I asked Sloane to explain. She started, took a deep breath, stopped. “Electrons, photons, all the tiny bundles of energy that make up atoms, don’t exist unless they interact with something.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But how is that possible?”

“It’s hard to explain,” she said.

Although she assured me I had nothing to worry about, I welcome these interactions with students. We exist!

A lot of the things I learned from Sloane came during our canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. “What came before the Big Bang?” I asked as we paddled across a smooth stretch of water. Yogi’s ears perked up like he wanted to hear the answer too.

“There was no before,” she said. And then she asked, “What’s wrong with those trees?”

“They’re aspen. Probably the Aspen Blotch Miner. It’s an insect.”

“Will it kill them?”

“Probably not. And how can there be no before?”

“There was no time.”

We paddled close to shore. The wind had shifted and we were alert for any sudden change in the weather while I tried to grasp how there could be no time. A few seconds later—see, there’s time—I touched my finger to my lips and pointed at the bird swimming ahead of us.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“A loon.”

We went back and forth all afternoon, me asking questions about the universe, how an electron could be in two different places at the same time, what is dark matter, and Sloane asking questions about the Boundary Waters, what were the smooth rocks where we beached the canoe, why was the area so rich in iron ore, what was the story of the Native Americans who had lived here, and where had they gone.

I’ve heard dozens of science lectures, and I’ve read a few books, but I’d never had a chance to ask questions of an expert. My job during those science lectures is to be quiet. Talking with Sloane I felt the way a music lover taking a canoe trip with Adele or Prince might feel, like a football fan talking with Jimmy Brown, the greatest running back of all time.

We fell into something special on that trip, if not love, something moving in that direction. Sloane had a wicked sense of humor and several times we laughed so hard we almost tipped the canoe. At night, after the mosquitoes quieted down, we’d stretch out on the smooth slab of rock along the shore, hold hands and stare at the stars while Yogi snored beside me. I tried to imagine a universe that went forever and then tried to imagine one that didn’t. Was there intelligent life somewhere out there staring back at us?  How did this universe get started and why were we here? Sloane was looking for the answers. Loons called back and forth, their songs both beautiful and haunting.

Sloane talked all winter about the two of us going on a return trip to the Boundary Waters. “I want to see a bear,” she’d say. I have the permit and a couple weeks off in August. That’s why I don’t think Antarctica is a real thing.

I get ready to mow despite the mower’s roar annoying the professors who are trying to teach electricity and magnetism, particles and waves. A few professors have become so outraged by the mower’s roar that they fight back. We have battles. The physics professors have threatened to shoot me with lasers and turn on powerful magnets that would suck the fillings out of my teeth. I let the tractor backfire and make an extra sweep past their windows when these things happen. I hate cutting the dandelions, but a job is a job, so I make sure the mower deck is secure, fire up the tractor, and begin making loops around the green. Mowing is a good time to think.

Do premonitions have an expiration date? How can you tell the fake from the real? These are things Rozzi and I argued about when we were on patrol outside Kandahar. Rozzi claimed if you never told anyone your premonition it wouldn’t come true. He hoped it might keep at bay the nightmare scenarios we all foresaw. He also said premonitions had no expiration date. I argued everything died sooner or later, even premonitions.

I can’t shake this morning’s premonition, which is like a bad dream, a disturbing movie playing on a screen behind my eyes. Made me feel hollow. If this premonition were a movie there’d be sad music playing, maybe a cello or bagpipes, maybe the theme from the movie Starman at the moment Jeff Bridges is about to leave and never come back. I would describe it except for hoping Rozzi was right. If I keep it under wraps it won’t happen.

I go around and around, the circle of mowed grass growing smaller with each loop. I take comfort in knowing the dandelions will be back. The sun is fat and bright, the first really hot day this spring, and my neck is burning.

After work I walk home, I call Sloane’s office as I put a pizza in the oven.

“Russ,” she says. “Sorry. I’m going to dinner with Dr. Franz and Dr. Ahman before their presentation tonight. We’re on our way now.”

I hear other voices and laughter in the background. “Okay,” I say. “I love you.”

“Okay,” she says. “Got to go.”

I eat half the pizza. Yogi’s bones are tired, and he ignores my offerings of the crust.

As I walk toward the lecture hall the whistling of the spring peepers and the smell of fresh cut grass cheer me although they do not wipe out the ghost of this morning’s premonition. When I arrive the room is half full of grad students and their friends. I don’t spot Rocky’s wild hair. The two giving the lecture and the physics faculty have not yet shown up, still hobnobbing, I suppose, at the Other World Tavern across town.

I take a seat near the front and save the seat next to me for Sloane although she will probably sit in the first row with the other physics professors. This does not bother me. I understand how she might want to lean over and whisper a quantum question or comment to one of her peers who will whisper theoretical things to her.

Five minutes before seven they show up and take their seats in the first row. Sloane turns in her seat, spots me and nods. I wink back and let out my breath, which I didn’t realize I’d been holding. After long introductions the lecture begins.

The first speaker, a physicist responsible for experiments with photons, explains that when two quantum particles are close to each other they become entangled. They can then be sent their separate ways and still, somehow, maintain a mysterious connection when thousands, even millions, of miles apart.

I like the idea two particles can remain connected when far apart. I think Yogi and I have that. I hope Sloane and I do, too.

Next up, is an older woman who repeatedly swings her head to the side to get her long, going-to-gray hair out of her eyes. Her theory is that the universe is a hologram, nothing more than a projection stored in a two dimensional membrane surrounding the universe. “Which is real?” she asks. “The three dimensions we think we know or are we and our world like the images in a mirror, mere projections?”

I can’t sit still any longer. Maybe it’s the weight of the bad premonition. The thought that we are nothing more that images is too much. I raise my hand.

The woman smiles, leans forward and nods.

“But we’re more than images,” I say, hoping I haven’t missed the entire point, hoping, too, I’m not embarrassing Sloane. I tap my chest, the spot over my heart. “I’m solid.”

The woman nods a few more times to acknowledge my question. “But you aren’t solid. You are mostly empty space. And that very tiny bit of you made up of protons and neutrons and electrons? Well, they’re not solid either. They’re bundles of energy that pop in and out of existence. It’s a great mystery, isn’t it?” And then there are more questions, eager grad students wanting to impress their professors and each other. I stop listening. When the lecture is over, when the speakers have been thanked and everyone heads for the door, there’s a tap on my elbow.

“Russ?” she says. “You okay?” She sits, one vacant chair between us.

“Are we entangled?” I ask.

“That happens only in the quantum world,” she says.

“Are you going to the South Pole?”

She doesn’t appear surprised by my question. “Yes. I don’t like the cold and it’s outside my realm of experience. But I’m looking forward to it.” She glances at her group as they wait for her by the door. “We can talk later.”

I say I understand although I don’t. I want to ask about our trip to the Boundary Waters and if she plans on living with me when she comes back from the South Pole, but I already know the answers. Sloane pats my knee and says she has to run.

The auditorium is mostly empty when I leave. On my way out the door I bump my elbow. Solid.

As I walk across campus my mind races from one thought to another. Yogi is having trouble getting up and down and this may be his last trip to the Boundary Waters. A couple sitting by the lake laugh and lean into each other. The spring peepers sing. Usually I take comfort in seeing the night sky full of stars, but tonight is an exception. I feel alone. Temporary. My premonition haunts me. I feel like I’m no more than a character in someone’s story, and I might, my entire world might, at any moment, blink out of existence.

Roger’s stories and essays have been published in Natural Bridge, The Tampa Review, Passages North, Runner’s World, and other magazines and journals. His short story collection, Erratics, won the George Garrett Contest and was published by the Texas Review Press. “Fireflies” was awarded first place in the Third Coast fiction contest. “Numbers” was awarded first place in The Ohio Writer fiction contest, and his short story “My Suff” was featured in a dramatic reading at the Cleveland Playhouse. As a former science teacher he’s still fascinated by the mysteries of the universe and the human heart. He now lives in Iowa with his wife, Gwen, and two giant dogs.