Two Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Heating and Cooling

The A/C won’t work, so I call a repairman. His name, he tells me at the door, is
Matthew. I lead him to the office we added on ten years ago—it has a separate
system—and point out the little trapdoor in the ceiling. He’s up there a long, long time, and when he finds me in the kitchen, he’s slick with sweat. He says that the access to
the heating and cooling is way too small. Very hard to get up there, very hard to
navigate once you’re up there. And Matthew is a small man, not much taller than me.
Worse, says Matthew, when the unit blows and needs to be replaced, the ceiling will
need to come down. He wipes an elbow across his dripping forehead, then digs out his
phone. He shows me a photo of his tape measure stretched across the A/C, then
stretched across the joists: the A/C is wider. Matthew tells me he emailed a video to his
buddies.
It’s not desirable, I know, for one’s house to provide lunch break entertainment
for so jaded a guild as the A/C repairmen of Mississippi.
Matthew says a door should be cut high up on the wall for repairs, because, as
is, it’s near impossible to change a coil or fan unit. He says this door would be at the
ass end of the unit, but that that’s better than nothing. He says that if he gains a few
(here he pats his wet shirt, stuck to his abs) he couldn’t squeeze up there, even with a
shoehorn and a crock full of bacon grease. Matthew: it’s possible that at this point I
have a slight crush on Matthew. Small, trim men can be so appealing. Also, authority
makes me horny.
I’m willing to concede that, in addition to heating and cooling, there are numerous
subjects of which I’m ignorant. Several years ago, on vacation with my former college
roommates, the five of us sat around the way we do, drinking and catching up. The quiz
show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had just begun airing. One of my roommates,
Laura, a biologist and high school teacher, had auditioned for the show, graduating
through several levels, though ultimately she wasn’t chosen. She told how part of her
was relieved because she would have been embarrassed in front of her students if she
got tripped up on a simple question.
“Yeah,” said Beth, director of social work for a big prison and a master of TV
trivia, “I’m relieved, too. I mean, what if you used ‘Phone a Friend’ and there I was, your
entertainment lifeline, and I couldn’t come up with, like, the name of the car on Knight
Rider?”

Denise, former captain of the Notre Dame soccer team and now CMO of a
Fortune 500 company, said, “Right, as your sports lifeline, how bad would it have
sucked if I didn’t know who won the World Cup?”
They kept talking about Laura’s audition as I worked it out: “You mean—you
mean I’m the only one who’s not a . . . what do you call it . . .” (I’d never seen the show)
“lifeline?”
The girls exchanged looks: Uh oh.
Laura laid a palm, chilled from her gin and tonic, on my knee. “Oh, B.A., honey.
Don’t take it personally. After all, come on”—she smiled, not unkindly—“what are your
lifeline areas?”
Let’s see. There’s poetry. Metrical and free verse. So there. And babies. I’m
good at babies, at making them and birthing them. I used to be good at making milk for
them, too. I recall how my babies would fall asleep while nursing, how their lips would
loosen from my nipple, how I could see into the sweet pink grottoes of their mouths,
their tongues still flexing a time or two, the pearly milk pooling there or sometimes
running from the corner of their lips. Eat all you want: I’ll make more. And let’s not
forget I am very good at cookies. My friend Lee Durkee says I bake the best
snickerdoodles he’s ever tasted. And he’s never even tried my lemon poppyseed. Or,
sweet Jesus, my gingersnaps.
My areas of expertise are scrolling through my mind as Matthew scrolls through
photos on his phone, detailing the problems. I’m nodding. Which is to say, faking,
which I do when flummoxed by technology or mechanics. I’m like a dog—a bitch, in
fact, for I feel ungainly and femaley—a bitch, reading her master, trying to glean her fate
from everything but words. If Master points to Car, does this mean Park, or Pound?
Matthew says Freon and BTUs and then several unrecognizable terms. I’m still nodding
when he leaves.
So I track down the original contractor. I’m hoping he camouflaged some magic
attic access, stairs that descend when you pull the sconce beside the bookcase, which
probably revolves.
He did not. He built this addition ten years ago and can’t remember why we
settled on this design. Neither can I. That’s another thing I’m not good at: remembering. He thinks we knew access would be hard but decided it was worth it for
roofline aesthetics. Hmm, I think. I do like aesthetics. I nod. He thinks we decided that
the unit would last maybe twenty years or more, and that we’d deal with replacing it
then, cutting a hole through the sheetrock. No biggie. I nod, thinking, Would I really
have agreed to sew a dress knowing the zipper wasn’t long enough? Would I really
have thought, Hey, we’ll just cut the dress off when I’m done? But the longer he talks,
the more familiar the idea sounds. I say, Do we need to build that access door Matthew
suggested? The contractor huffs a laugh. No, he says, most certainly not. I nod. This
contractor—I notice for the first time—this contractor is a handsome man. A big man,
tall, with a generous belly pressing taut his striped polo. I bet he shops at stores called
Big and Tall. Big and Tall and Yummy. I would like to help him choose his striped
polos. Try this one on. And this.
If there was a planet where all the repairmen were repairwomen, I’d rocket there,
never to return. I’d still be puzzled when something broke and they explained—I’m
nobody’s lifeline, after all—but I wouldn’t be additionally puzzled by my failures as a
feminist.
So we’re good then? the contractor asks.
I nod. I’m a good dog. I offer him a cookie.

Why I’m So Well Read

Once, when we were young and poor, my husband and I learned that an Irish
friend was road-tripping across America with two Irish pals, so we invited them for a
visit. They arrived sniping at one another. They’d had a falling out, and in fact after
dinner they were to have a doozy in our driveway that stopped just short of fisticuffs,
then go their separate ways. But, before this happened, when thanking us for the meal,
one of the men opened his wallet and held out a fifty-dollar bill. Don’t be silly, we said,
we’re not taking your money. He insisted. Thanks, we said, but no. He kept at it,
clutching the bill. The more we rejected his money, the angrier he got. Finally, we
accepted it. All I could figure is that he had plenty of dough, and felt bad that the three
of them had argued, and wanted to make up something to someone, somehow.
Perhaps if we’d acquired the fifty through some usual channel, we’d have stored
it in some usual place. But it wasn’t paycheck money, it was found money. My
husband walked to the bookshelf, opened a book to its fiftieth page, slotted the bill
there, then slid the book back. That way we could kind of forget about it, but we’d have
it for an emergency: an elegant solution.
We were poor and young, I already said that, and dumb with love. One night, I
was working at my desk when my husband wanted to frolic. He called for me and I
delayed, needing ten minutes to finish my project, then ten more. Finally I heard a
noise and looked up. He wasn’t there, but his penis was, jutting from the doorframe.
Out of sight, he gyrated so his penis beckoned, like a crooking finger, and we both got
the giggles. My camera was on my desk, and, still giggling, I took a photo, then
followed him into the bedroom where we made our love.
Weeks later, when I picked up the developed film, it took me a minute to recall
why I’d photographed my door. But oh, there it was: my husband’s penis. I showed
him, and together we laughed. Then he moved to tear it up, but I stayed his hand. Let
me keep it, I argued. Let me keep it someplace secret.
Into a book, page fifty.
It couldn’t have been more than a few months later when we found ourselves
desperate for dough. We walked to the shelf and removed the book in the upper left corner, turned to page fifty. No money. We opened the next book, the next. No
money. We’d neglected to note which book contained the money, but knew where to
look, forgetting that we tend to dip frequently into favorites, then reshelve them in the
nearest space. We expanded our search. No fifty anywhere. And then I remembered
the penis. Now we were searching for both. We checked the fiftieth page of every book
in our house constructed of books.
We must have loaned them out. We do that, we can’t help it. We collect strays,
lost students who need some pals, some protein, and sooner or later we’re incredulous,
“But you’ve never read Hopkins?” or “You’d adore Denis Johnson,” and a few hours
later the student is saying goodbye with a doggie bag and an armload of inspiration.
But we couldn’t remember any recent borrowers, and couldn’t imagine asking about the
bonus material, even if we had. Did we lend both books to the same student? If so, in
what order? Fifty then penis, we decided, was slightly less salacious than penis
followed by fifty.
It’s been nineteen years. Our house has more books than ever: not just poetry
and fiction and memoir, but biographies, cookbooks, thrillers, graphic novels, mysteries.
I love a good mystery. Like, where the hell is that photo? Even now, middle-class and
middle-age, I never open a book without hoping for a fifty or a penis.

***

The story behind the stories:

Inspiration for “Why I Am”: One day it occurred to me that my habit of checking the fiftieth page of books in my house–a silly habit I still indulge—has roots so complicated that I could perhaps never explain them. So I tried to explain them.  I will add that this piece appears in Heating & Cooling, and when I published the book my friend Bob Zordani pointed out that I should have put this piece on page fifty, and indeed I should have.  

Inspiration for “Heating & Cooling”: I began this piece in a querulous mood when my husband was out of town and several things broke in our house at once; my inability to fix or even understand basic systems I depend on left me feeling worse than useless.  My first draft was written in June in Mississippi with the AC unit still broken, which might account for some of its peevishness.  

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2016-2021, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi.  Fennelly has published six books.  Her most recent book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W. W. Norton), was named an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book, a Goodreaders Favorite for 2017, and the winner of the Housatonic Book Prize.  Fennelly and Franklin live in Oxford with their three children.  

To learn more about Beth Ann, visit https://www.bethannfennelly.com/ To learn about her upcoming zoom class in micro-memoir writing, visit https://www.lafayettewritersstudio.com/classes/micro-memoir

micro-memoir — Lafayette Writers’ Studio

The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly forward, backward, sideways, and, for short distances, upside down—hummingbirds can do things other birds can’t do precisely because they are so small. In this class, we’ll look at tiny texts and learn what can be accomplished in a small space that can’t be accomplished in a bigger one. www.lafayettewritersstudio.com

“Why I’m So Well Read” was first published in Five Points. “Heating and Cooling” was first published in The Southern Review.

Photo by René DeAnda on Unsplash

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