by Douglas Light
Muddy, the golden lab, is deaf. “I wouldn’t pet her too hard,” her owner says.
Friday. Chicago. The city is named after the French translation of the Native American word for wild garlic. Winter Storm Bella is on the way.
Micah Ling is on tour for her poetry collection, Flashes of Life. I’m the roadie, of sorts.
“She doesn’t like to be pet?” I ask of Muddy.
In exchange for a place to stay, we’re dog sitting Muddy for the night while the owner heads to Hudson, NY, for a wedding.
“She loves being pet,” the owner says. “It’s just that she has a lot of cysts. Sometimes they break open.”
Most people believe Chicago’s nickname—The Windy City—is in reference to the gust that come off the lake. It’s not. It’s in reference to the bullshit and bluster their politicians produce.
Storm Bella arrives at 6 p.m., heavy and damp.
Micah’s reading is scheduled for 7 at Uncharted Books, a used bookstore in Logan Square.
“Back and to the right,” the owner says when I ask for the restroom. “But it’s pretty nasty.”
The emails and texts start coming in. “Can’t make it tonight. The weather.”
Still, the reading goes on as scheduled.
Thirty-four people show. They drink all the beer I brought.
Micah sells 16 books.
The owner is right. The restroom is nasty.
“In France it’s much different. You don’t actually read from your book at a book reading,” a woman from the event says. She’s talking about her boyfriend, who sits next to her, quiet. His novels have been translated.
Nine p.m. and The Owl is fairly empty for a Friday night. We sit in the back on a couch on the small stage. “All they do is ask questions about writing,” the woman says. “It’s all very literary.”
“So it’s like a book club,” I say.
She looks at me. Then she looks away.
“You speak French?” I ask the boyfriend.
He shakes his head.
“A hundred million French and they all love to read,” the woman says. She drinks her cocktail through a stir straw. “It’s definitely different there.”
That night, I empty the last of our host’s tequila. I feel guilty for not replacing it, but not enough to search out a new bottle.
Muddy rubs up against me. I pet her, feeling hard lumps hidden by fur.
“One more walk before bed,” Micah says to Muddy.
We walk the dog in the snowstorm. Micah stops at the corner, her face wet with snow shining brightly in the streetlight. “That’s bullshit,” she says.
“The French,” she says. “No way there are a hundred million of them.”
“For twenty dollars more a day,” the clerk at Dollar Rent a Car says, “I can upgrade you to an SUV.”
The rental car office is a doublewide trailer at O’Hare airport.
A Chicago pick up with a Detroit drop off. We’d reserved a truck, which is $200 cheaper than an economy car. The drop-off fee is exorbitant.
No, I say. A truck is fine.
“The truck only gets thirteen miles per gallon,” the clerk says. “The SUV gets closer to thirty. Plus, the SUV is way more comfortable. Plus, there’s no extra drop-off fee. Plus, it gets better traction.”
I take the SUV.
Passing the office on my way out, I see someone has written in purple marker on the whiteboard: Snowstorm! Snowstorm! Snowstorm! Upsell SUVs!!!
As a child, I had dog named Holly. Part beagle, part something else, she made it to age eleven before she got cancer. Tumors knotted her body.
The morning we were to take Holly to the vet to be put to sleep, my mother made a tray of brownies. She let them cool and then placed them on the floor.
Holly’s final meal.
Twenty minutes into our drive, I realize I’ve made a mistake: I should have gone to the restroom.
I should have checked the SUV for damage before leaving the lot.
To this day, my mother denies making brownies for Holly. “Chocolate,” she says, “is poison to a dog.”
Journeyman Distillery is in Three Oaks, MI. It’s the only reason to visit the town.
The parking lot is packed. The space for the arts fair is huge.
Micah is the featured poet. Her Saturday night reading has been advertised for over a month.
The restaurant, bar, and gift shop are stocked with Journeyman’s own liquor. After my third whiskey, I stop counting.
The band we’d arranged to open for her cancel. “Can’t make it tonight,” they text. “The weather.”
Baskets, hats, and homemade wine jam. The twenty-thousand square foot space hosts over a hundred artisan. Nearly two thousand people pass through.
The woman selling hand-thrown pottery chats with Micah about poetry for nearly an hour, then has her sign a book.
“She didn’t pay,” Micah says.
“What do you mean?”
“I signed the book and she just walked away with it.”
The art of pottery is interesting. The woman explains it all to me.
After ten minutes of talk, I say to her, “I think you may have forgotten to pay for the book.”
She tilts her head, confused. “Are you sure?”
The reading goes well. Over seventy people stop their shopping, get a whiskey, and listen.
Micah sells six books total.
People interested in hand-knitted potholders aren’t people interested in buying a book of poetry.
That night, at the bed and breakfast, Micah says, “Do you think Muddy even realizes she’s deaf? Or do you think she thinks the world has no sound?”
Sunday morning, I wake with a hang over.
The snow has stopped.
Ann Arbor is a two and a half hour drive away.
The publisher reserves a room at Arbor Brewing Company. “They claimed no one would show,” he says, explaining why Literati Bookstore next door wouldn’t host the reading. “Sunday night, everyone will be home watching football, they said.”
“Their loss,” I say.
“We pulled all our books from there,” he says.
“Because of that?”
“Because of something else.”
A week prior, another one of the publisher’s authors was to read there. The bookstore canceled the reading the day before the event. They’d received complaints about the author, about the accusations of him having sex with a minor.
“He was already on a flight here,” the publisher says. “Which pretty much left us…” He trails off, takes a sip of beer. “This place is better.”
Twenty-two people show.
They laugh. They clap. Micah kills it.
After, she signs copies of Flashes of Life.
At the bar, a woman talks about her essay collection, her new agent. “I wrote a piece about how I didn’t use forks for a year.”
“Did you use a spork?” Micah says.
The woman doesn’t laugh, just shakes her head.
“So why’d didn’t you use a fork?” I ask.
“Well, you see, it was because—” She breaks off, is silent a moment. “Actually, I don’t really know why.”
Walking to the car, Micah says to me, “It’s weird to know people from Twitter and then officially meet them.”
The air is crisp, cold.
The traffic light turns yellow. Then turns red. “You simultaneously know everything and nothing about them.”
All the traffic is heading away from Detroit.
We’ve traveled less than two hundred and fifty miles over three days. Still, both Micah and I are exhausted.
Dropping the SUV off at the airport, we pull our luggage from the back.
“What happened here?” the rental car clerk says, examining the vehicle.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
The tour is over.
Soon, we’ll be back in New York.
Soon, we’ll be back home in Harlem.
“This,” he says, tapping the bumper.
I lean down and see a deep, black gouge torn into the plastic.
It’s a scar we didn’t create.
It’s a scar we’ll have to pay for.
Douglas Light is the author of the forthcoming novel Where Night Stops. His fiction has received an O. Henry Prize, the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and two JPMorgan Chase/NoMAA grants. He co-wrote the screen adaptation of his debut novel The Trouble with Bliss, which stars Brie Larson, Michael C. Hall, and Peter Fonda. For more, visit www.douglaslight.com.