What can you do in 10 minutes? I can read the chapter about Lucie standing outside La Force prison in the A Tale of Two Cities paperback I couldn’t finish in tenth grade, or stare at the Live, Laugh, Love stencil on my kitchen wall as I walk on the Pro-form treadmill I’ve turned on only once since I placed it beside the stove. I can revise a crumpled letter about my feelings I never gave to Krystal before she died – the one with words like heartbeat and Erato and destiny, and pick my Takamine 6-string, pretending I’m writing a song worth hearing – one not titled “Hold On” or “Without You.”

Or, I can do nothing. Just sit here and listen to a coal train rumbling over the metronome of crickets. Sit here and inhale dewed grass and bark set aflame with motor oil. Sit here and feel the sticky valley air rush my skin like a flock of geese taking flight. Sit here and watch as the stars begin their nightly show above the turning leaves of my backyard’s giant oaks, renaming the constellations Blackjack and Wally after my childhood pets.

The moon comes out from its nest of clouds, says that darkness is defined only by its contrast to light, that the moon itself is more than just a mirror reflecting yesterday’s sun. It makes a silhouette of the raccoon raiding my trashcan filled with worn out t-shirts, a dirty aluminum lasagna pan, and empty Samuel Adams bottles. And I watch him – how he tips the can with habitual precision, rips the bag with his razor nails, plunges headlong as if mining a blasted nook for black gold, and emerges with my old Big Pete’s House of Munch softball jersey clutched between his scavenger’s teeth.

He sniffs at the breeze, nostrils flaring and constricting as he takes in the valley air. The distance between us closes. His eyes seem to announce some forgotten raccoon truth – that food should always be washed before consumption, perhaps, or that our lives are products of habit. Surely, though, an animal without upper-brain function couldn’t possibly understand the memories evoked by the ragged co-ed league shirt in his mouth. I wonder what he remembers; the rusted dumpster outside P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro on the north side of Cincinnati filled with day-old lettuce and cooking grease, the Ford Explorer’s tires squealing as it swerved to miss him on US 27, the coyote’s piercing howl, my sister’s attic.

Still, he stares at me as if I am no longer the observer, as if I wasn’t from the start. Another coal train sounds its horn in the distance. His head jets in its direction, then back at me. Then, in one movement, he slams his dexterous palm down on the corner of the shirt and snaps his head toward the sky. The first rip is a sudden scream of white noise. He rips again, and again, until shards of blue shirt, some with orange letters, lay in front of him in a heap of useless fabric. When he’s finished, he buries his snout in the trash bag one more time, finds nothing of interest, and scurries through the cornfield in the darkness.

I can do this, but I choose one of the six fat-burning workouts on the treadmill. I walk four miles per hour on a five percent incline and run through chord progressions in my head; D to G to A, Cm to Fm to Bb, Em7 to Dsus2 to Cadd9. I listen to Jane Aker’s smooth voice intone “gone, like a shadow over the white road” as I follow the swooping letters on the wall, still trying to find the right words to say what I once meant, and the timer slowly ticks backward from 10.

 

Ryan Kauffman studies in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His previous work has appeared in New Plains Review, Punchnel’s, and Poetry Quarterly. When he’s not writing, he walks the shore of Lake Superior with his trusty shih-tzu sidekick, Dr. Watson.