Cottonwood Seeds en Route: V. Nadine Sauer

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from May, 2020.

This is the fifth and final entry in Cottonwood Seeds en Route. It is a continuation of Part IV: Isabella Dudosa.

I. Dulciloquent, adj.

It’s not only
because old books are cheaper—
though that certainly helps.

The language
flows like rivers with
centuries-old glacial water—
crisp, refreshing.

The pages age,
change shape and tone
like a person’s face and voice.

They’re
the only ancestors I have—
roots
for the rootless.


II. Arte Povera, n.

I know
it doesn’t seem like much, Elinor,
but our home has all we need.

I realize
you may find the stacks of books annoying,
but I haven’t found a good bookshelf at Goodwill
yet.
So, instead
our apartment has some free-range novels—
no oppressive, corporate cages here.
You, as a wildflower,
can probably appreciate that.

I know
I could get something cheap at work,
but it’s all soulless squares—
an erasure of home and culture.
We’ll MacGyver something, Elinor.


III. Microfinance, n.

After my shift, I usually
drive home,
cuddle with Falstaff as I
eat dinner and
watch Dragon Ball Super.

Lately, every commercial break
is an ad from Target
thanking me for my service,
lauding themselves for
donating masks to hospitals.

They
say they
care about me.

Not enough to
increase hazard pay.
Not enough to
ensure safer working conditions.
Not enough to
provide guaranteed COVID-19 leave.
Not enough to
cut a CEO’s salary to
cover the loss of hours of their employees.


IV. Padawan, n.

You called my name
from the backyard to show me
the tomatoes you were growing.

You held this bulb in your hand
that was as black as your hair,
and I didn’t believe you.

You held it up to me,
told me to bite it.
“They’re delicious, honey. Try it.”

I squirmed as I held it,
imagined black ooze gushing
from phantom bite marks.

I closed my eyes.
My trembling hand raised it to my mouth,
and I bit it like a wolf on deer meat.

I smiled as
seeds and juice dripped down my chin.
Delicious— just as you said.


V. Sinistrorse, adj.

feels like no matter what i do
i always wind up back here.

the same patterns
recurring perpetually.

i still water
your tomatoes

when I think of you,
so they’ll be ripe if you come home.


VI. Mural, adj.

I wake up surrounded by
four walls
covered in specks of memories
lingering in the paint.

I drive to work enclosed in
four walls
made of glass
so I can see the world, but not touch it.

I work in a store with
four walls
full of food and clothes, enough to
nourish multiple impoverished villages.

I don’t know what to do when these
four walls
inch inward like a long exhale—
air seeping through a seam on a spaceship.


VII. Femina, n.

When I learned
my grade couldn’t go down over the closure,
I stopped turning in anything.

Most days, I have work—
had to pick up extra shifts
cleaning to keep my hours up.

Today, I have off; the sun’s out.
I watch the leaves on the birch
across the complex wave in the breeze.

Lying on the couch, draped
over the edge,
I can’t bring myself to move.


VIII. Simony, n.

I didn’t trust you
when your will said
you wanted to be
cremated.

It’s hard to separate
your mom
from
the body she inhabited.

We did it, though—
well, you know that,
since you’re sitting on the side table
by the window overlooking your tomatoes.

I hated that guy at the funeral home
who kept trying to upsell us on gaudy urns
covered in emerald crosses
fully aware we couldn’t afford them.

I also hated that pastor who did your service.
I’m sorry; he did a fine job.
He just kept going about praying and
donating to save all of our souls.


IX. Time-Ridden, adj.

“Hey Nadine! How are you and Elinor?”

“Oh, we’re great! Elinor’s started teething, so I gotta massage her dirt sometimes after I water her. How about you and Lupine?”

“We’re good here too. Lupe started dancing to They Might Be Giants yesterday, and she’s so good, I’m thinking about enrolling her in Auburn Dance Academy.”

“Yesss! She would out-dance all of them! I’d enroll Elinor too, but I don’t know if Cory would get us there.”

She pauses. “What do you mean?”

“Well, when I was leaving for work, they screamed like Goku going Super Saiyan when I turned the ignition—“

“They?”

“Cars don’t have genders; keep up. Anyway, after achieving their new form, I was able to drive to work. They had to power up again to get me home, but it took less time that time, so I think they’re getting stronger.”

“Hasn’t Cory been struggling for a while now?”

“Yeah, sure, but they’re on the up-and-up. Got ‘em a new battery just before the closure.”

“And it— they’re already struggling to start again?”

“It only happens sometimes. Cory’s doing fine.”

“Have you thought about maybe replacing Cory? It’s kinda unsafe to keep driving them.”

I pause. “I can’t get rid of Cory, Isabella. I’m not going to lose them.”

“Isn’t your safety important enough to warrant a consideration, at least?”

“I’m perfectly safe.”

“But someti—“

“It was hers! Okay?! I can’t.”


X. Monody, n.

They asked me to speak at your memorial,
but I couldn’t
find the words.

There are no words
for the gaping tear your death made,
the shrapnel haphazardly embedded
in my limbs.

When someone dies suddenly, people say
they wish they had known it was coming;
they’re wrong.
Knowing,
watching you wither,
hoping for another day
made the period at the end of your sentence
much worse.

Your medical bills were so much,
we had to sell the house,
leave the garden you spent years curating.
Before we moved into this apartment,
I repotted your black tomatoes,
so they could live on our porch.

I still
water your tomatoes,
drive your car,
read your books,
because
it makes me feel like you’re still here
or
you’ll soon come back
from wherever you’ve gone.


XI. Adespota, n.

Do you ever think about
who makes the wind blow?
Why they want to rattle
the dogwood’s branches so much?

Or, maybe:
who spends the hours
setting up endcaps
to show off brand-name labels
at just the right angle
when you walk through a store?

What about the people—
long shadows now—
who cleared the forest,
flattened the hills,
paved and painted the roads
you drive on
as you lament the hours you’ll spend
sanitizing the pharmacy?


XII. Begrudgery, n.

I know it’s bad, but

on Sunday, when Instagram was full of
people with their living moms,
captions saying
they looked forward to seeing them again
after quarantine,

I wanted to scream.


XIII. Awfulize, v.

it’s been two years, nadine. you keep dragging her around with you in that old car. you know the risks. don’t you remember that time it stalled in the middle of the intersection on meridian in front of fred meyer? you don’t want to end up in a bodybag.

you’ve stalled— life on pause. each day like the one before. drag yourself out of bed. drag your feet at work. are you even alive? is there a will that lingers in your heart? is there a pulse there? steps echoing down a long hallway?

or, have you stopped walking? standing in place staring at one picture in the gallery though hundreds await you. you can see the edges of their frames in your periphery.

move your foot. move your foot. why can’t you take step?


XIV. Peck’s Bad Boy, n. (and adj.)

“Ms. Sauer,
can I see you for a minute before
the end of your break?”

Charles
insists on referring to minor employees
in such formality
for reasons lost on me.
He butchers Suri’s last name every time.

I leave
the disinfectant and rag
on the table where I took my break
reading For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I place the book in my locker
on the way to Charles’s office.

His office is small,
loose papers scattered across his desk.
“Thank you for coming to see me, Ms. Sauer.
I greatly appreciate your work here.”

Sounds like one of those commercials.

“It’s really great
that you volunteered to help us
keep up with sanitizing the store.
Are you sure
you’re not overworking yourself?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”
Not where I thought this was going.
“Why?”

“We’ve just gotten
some recent survey results saying
some employees have had
negative interactions with customers
and morale seemed down—“

“So you’re asking this to everyone?”

“Not exactly, no.
The results correspond
with times you were here,
departments you were assigned to.
We just need to make sure
customers are having a positive experience
from the moment they enter our store
to the moment they leave.”

“But
I’m just wiping down
the floors, shelves, and counters.
I’m not really interacting with anyone.”

“It’s a— vibe thing.
“Maybe you could try
smiling more.”

Ugh.

“I’m wearing a mask.
They can’t see whether I’m smiling or not.”

“It’s about
the vibe you give the customer—
your aura.
Does that make sense, Ms. Sauer?”

I sigh. “Yes, sir.
I’ll smize all day.”


XV. Quint, n.

There’s no way
I could have gotten this far
without my friends.
I know
I’m not great to be around when
I get lost in the fog.

So,
I bought five books after my shift
to thank them
(and show them I know modern books).

First, I grab
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
for Crys,
because I thought she’d appreciate
the splintered narrative structure and
the narration of gay ghosts.

Second, I buy
The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson
for Suri,
because it’s a graphic novel (which they love)
by the showrunner of She-Ra (which she loves)
about figuring out who she is.

Third, I put
The Martian by Andy Weir
in my basket
for Isabella, 
because it’s a story on her favorite planet which tackles its
science and psychology thoroughly.

Fourth, I get
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
for Violet,
because she finds metaphors everywhere and
she helped me appreciate poetry,
especially poems by Angelou.

Last, after hesitating at the end of the aisle,
The Divine Comedy by Dante
ends up in my basket
for me.
My mom had always said
she meant to read it,
the way everyone says
they mean to watch The Sopranos, but
Goodwill never had a legible version.

I bag them individually
(I hope
Isabelle, Crys, and the planet forgive me),
leave them on their porches
on my way home.


XVI. Simkin, n.

In the back of the pantry is a bottle,
half full,
older than me.
A faded label, faint swirly writing.
Its cork sneaking a glimpse of
the kitchen when the door opens.

My dad takes it out sometimes
to look at it—
never drink nor open—
late at night,
when he gets home from Applebee’s
covered in dishwasher stains.

Lately,
after my late sanitation shifts, I’ve seen
the white of Seth Meyer’s attic
reflect off the curve of the bottle
and the streams on his cheeks.


XVII. Bukateria, n.

Near the end,
days before
the doctors shrugged
and we lost the house,
the realization came
that things were worse than I thought.

I had walked out of the hospital
after spending the night in your room.
We spent that night
splitting the penne you liked
from Applebee’s. Dad brought it
for you after his shift,
as he did every night he worked.
As you fell asleep,
I read a chapter from Sense & Sensibility
to you, because it was your favorite.

But, when I left the hospital that morning,
I walked up to the coffee stand
on the edge of the parking lot
before getting a ride to school
from Crys’s mom.
The realization came
when Kelsey, the barista, said,
“Morning, Nads!”

I had been to this coffee stand
outside the hospital
so much, not only
was I on a first-name basis
with the barista,
I had earned a nickname.
You had been in the hospital so long,
it felt normal, routine—
no end in sight.


XVIII. Pickthank, n. and adj.

Calling it “hero pay”
is not enough to justify
poor working conditions.


XIX. Simplex Munditiis, adj. and n.

On my way to work, I drove
by TJ Maxx, its planter covered
with cottonwood seeds, scattered
like melting snow.

Some cottonwoods, when felled,
don’t make good nurse logs, lacking
the width and girth to last long—
fell too early, too soon, too young.

They try their best—
stretched like shadows at dusk,
spread thin to help whoever
is still sitting there longing for shade.


XX. Antelucan, adj.

it happens a lot—

i get home late,
my clothes covered in
patches of lemony disinfectant.
i eat some leftovers
of what dad brought home from work
that night or the one before
while watching an anime
i don’t need to think hard about.

i shower then read
before falling asleep at
some witching hour or other. 

then terror;
never the same, but never that different.

sometimes,
you’re swallowed by a void
pulsing from shadows
in your hospital room’s corners,
slowly capturing finer details until
everything becomes
two-dimensional, matte
like a cartoon—
outlines bolden until
all is black, all is void.

sometimes,
you and i are in cory
driving to the discount movie theater
in the mall when
we get t-boned in the parking lot,
shards of glass falling
like hard rain in a thunderstorm—
sounds like one too—
sticking out of your skin
like darts in the dartboards
movies use when they want to
establish conflict or character.

sometimes,
you’re in a pit of quicksand, waist deep,
and I’m standing on the edge
reaching on my tiptoes toward you,
and you keep saying “no, don’t. it’s okay,”
and I argue with you
as you slip deeper and deeper,
the thixotropic sand
climbing over your blouse, your shoulders,
devouring your hair, your neck.
your eyes wide, cracks in the dam evident,
before becoming dark, empty.

i startle awake at the end
as the night sky’s blue-black 
begins its transition to
orange peel.
i watch the line march across the sky
out my window
until my alarm tells me
it’s time to get up.


XXI. Angrez, n. and adj.

This morning,
Falstaff digs his claws into my thigh
when I ignore my alarm.

This afternoon,
rain pounds on Cory’s windshield
when I drive to work.

When KZOK plays “Blackbird,”
I see my mom swaying and humming
in her garden.

When I pull into a parking spot,
I count between inhales and exhales
in my hands.


XXII. Muscose, adj.

I latch onto you
to get as much as I can
before you’re completely gone.
Always have.

I worry in hindsight
that maybe I drained you of energy
you needed.
I’ve been told
that’s not true,
none of it is my fault.

You can never know
how immense the impact of both
your presence and your absence
can be.

I carry you now
like you carried me then.


XXIII. Oblique, adj., n., and adv.

“Hey, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say as I get in Crys’s car.

She squints. “Then why did you call me at midnight to ask for a ride home?”

“Well, Cory was tired from flirting with all the mall cars— you know how they are— so they kinda fell asleep, and they’re so cute when they’re sleeping, I just let them be.”

Crys rolls her fingers along the rim of her steering wheel. “Cory didn’t start again?”

“Yeah. I tried a couple times to get ‘em up, because sleeping at home is def safer than sleeping in a parking lot— true for both cars and humans— but they shut me out after the third time.”

“Shut you out?”

“The anti-theft system kicked in. It happens sometimes. It’s not a big deal.”

“Nadine, I think it is a big deal. Cory’s been falling apart for a while, and—“

“I just put in—“

“— a new battery in March that’s not solving the whole not-starting thing. Are you sure you shouldn’t look at getting a newer car?”

“I have to hear this from you too? Isabella already lectured me about this.”

“Is that why you called me? Because she would lecture you again?”

I open my mouth;
no words come out.

“It’s alright,” she sighs, places her hand on top of mine. “I know Cory is important to you.”

I look at Cory
sleeping in the spot beyond
Crys’s left headlight.

I shake my head. “It was her car, Crys.”

“I know,” she nods. “And it must be hard with her anniversary coming up, right?”

“Yeah.” I clear my throat. “It’s not like we can afford another car anyway.”

“You could always trade Cory in to pay for it.”

My cheeks burn. “Would you have traded your sister in when she was sick?”

The engine’s hum fills the silence.

“I know you’re hurting, but that was a truly awful thing to say.”

She shifts the car into drive.


XXIV. Plutodemocracy, n.

Puyallup changes
when you get a few blocks off Meridian,
especially at night when
strip malls become neighborhoods,
street lights become sparse.

I stare at trees consumed by shadows as
Crys drives, silent,
chewing the inside of her lip,
angry tears welling up in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Crys. There’s so much going on, and it just kinda… I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes don’t leave the road.

“I know I upset you. You came to help me and I was a dick… I’m scared, Crys. I— The anniversary of her death is coming up, so I’m seeing her everywhere. Cory is dying, and I need them. They connect me to her and allow me to get to school and work, which we need to pay off all those stupid bills...

“And work is a constant reminder of how close death is. My job is literally going aisle to aisle disinfecting everything to eliminate the threat of a deadly virus, and my only protection is this old shirt I fashioned into a mask.”

My throat feels like my knuckles after washing my hands a tenth time in one day.

“I know you’re going through a lot. I don’t hate you. I’m still mad though. You can’t just walk away from the thing you said.”

“I know.”

There’s a long silence as she turns into my apartment complex. She parks in the middle of the lot outside my building.

“Your mom is not her stuff. Her soul is not in them, and she still lives in your memories.”

“I think that’s easier to believe when you have a lot of stuff and the money to get more stuff when you need it.”

She sighs, nods.

“I know she’s in my memories. Sometimes, it even feels like she’s my shadow. And I worry about losing even a millimeter of her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I appreciate you and your friendship so much.”

“I appreciate you too, you dick.” She chuckles as she shoves my shoulder. “Now go to bed. It’s past your bedtime.”

“Thanks for the ride,” I say as I close the car door. I wave as I walk up the stairs to our door.


XXV. Hendecad, n.

We never ate at restaurants much, but
on the last day of the school year,
my mom
would take a half day at her office,
pick me up from school to
take me to the Original Pancake House
for lunch.

She died on a Saturday—
the 26th of May—
Memorial Day weekend.
9th grade,
my last year at Ferucci.

Neither my dad or I were capable
to being around other people
for months.
I don’t remember
the last month of that year, but
I do remember
the bus ride on the last day
to an empty apartment—
walls of unpacked cardboard boxes.

Last year,
it still didn’t feel right.
I drove myself home
in silence.

They may not be open this year—
doesn’t look like
the closure will open up by then—
but I should get something from there
to commemorate surviving
my junior year
while working full-time
amid a pandemic.
She would want me to.


XXVI. Simili-, comb. form

Me
crouching on the patio,
humming a Phoebe Bridgers song
as I water two pots of struggling tomatoes

is not the same as

you
walking by planters in the backyard
humming the Beatles
as you hose lush beds of vegetables

I wasn’t able to save.


XXVII. Alkahest, n.

I
wake up
Tuesday morning, the 26th,
to a bright sun outside my window—
no dreams nor dew drops—
and a text from Isabella about Skyping.

I
sit up in my bed,
start my laptop while
taking a drink of water from
an old pickle jar on my nightstand.

“Nadine! Lupe said her first word! Look!”
She holds up Lupe’s pot,
tiny purple highlights on her tips.
“Did you hear her?
She said, ‘shhh!’
I think she’s going to be a librarian!”

“Oh my god! Yesss!”
I reach over, pick up Elinor.
“Look at your sister! Aren’t you so proud?”
Elinor nods.

“That’s not all,” Isabella adds.
“Hold on.”
She looks down, starts typing.

I set Elinor down, look outside,
see white fluff float between the trees.

I hear several bloops from my computer,
turn to see
four faces smiling,
three hands waving.
All of their voices meld together
as they say hello.

“We didn’t want you to be alone today,”
Crys says. “And—“

“And,” Violet cuts in,
“I actually have internet now!
Did you know
there’s a deadly virus
spreading all over the world?
Google told me. You’re welcome.”

“Dude,” Suri chuckles,
“don’t even get me started.
I’ve had to explain it to
Yusef and Amina
like every day.”

“Ugh Same!” Isabella yells.
“It’s like Alejandro has amnesia,
I swear!”

It’s the first time
I’ve seen all of them
at the same time
since lunch
on the last day
before the closure.


XXVIII. Vehemence, n.

“Anyway,”
Crys emphasizes each syllable
to get our attention,
“we wanted to show you
we’re here for you.
We know how important
the anniversary of your mom dying
is, and we want to support you.”

They all nod.
So many half-sentences
stuck in my throat.

“Your mom was the best,” Isabella says.
“Remember my quinces?
She volunteered to bring salsa
for the snack table
using tomatoes from her garden, and
she placed both bowls
in the center of the table with
labels she made herself.

“And she made a point
to fake-revise the mild salsa label
to make it say ‘White Salsa!’
I was dying!”

My computer erupts with laughter.

Crys wipes a tear from her eye,
a hand on her heart.
“Oh my gosh,
my mom’s face when she saw it!”
She inhales, exhales through her nose,
goes wide-eyed, juts her chin out.

“That was the face!” Isabella yells,
laughing into her hands.

“She purposely sat us at our table
so she could see people’s reactions to it,”
I reminisce,
see her snickering into her napkin.
“She was so proud.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Violet says.
“She sounds like a great mom.”

“Me too,” Suri agrees.
“If only I could have gone to Ferucci too.”

I often forget they went to Glacier View.
It feels like
they’ve always been in my life.
“Yeah,” I say.
“She would have loved you nerds.”


XXIX. Sidereal, adj.

It’s a small action,
but it reverberates.

Before the call, I felt cold,
like I was laying in a puddle during a storm.
After the call, though,
which bounced from
stories about my mom to
stories about quarantine,
I felt less alone.
Warmth spread
from my chest to my limbs
then out.

That afternoon, the clouds opened up
to blue sky, birds started singing.
The sun
came out, stayed out
the rest of the week.


XXX. Dataveillance, n.

One of the line cooks from Applebee’s
follows my dad to Target
in his pickup
several nights after I left Cory there.

I meet them by Cory’s spot,
my dad having to drive me to work
the last couple days.
Charles
had commented on
a car being in the lot too long.
He plans on calling a tow company
tomorrow morning.

Luis opens his tailgate,
climbs into the cargo bed.
The truck’s creaking and staining
fills the empty lot.
He uncoils a long rope,
hops off the truck,
lays under it to
get a better vantage of the frame
as he ties one end of the rope around it.

“I really appreciate your help,” my dad says,
getting under Cory with 
the other end of rope.

“No problem,” Luis groans as
he gets back up to his feet.
He bends over, stretching his back.
“How old is the car?”

“Uh,” I stammer, “about 20 years old.”
I wring the strap of my messenger bag.

My dad tugs on the rope a couple times,
gets to his feet,
brushes off his jeans.
“It gets the job done
for the most part, though.”

They walk me through how
we get Cory home safely— how I will
put them in neutral,
get pulled by Luis’s truck, only
braking and turning when he does until
we’re in our complex.

Luis’s eyes bounce
between my dad and Cory.
“You need a car?”

“What?” My dad asks.

“We have a pickup we don’t use much
since Isaac went to college.
You could use it.”

“It’s alright,” my dad shakes his head.
We don’t need your charity.”

Luis focuses on Cory.
“You can pay for it, then.”

My dad looks at me. I shrug. “How much?”

“How much you got?”

Luis insists on finding a compromise,
while my dad reluctantly drags his feet.
They work out an agreement
that doesn’t hurt my dad’s pride and
figure out a day for me to pick up the truck.


XXXI. Gas Giant, n.

A thunderclap.
Rain patter.
Wind howl.

Saturday morning, I drink coffee
sitting in the living room floor
next to my mom’s ashes and Elinor.

We watch the sky flash,
gutters spill over with rainwater,
young sprouts struggle in the wind.

I focus on a cottonwood seed
snagged on the rim
of one of the tomato pots.

They shiver,
inch like they’re afraid
to fly on their own.

I put down my mug,
place a hand on my mom’s urn,
boop Elinor’s nose.

The sliding glass door opens;
cool air roars in
as I step onto the porch.

My face is is wet with rain as
I clip the seed’s fluff between two fingers,
whisper in their ear.

I let go, and
a gust of wind sweeps them up.
I watch them sail across the parking lot.

I lose them in the clouds,
but I’m not worried—
I know they’ll be okay.

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