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✧ Finalist for the 2022 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest

Selected by Grace M. Cho

Of Wormholes and Junk Monsters

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive.”

–Raul Duke, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


June in the Mojave and the nights make a person idle and scruffy. We sit on the back porch of the family cabin, shoeless, lips smeared with grease, a bottle of cheap wine and a roasted chicken between us, eating with our fingers. View of my father’s junk pile in the middle of the old corral, and beyond it, the craggy mountains, the distant boulders of the national park. Everything on the rented property is noticeably tilted, shabby, slouched in various needs of repair, the chicken coops and sheds and Joshua trees all slanting toward some eastward vortex.

I try to run a hand through my hair but it’s a mess of wind-woven knots. Jonathan’s once high-and-tight cut now long and mussed in the breeze. We smile, our fingers going for the same piece of thigh meat.

Smell of petrichor, the sizzle of meat on a faraway grill, distant wildfire. Long ago, the original homestead burned to the slab. Someone’s careless cigarette on a summer night. Now the earth keeps spitting up the metal bits after every rain: rusted nails, mattress coils, screws, latches, everything that survived the flames. Holes abound—holes for snakes, holes for gophers, ground squirrels, tarantulas, saucer-eared kangaroo rats. In the Mojave Desert, one gets the sense that you could fall into a hole behind the chicken coop and end up in an Albuquerque phone booth or find yourself crossing the stage at your high school graduation. This is my third time living in Joshua Tree, my hometown, where I wake up thinking parabola, parabola, a word I learned in algebra. I failed the class, took it again, failed, but kept the word, feeling the slingshot bounce of it in my bones.

Things scuttle and hop in the oleander. A throng of bees has made a shrine of the lemon verbena. The buzzing dies down, surges again without predictability. Bee language. Bee ceremony. We take sips from the bottle, slide it back and forth across the table. Smell of matchheads, dry earth, something sparking.

“I think I want to have that wedding party.”

“I was sort of hoping you’d forgotten.”

“I had, and then I remembered.”

Jonathan picks at the meat, his brow furrowed into an arrowhead between his water-blue eyes. Beatrix, the Boxer mut, yawns, stretches, whacks my shin with her head before setting droopy cheeks on my foot.

“There could be presents,” I say.

“Do people still do presents?”

“They should give us presents because we didn’t make them come to a wedding.”

We are quiet again, considering. I smile, remembering us in our shorts at the San Bernardino County Clerk’s office last month, having already known both sickness and health, though mostly sickness, our “I do’s” resounding like “I have’s.”

“Let’s make it a potluck,” I say, ripping off a drumstick, “that way people know it’s casual. We can even tell them, ‘No gifts.’”

“I think they’ll know that already.”

“Right, the food is the gift.”

“Food that you can’t eat.”

“Right. I’ll make mine separate.”

Jonathan thinks, chews. “The you now wants this party.”

And I know what he’s saying.

I change my mind about social events. Going to them, having them. But damn it, we were fun people at one point, before I got sick. I’m better now. Getting better. I still have some digits stored in my flip phone. Surely people will remember we were friends.

In the almost-dusk, the silhouette of a squirrel pops up in the junk pile, ducks down, scrambles to the top of a badly rusted Ford fender and stands sniffing the air for danger. Our dogs stand to attention, watching the squirrel. The shadow of an owl falls over the pile, and the squirrel disappears back into the wreck. Parabola, parabola, throw yourself into the curve and slide out in a rush.


§


We walk the dogs so early we’re nearly sleepwalking the first quarter mile. Maynard, the terrier, eats rocks as we go, not chewing, just swallowing. Igneous or sedimentary, he doesn’t discriminate. Chip of rose quartz, andesite, or shale. Morsel of granite, soapstone, schist. His belly is taut with stones. Despite his couple of months eating like a king, his hunger runs deep.

Walking is new again. Just a few months ago I was crawling, and when I wasn’t crawling, I was lying, leaning, or floating. I could barely stay awake for my life—it was like watching a never-ending movie about fog—something Warhol would have shown in an underground movie theater. Except that I was the fog, and it was painful. An infinite regression of specialists, but none of them had a clue. After a full year of hell, I did an elimination diet. Wheat was killing me. No more wheat, no more dying. It’s not the whole story, but it’s what I carry around for now, my pocket stone.

Maynard came from an end-of-the-line adoption fair at an abandoned Borders Bookstore. We went in for the bathroom, came out with a starved dog who had a brown patch of fur around his left eye.

This morning he sees a particularly succulent piece of basalt, listens to “leave it,” and we cheer him on. Just as we’re reaching our stride, the pain in my right pelvis returns. I double over, fold like a knife, stumble into a wormhole.


§


Seven years into the future, I’m wearing stripper shoes—the kind with clear plastic heels five inches tall—washing dishes at a kitchen sink in Redlands, California. The kitchen is narrow but bright and feels nice to be inside, like a well-lit dining car. We shouldn’t have painted the cabinets, we know, but the old paint was peeling. Every time we start fixing up a place, we get a call from the landlord saying it’s for sale. Do we want to buy it? they always ask. We laugh. We’re adjuncts, so—no.

At the YMCA, Jonathan’s known as Big Dad. That’s what all the young meatheads call him, anyways, because he’s huge, he’s fatherly, kind. Together we’re known as the “fit couple.” A year ago, I read about a woman in the UK with horrible endometriosis who managed her pain by becoming a hardbody. That’s what I’ve done. My body fat is so low I haven’t had a period in six months. My agonizing pelvic pain stopped. I can do more pull-ups than most of the meatheads, regular and wide grip. Lift in the morning, cardio in the afternoon. An elite gym wants to hire the both of us as trainers, wants our bodies on their website and brochures.

I’m clomping around the kitchen in the heels, practicing my turns, my poses, no pants, drying the griddle where we cook endless skinned chicken breasts, when Big Dad comes home from teaching English Comp.

“I saved the ice cream,” I tell him, delivering the carton from the fridge. It’s a flavor we haven’t tried yet. A cheat snack. We share a spoon. I go right for the biggest chunk of chocolate chip cookie dough.

“Damn, I can’t believe this is gluten-free,” one of us says.

Light-headed, then dizzy, weak. Something’s wrong. I check the carton of ice cream. It isn’t gluten-free. All the other flavors of this brand are gluten-free.

For a month, I am horribly ill. The figure competition is off. Two months go by, three, four. My first day back at the gym, I’m at the squat rack, my brain a smooshed grape. I only load one side of the Olympic bar.. As I’m preparing to lift off, one of the meatheads notices, calls out to me, “Stop!”

We paint the living room walls a lovely olive green. The landlord phones to say he’s selling the house. Are we interested? We laugh. We’re adjuncts. We move back to the desert.


§


Gluten-free breadmaking, improvised. No cookbook, just instinct. Today I combine potato, rice, and garbanzo bean flours with honey and flax. It smells nice, as anything baking in the oven tends to, but the loaf comes out tough as a football. I bring Jonathan a slice smothered in butter.

“It’s…chewy,” he says, his jaws working double-time.

“You don’t taste the dirt flavor?”

“Should I?”

Even though Jonathan doesn’t have to eat gluten-free, he’s doing it for me, like when someone you love loses their hair, and you shave yours out of solidarity.

I sit by the east-facing window and eat the bread that isn’t bread. Unbread. Bread’s grim twin. My view is the junk pile: windmill, engine block, Ford fenders, bathtubs and sinks, propellers, plows, potbelly stoves, crates of railroad spikes, buckets of nails. These are just the things I can see; below is the unidentifiable, the crumbling, buried, lurking. I’ve heard it said that autoimmune diseases are like icebergs, but I say they are junk piles.

My illness, depending on the light, changes. It’s unfair. No, it’s lucky. It could’ve been so much worse. It could’ve not happened at all.

Inside a doorless medicine cabinet balanced on top of a giant anvil, a blue glass insulator shines like a watchful eye, looking back at me.


§


I call my old boss at Desert Arc, an organization that assists people with disabilities. “Are you sure you want to come back?” Linda asks. She means that it still only pays $9 an hour, and hadn’t I left to get my education? Jonathan gets on with the school district as a substitute teacher and does his best not to choke the junior high kids who yell obscenities during history class.

The first time I worked at Desert Arc, I was a social recreation coach, which meant taking clients out to do fun things like bowling and to the movies. Desert Arc doesn’t have that program anymore—slashed funding—now they’re all about job coaching. I get stuck supervising a woman who doesn’t like anyone. Marnie. She’s supposed to clean up at the day center, disinfecting tables and whatnot. Whenever I try to eat lunch next to her, she pinches her nose to let me know I stink and moves away. Half-heartedly sloshing around a dirty rag or emptying a trash can, Marnie will look right into my eyes and tell me I suck. “I mean, you really suck.”

One time I ask Marnie what she doesn’t like about me, and she looks flabbergasted, as if it should be obvious. She motions with her hand to show me that from feet to head and back down again, I am just all-around awful.

“I have Celiac disease,” I blurt, thinking she might have some sympathy, or at least ask me what that is.

“Pfffff,” she says, “I’ve heard it all before.”


§


Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes…”

Wedding party day. The Rolling Stones' Big Hits album on the thrifted record player, our friend Hunter playing DJ. Dan starts a game of horseshoes using wine bottles as posts. Our neighbors, the climbers, set up a slackline. My dad takes people on tours around the property, sharing stories of his desert pillages, “I dragged that windmill five miles out of a wash.” Jonathan’s older brother, on all fours, tugs with the dogs, the tug rope between his teeth. Everyone’s having a good time, going wild, feeling free in the desert.

People eat and eat until we’re running out of food, my cheese and olive tray ransacked. Jonathan suggests ordering a pizza, but I shake down the kitchen instead, doubtful a delivery driver would make it out fast enough. In the cupboard is a package of gluten-free noodles, my mother’s care package. A jar of sauce, some salt and pepper.

“You better stop, look around, here it comes, here it comes…”

The male counterpart of the climbing duo wanders in looking for the bathroom. We strike up a conversation. I add salt to the boiling water, toss in the pasta. I’m nervous because the last time I made gluten-free pasta it melted together like torched Pick Up Stix.

“You guys climb?”

“I haven’t climbed since I was a teenager,” I tell him. “But I grew up here and went all the time with guy friends.” All the time, I think—what am I saying?

“Why did you stop?”

“I moved away.”

“Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes…”

“But you’re back now. You guys should come climb with us.”

“Yeah,” I say, picturing my body falling to earth in a small, soundless heap. “That would be cool.”

He starts in on favorite climbing spots, listing names of routes. I stick a fork into the boiling water and pull out a gray noodle, wanting to test the softness. I’m nodding and making sounds that show I’m listening. I blow on the noodle and slurp it down. It tastes great, nearly normal.

“But I guess my favorite route is ‘Dave’s Not Here, Man.’ My buddy Dave named that one.”

“Oh, yeah. I love Cheech and Chong.”

“Is that a route?”

My heart begins to speed up. Fast. Faster. It beats loudly in my ears. Something is wrong. I turn off the pasta, start searching for the colander, opening cupboards and drawers, unable to remember where I put it. I suddenly feel like I’m in a stranger’s kitchen. My vision slightly blurred, my knees weak. Hunter shouts from the living room, “Goddamn, I love this fucking song!”

“It’s on the counter,” the climber says, pointing to the spot right in front of me. “So, what about bouldering? Just chalkin’ up and throwin’ down a crash pad?”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. I look out the front windows to find Jonathan’s face among the partygoers. The song ends, the next one begins, the record scratches, the needle sets back down. “19th Nervous Breakdown” starts again.

“I’m so sorry, Dave,” I say, “But I’m tripping out.”

“It’s Joel. My friend is Dave.”

“Sorry, Joel. Something’s happening to me.”

“Do you have any more of whatever you took?”

My teeth begin to chatter uncontrollably, my skin prickling with goosebumps. I drop to my knees in front of the cabinet below the kitchen sink to rummage through the trash, tipping the bin on its side, rifling through bills, wadded up papers, empty cheese packages. Inside my ears a jumbo jet is taking off.

“Where the fuck is it?”

“Your stash is in the garbage?” asks Joel or Dave, dumbly.

“Your nineteenth nervous breakdown, your nineteenth nervous breakdown, your…”

“The noodle package!” I don’t mean to yell it. I don’t mean to be climbing inside of a garbage can at my own wedding party. I don’t mean to be on the verge of tears and losing my words. “I have to find the… the thing the noodles came in….”

“On the counter—next to the colander,” he says walking backward from the kitchen, realizing he doesn’t want whatever drug I’ve taken after all.

My mother is not here. She left the desert for the beach last year and lives too far away now to come to a backyard wedding party. And maybe I even told her not to come, she’d spent enough summers in the desert. If she were here though I’d be shaking her by her beautiful, tan shoulders—“Why did you send me poison? Why didn’t you read the ingredients?”

Buckwheat, in 12-point font, and just below it, in smaller letters, an afterthought, and wheat.


§


A year into the future. We’re visiting my mother on the central coast and she’s made soup for dinner. She was careful, she said. It’s been hard for her and my stepfather to understand all that has happened to their daughter over the past several years. She’s up, she’s down, she’s mighty, she’s weak. It’s all in her head. Not off with her head, but she should have her head checked. A few bites into the soup, and I lose track of the conversation—can’t find my words. I’m shivering. My heart fills my chest until my whole body is beating. They stop eating. I’m crying. I shrink down to the size of Thumbelina, my mother’s favorite fairytale character, and dive inside the trash can. I rummage, swim among the trash. The third ingredient on the enormous chicken broth can reads “WHEAT FLOUR.” My mother fishes me out of the garbage, holds back my tiny hair from my tiny head while I vomit, knits a tiny jacket to keep me warm. For days and days, I sleep, nestled in a walnut shell.

My mom buys books on Celiac, on thyroid disease, endometriosis, my trifecta of autoimmune diseases. She begins to understand the web, how the diseases affect one another. She changes for the better. Seeing is believing. Second chances. New beginnings. It takes weeks, but I grow back to my normal height.


§


A few minutes pass by, or an hour passes by. I stumble outside wearing a heavy jacket to where friends are sipping beer and sweating on the porch. Jonathan sees me before I see him and comes to my side. The junkpile is backlit by the setting sun and shining like a god. Pink, orange, and purple ribbon the sky.

“What happened?” he asks. “Your lips are blue.”

“I ate a noodle,” I stammer, unable to get warm inside my extra layer.

“A real one?”

I nod.

“How?”

“My mom… the box of gluten-free foods she sent… buckwheat and wheat.”

He wraps his arms around my padded body and holds me close.

“What do I do?” I ask, or at least I think I ask it. I’m surrounded by people. Should I make an announcement? Tap the side of a water glass with a fork? Thank you all for coming out tonight to celebrate our recent marriage. Also, I’ve been poisoned. I mean, you guys are all fine. It’s just that I ate a noodle—a real one—and now I’m goo. Sentient slime.

I can feel my stomach rumbling, bile rising in my throat. I want to hide. Over Jonathan’s shoulder I see the junk pile and want to crawl inside, wear it like a patchwork exoskeleton. Once inside, I’ll transform into a junk monster, flee into the craggy boulders, live out the rest of my days as a metal sasquatch, a garbage beast—who was the guy made of tin?—a tinman covered in rust, a home for birds.

The bee-shrine surges. Jonathan’s voice mixes with the other voices on the patio. I warm up a little, my jaw settles down, my weight surrenders to his embrace, and I melt into the heavy, drunk sensation of becoming glue. Glue like gluten. Heavy and sticky, brainwaves slowed to a molasses crawl. This is what being glutened feels like: becoming the thing that made you sick.

Jonathan helps me to the picnic table, pours me a glass of water. Someone asks if I’m OK, someone asks why I’m wearing the jacket, aren’t you hot? My dad appears. And the neighbor with the poodle. My friend Celia who I met as a teenager at summer camp. I try to tell those around me what’s happened, but my words are slurred, my story convoluted.

Friends nod, say they’re sorry, look to Jonathan for more clues. Poodle lady is baffled: “Just one noodle?” They don’t really understand what’s taken place and frankly, neither do I. This is my first time ingesting gluten since cutting it out. Everyone stares at me, waiting for what?

The dogs dash suddenly from the porch after a rabbit and the attention follows their chase, the pressure lifted.

“That’s an incredible collection you’ve got going,” Dan says to my dad, pointing to the pile. “Is that a wooden propeller inside that clawfoot bathtub?”


§


For over a week, I sleep. My body’s way of protecting me from boredom and pain. I drink coffee and doze at the table. I wake and play “I Spy with My Half-Opened Eye:” the hunched backs of overturned wheelbarrows, a spinal column of stacked porcelain sinks. A beast dozing in its stockade. I sleep in Jonathan’s arms while he reads, watches movies. I come in and out of Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction, Fear and Loathing, sometimes laughing in my sleep, sometimes talking. Parabola, parabola, blah, blah, blah. You suck, you really suck!

I sleep while Jonathan plays drums, I sleep while my feet keep time. Wake long enough to sip the homemade broth and swallow the expensive digestive enzymes my mother sent. She feels terrible, of course. Called the maker of the enzymes to be sure they were gluten-free. And then after ten days or so, I begin to recover.

I stay on at Desert Arc until I just can’t take being so superfluous. Marnie doesn’t need me to watch her clean. She’s done it for five years now. It’s got to feel patronizing, infantilizing, to have someone younger than her standing around with a clipboard while she restocks toilet paper and fills soap dispensers. Sure, she throws half-eaten hamburger buns and used Kleenex into the recycling can, but nothing I say is going to change that. And I get why she does it—the job itself is patronizing—fuck the system. On my last day, she does her usual routine, telling me I suck, am the suckiest that ever did suck.

“How come you suck so much?” she asks. I’m surprised. Thought she would never ask.

“I’ve had practice,” I tell her. “This ain’t my first my rodeo.”

She likes this. Smiles. I tell her I’m leaving Desert Arc, won’t be her job coach anymore. She likes this a lot. I sit a few feet from her at lunchtime, and she doesn’t move away.

“You know, you don’t suck that much,” she says, demoting me.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. But you’ll get there.”


§


The summer goes on dreamily with kingsnakes, hawk moths, Bighorn sheep, monsoons, the Perseids, dry lightning. The climbers never invite us to climb. The dove who built her shabby nest on the eve of the porch loses her eggs to gravity and blue jays, keeps laying. November and it rains so hard the roads turn into rivers of mud. We buy bright orange Home Depot buckets, gloves, contractor bags, walk the property picking up nails, bolts, screws, pull-tabs, chicken wire, artery-slashing shards of glass, everything the earth spit up from the past. We dig a ditch to divert the floodwaters for next time, refurbish the chicken coops, mend fences, see ourselves staying, building, making babies. Jonathan cooks his first Thanksgiving turkey. The gluten-free biscuits aren’t half bad. We invite friends and family. They like my pumpkin pie.

December and my dad calls to say he’s selling the cabin. Dead of winter and we move into my mother’s old house, one of my childhood homes, way out on Highway 247, an arid valley. Big rooms, no firewood, thin walls, our breath hangs in the air like ghostly mist. Sometimes I wake myself up laughing and it echoes through the house: parabola, parabola, parabola….


 

L. I. Henley was born and raised in the Mojave Desert of California. An interdisciplinary artist and writer, she is the author of six books including Starshine Road (Perugia Press Prize) and the novella-in-verse, Whole Night Through. Her art, poetry, and prose have appeared most recently in Adroit, Brevity, The Indianapolis Review, Waxwing, Ninth Lette, and The Los Angeles Review. Her personal essays have been awarded national recognition including the Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize and the Robert and Adele Schiff Award. She is the creator of Paper Dolls & Books, a series where Henley creates jointed paper dolls inspired by her favorite books.



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