Karen Donovan

From Aard-vark to Axolotl

Note: Aard-vark to Axolotl is a collection of short essays written in collaboration with engravings from the 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary originally owned by the author’s grandfather.

Unclear on the instructions

On the traffic island at the corner of Thurbers and Eddy, backed up against the stop sign. There was the man with damaged feet who said God bless every time you gave him a dollar. Then there was the entrepreneur, hatless and artless in the cold, who strode up and down the line of cars, gesticulating at our rolled-up windows. When the temperature dropped below freezing, the woman in the hooded cape appeared. She stood in the snow, holding up an unreadable appeal scrawled in black marker on cardboard ripped from a box of cereal. The person in the sedan ahead of me handed her a bag lunch. I turned the corner on a green light, wondering, should I give her my boots? Across town, a man blocking the end of the South Main Street exit ramp flapped a white t-shirt that read S-M-I-L-E.

No signal detected

These rabbit ears are from our old TV, the kind that doesn’t bring anything in anymore on account of the upgrade to digital. What a racket for the electronics industry that turned out to be. Anyway, we kept the antenna to use when we capitulated to the corporate state and bought a small flat panel. There was a place where we could connect the wire but nowhere to actually insert the unit into the frame, so we used pushpins stuck into the wall to sort of balance the rabbit ears above the screen. Not that it worked. The TV guy told us the signal was certainly getting messed up by devices in all the boats moored around the corner at Cove Haven Marina, a science observation that frankly we had trouble following. Was the word corrupted? Maybe. If I stood in the middle of the room the image would go all pixelated and collapse. “Move about two feet to the right,” my exasperated spouse would shout, and then the game would come in again. But not really. After far too long of this, we finally marched out to Best Buy and purchased a new antenna unit, a sleek little black box with shiny silver dipoles. Like the old rabbit ears, it also doesn’t work at all unless it’s propped up at exactly the right angle over in the corner of the room on top of the CD player.

The accident

The thing is, when I fell off I wasn’t actually going that fast. A little too much english on the handlebars and suddenly I was on the grass with the bike on top of me, a disturbingly loud crunchy sound having come from the vicinity of my right shoulder. I’ve had spectacular flights from bikes before, particularly one time in grade school when I managed to shave both knees, both elbows, and the bridge of my nose with gravel, but I could tell right away this one was bad. Yeah. Now I ride the stationary bike at the Y, the one that’s like a video game. I pick a route, cycle through the gears, and pedal sweatily while onscreen an endlessly generated environment unscrolls before me in an illusion of depth. The sense that I am traveling. The persuasion of the simulacrum. Perfect rolling hills, perfect forest glades, perfect seascapes and mountainscapes and cityscapes eternally moving past under unchanging immortal skies.

Open a vein

To avoid the possibility of marriage and the probability of long-term commitment, I ran away to poetry after graduating from college. My destination was a writing program set up just south of Syracuse by a cadre of feminists who were busy cutting a new slice on the razor edge of radical. I had a one-way bus ticket, no money to enroll, and a flimsy, farcical notion that if I hung around the perimeter long enough, they would let me in. The fugitive nature of my quest was evident to all. I applied to the local innkeeper, who was so seized by pity and kindness that she bought me a haircut and hired me on as kitchen and wait staff help. The cook, a formidable Humvee of a woman named Edna, terrorized everyone who worked there, but she liked me. I was a pathetic impressionable stray and ignorant of every practical art. Edna taught me three things. First, stay busy. Even if you have nothing to do, look busy. Refill the salt shakers, wipe down the ketchup-bottle caps, keep the ice fresh. Second, use both hands when you are retrieving her beautiful tomato aspic jelly mold from the cooler, lest you drop it face down onto the filthy cement floor. When this happens, and it only happens once, own up to it right away. Third, when she sits down for a cup of coffee after the lunch rush and starts in with her hard luck, apocalyptic, hell-in-a-handbasket advice to you, untie your apron, stand still, and listen. Because there must be some reason for you to be here in this kitchen listening to Edna’s homespun prophetic zeal instead of across town in the writing workshop of your dreams, and all you need is for one person to give you the magic key that will unlock the door to your life as an artist. When she says it, a chill hits me inside. Whatever’s in the well is going to come up in the bucket. Oh no, I remember thinking.

My career footwear

Editorial assistant. First title since Lifeguard and Waitstaff. Mid-town Manhattan. Book publishing. Someone had judged my philosophy major suitable preparation for work. Never mind that I’d been hired to answer the phone after showing up for my interview soaking wet (note to self: it rains in NYC: just buy a damn umbrella). After mastering the switchboard, I learned how to use the Selectric by typing the phone book over and over. Getting there was a two-hour commute on the Long Island Railroad (7:11 a.m. from St. James). Getting home every night involved two hours on the bar car, nursing a dollar beer. But in three months I jumped from customer service over to the book side and spent that whole ride home gleefully practicing how to make the perfect Chicago Manual of Style delete mark. Still, there were issues. From the ankles up, you look fine, an editor once told me.

Karen Donovan is the author of Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her new book, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and is due in 2016. She is co-founder of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and a past fellow at Vermont Studio Center. From 1985 to 2005 she co-edited ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs, a journal of short prose published by Oat City Press. She works in Providence as a writer and hopes always for second helpings of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

 … return to Issue 8.2 Table of Contents.