j. robert lennon
march 15, 2023
e agree that, at some point, we should bring the baby to see a cow. But when? Not now, when all new experiences are equally puzzling, and the baby has no understanding of what should and should not amaze her. And not later, when the idea of farm animals has grown familiar, and a cow will come as no great surprise. We should bring the baby to the cow at the very moment a cow will blow her mind.
I told my students this should be the goal of their stories. To lure the reader into a state in which a cow will blow their mind.
I hadn’t heard from my student in a while. I seemed to remember I was one of his thesis advisors, but if I had been, surely he would have sent me pages to review. My memory must have failed me.
Then my colleague called. The student had told her he’d been emailing me drafts for months, and that I’d been ignoring him. This wasn’t so—I hadn’t gotten these emails, nor the attached writing.
As it happened, he’d been sending the emails to someone else with the same name as me, a custodian in the school of agriculture. I wasn’t the one who had ignored the emails, he was. Perhaps email wasn’t even a part of the custodian’s work for the university—it could have been that he was assigned the address automatically, and had never opened the inbox.
Or perhaps the custodian had received my student’s novel, had read it, but decided to keep his opinions to himself. Or maybe he’d sent my student comments, but to the wrong address—the address of another member of the university community, one with the same name as my student. Maybe this person used the custodian’s comments to revise the attached novel manuscript in his own way, entirely different from the way my student would have revised it, had he been given my advice, or even the custodian’s advice.
When my student finally sent his manuscript to my correct address, mine, I briefly entertained the notion that it was this version I was reading—the one altered by the name-sharers’ chain of custody—rather than the one I would have received had my student addressed the original email correctly.
I felt bad for wishing it was.
I dream that the fitted sheet has come loose and I can feel the bare mattress with my toes. I wake up to discover that it isn’t so—the sheet is secure.
I’m disappointed with my sleeping mind for generating such trivialities. Then, later, I’m impressed; the dream wasn’t trivial at all. This kind of disorder—a messy blanket wedged between sofa cushions, a tablecloth five degrees off true—bothers me all out of proportion to its importance. It stands in for types of disorder that I’m powerless to control.
My sleeping mind doesn’t need to serve me fascism, sickness, storm and fire. It knows a loose sheet will do the trick.
The psychology lab at the university invited me to bring the baby in for testing. When I arrived, a graduate student took the baby away, and a different graduate student led me to another room. I was asked to sit at a computer and play a video game.
In the game, I was stranded by the side of a busy highway running through a forest. I’d been tasked with caring for three friends’ infants, and all three were strapped inside my broken-down car. One by one, I was to bring each child out and set it down on a blanket from which it would attempt to walk or crawl into traffic. My job was to flag down passing cars while protecting the children from those same cars, which never stopped, however energetically I flagged them.
The computer was old, and slow to respond to the commands I clawed into its keyboard with increasing desperation. My heart rate increased as the graduate student sat off to one side, taking notes. The room was windowless and dirty and my eyes stung from the dust and sweat. When the game was over, I was not told whether I had done well. I was thanked for my participation and assured that the video game babies had survived the ordeal.
When I emerged, rank and disheveled, into the light of the main office, I found my daughter laughing and rolling around on the floor among a pile of toys. She was given a gift for her efforts, a charming tee shirt. Her graduate student caretaker informed me that she was a delight and invited her to return anytime.
She had passed the test.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of nine novels, including Familiar, Broken River, and Subdivision, and the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand, See You in Paradise, and Let Me Think. He lives in Ithaca, New York.