“And what good will it do you
to go home and put on the Mozart Requiem?
Read Keats? How will culture cure you?”
-Adrienne Rich, In Memoriam: D.K.
On the radio they are teaching us about pistons. In a small tool shop in Minnesota, the piston maker laughs modestly.
The man who introduced me to John Prine is gay and from Ohio. One summer he had a flesh-eating bacterial infection in his calf, and they put him in the isolation unit of a suburban hospital as bright and rambling as an airport. When I visited him, the nurses had me don a gown, mask, and gloves. I stood in the doorway with a bouquet of coneflowers. He told me he’d been hearing squirrels in the hospital’s ceiling, and I thought he might be feverish. But his lover, seated beside the bed, confirmed he’d heard them, too. It was dark and I couldn’t tell, but I imagined the view from the window might be nice.
He had squirrels in his ceiling at home, as well, and invited me once to stand on a chair and press my palms against the ceiling and feel them—like when a pregnant woman says, come feel it kick! Now he works in a FedEx warehouse near Toledo. He says he’s reading a book about bread. He says he lost his carpool buddy, and then adds, as if it were a sad revelation, that men don’t have friends—they only have buddies.
I’ve driven around the Midwest. On a clear Friday, all along the shoulder of I-80 going from Nebraska to Iowa, there were dead raccoons arranged in pathetic and undignified positions. I was listening to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, to one man lauding another for writing about emotions so emotionally. And then my little brother and I were on a bridge, spitting into the Cedar River. Or maybe we didn’t spit—but we must have considered it, just to see something fall.
Before administering an exam in 2013, my political science professor said, I saw a squirrel get hit by a car today. Another squirrel ran into the road to try and save it. Good luck on your exam. I found six in my little brother’s freezer and each had its own Ziploc bag. Those were Iowa squirrels, big and red. In the refrigerator I found a life-sized squirrel carved out of butter. I opened the silverware drawer: one fork; one spoon; one knife; one sharper knife.
Make me a piston.
And if I couldn’t have been a piston, why not a piston maker?
For a while, my life was populated by Midwesterners and I was in love with one of them. It might have started with his hands, pushing down the plunger on a French press, or his fingers tapping the drywall, searching for a stud. Above the head of his bed hung an abstract painting his friend had made for him in the eighth grade.
He said that church made him nauseous, but I remember one open-window weekend, he played the Johnny Cash cover of “Were You There,” while he carried all his houseplants to the yard for a bit of sun, and later took them in when the light was failing and the cold was coming back. We communicated, largely, by annotating and exchanging books (Marguerite Duras, Maggie Nelson, Lorrie Moore); this was stimulating but not sustainable.
I have slept with someone else since then—a man I brought home with me from a wedding who noted the stack of Paris Reviews on my bedroom floor, which I had gotten for free and, to date, haven’t read. The most spectacular thing about these pistons is not that they fit in the palm of one’s hand, or the heat and precision with which they are manufactured, but rather, the fact that they are (in this particular case) only one of about seven-hundred custom designed components. Sometimes I write to tell him (in a text message or a letter) when I have a particularly strange dream (for example, the dream in which my grandfather is reborn as Fidel Castro, then dies again, and I am hitchhiking to his state funeral). There is no definable purpose to these correspondences. Each is merely another concession to the lingering impulse to expose oneself.
It is difficult (but essential) to find the optimum speed for pouring molten aluminum and I am driving behind an ambulance carrying a baby. Later, when my friend asks how I know it’s a baby inside the ambulance, I will not say it’s because the baby is in a car seat, on a stretcher, elevated and visible through the back window. I will say, listen, this is the takeaway: there is no longer inside the ambulance and outside the ambulance.
For example, I am walking in my neighborhood, looking up at the houses, as I do, deciding which color I would like if I ever have one of my own. Not the slate gray, but maybe the mauve; not the turquoise, but maybe the periwinkle. I glimpse a shirtless man, standing by a second-story window with a woman’s ankle over his shoulder. I think they must be stretching but am unsurprised when I realize they are not. I turn my attention to the houses on the other side of the street and think this is the way of the world now: there is no longer inside the ambulance and outside the ambulance (the bedroom, the kitchen, the church, the office, the classroom, the bathroom). On Easter Sunday, I take communion in bed.
Whether we are aware of it or not, all our trust rests not only in the piston, or the piston maker, but first in the piston mold maker. This is a serious mold, they say, it has to be made of steel, weighing almost two tons. But it also has to be so precise that every single piston is accurate to the micron.
I am standing on the sidewalk talking to a nineteen-year-old on the phone about academic search engines, about audience awareness, about the structure of an essay, an essay and its purpose. I am thinking: Lord, make me a piston. He wants to know how to cite an endnote. An endnote? I ask, Or a footnote? The thought of a supply chain didn’t always make me cry, but in Nebraska I spent an afternoon reading about the history and significance of the center pivot irrigation system. I had to stop sometimes, in Ohio, to stand and watch the sun on a silo. Home in the urban mid-Atlantic we have only electrical tower easements, toward which I have long nursed a strange affection.
The piston mold is coming to the piston maker, from Michigan to Minnesota; he estimates it is near Gary, Indiana now. I am asking my students to articulate the purpose of their research essays and wondering if I could articulate the purpose of a single piece of writing I’ve ever produced. Maybe a few cover letters, I think, maybe a Facebook status.
To ward off sadness after the election, my mother resorted to a hymn. She only knew the refrain, which the song was named after, and she would sing it while clapping her hands and marching in place: Brighten the corner where you are!
We were not beyond slogans. I tried not to see this as an absurd answer to impending fascism, not to see my singing mother as helpless (if only slightly more helpless than when she read the paper or marched in the streets). But sometimes I did, and this illustrated helplessness was unnerving.
You can play that one at my funeral, she said. I added it to the list.
There it is.
What is that?
Those are the first piston parts.
But before the impeachment, and the Allegory of The Cave kid, even before my friend was laid up in the hospital with his calf weeping onto a sterile, absorbent pad, listening to the squirrels, before I was standing there with the coneflowers, feeling useless, and before the radio taught me about pistons: it was a weekend from May to June and I was camping on a beach with two friends. We lay in the harsh sun, squinting in different directions, opening our fists very slowly to deposit the sand back into the sand and one of us said: oh, and one more thing about when the dinosaurs died: it rained glass.
And then later, around the fire, she asked: do you think we’ll still go camping after the revolution?
You are in the car with me, driving east. We know we have left the Midwest when the highway is flanked by towering and complex kudzu formations. But we are also driving home from Easter dinner. We are inside the car and outside in the intermittent rain. We are passing a cemetery and we are changing lanes on Georgia Avenue. It is easy enough to create a pump, one says, exasperated, but we’re trying to ventilate a lung. We are coming into the city. We are stopping at lights. We perform our politics to each other, for each other. A man crosses the street in his socks.
“In Memoriam: D.K.” (excerpted in the epigraph) originally appeared in Adrienne Rich’s book Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988.
The referenced episode of The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is “Tony Earley Reads William Maxwell” (January 3, 2013), produced by Newyorker.com and Curtis Fox Productions.
Special thanks to NPR’s Planet Money, Episode 987: The Race to Make Ventilators, which incited this essay. The episode was produced by Nick Fountain and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, with reporting by Karen Duffin (This is a serious mold…) and Kenny Malone (What is that?). Chris Kiple, the CEO of Ventec Life Systems, also appeared in this broadcast (It’s easy enough to create a pump…). It was produced on March 31, 2020 and aired on WAMU on Easter Sunday, 2020. The piston maker referenced in this essay is Todd Olson, CEO of Twin Cities Die Castings.