Be Okay, It Will Be OkayJohn Englehardt
Six years before college, you are under a queen-sized mattress with your grandma and brother. A cold front has descended from the Rocky Mountains into the Plains of Arkansas, where you live in your basement-less house. Just minutes ago, you walked barefoot into the street and beheld a half-mile wide funnel cloud cutting across the landscape, the strangest gray you’ve ever seen, a sort of whirling, irradiated charcoal. Grandma told you to put on shoes and get under the mattress, and now she is reciting the Lord’s Prayer. You are listening to hectoring gusts of wind, pictures and pill bottles smashing against the wall. Even under the mattress, you can tell when you’re beneath a giant shadow. Grandma says not to grab hold of the mattress if it slips away, but when the walls heave outward and the mattress ascends, you can’t help but grab after it. You go airborne and are tumbling, swapping backdrops. Earth. Sky. Earth. Sky. Earth. Sky. At some point, you see a brown trail of destruction wending across the green countryside.
Your body lands on dirt, but the wind skips and drags you across it until you hit a retaining wall, which is actually your neighbor’s house that has been reduced to a slab of concrete. Your face hits it, fracturing your skull and breaking your nose, but you don’t feel that yet. You stand up. It’s quiet, except for a low ringing sound that howls all around you, and the sky is a floating junkyard. A Banker’s chair. Chimney Bricks. 100-pound manhole. Full-bloomed poplar tree. A garage door spinning like a frisbee into the horizon. You don’t know where to stand, but that’s irrelevant because the wind is pushing you. Your heels dig into the ground. Sideways debris stabs into your skin like candles into a birthday cake.
When it stops, sirens blare in the distance. RVs from the dealership down the road are in ditches, shredded like paper. Amidst the ruin you find your grandmother, who at first is just a wad of disorderly gray hair, her body half-covered by a sheet of particleboard. You pull her out and dust her off, but she doesn’t respond to your touch. Eventually, you scan the landscape for your brother, slowly realizing how lucky you were to find anything at all in this mosaic of rubble.
Your mom, who was shuffling cards at the casino in Alla Vista when the tornado hit, shows up in her truck, and she drives you to a medical triage outside the Dollar General where they poorly sew up the gash on your forehead and take all the debris out of your back. One thing they find is a metal pin engraved with the words MEL’S LOGGING COMPANY—IN GOD WE TRUST, which will be attached to your backpack when I meet you for the first time, many years from now.
Your mother takes you to her boyfriend’s house to live, and over the course of the next year, she locks herself in the bathroom more and more. She treats you like a hole in the floor she has learned to avoid. She is harnessed to the couch with cheap rum called “El Residente,” watching movies like Home for the Holidays in mid-July. Her boyfriend is a forklift operator who sleeps on a water bed and obsessively collects bottle caps, supposedly for some kind of “art project.” He watches you sweep the kitchen like there’s something inside you he’s about to disinter. Then one day, he disappears, and your mom is alone in his room, yelling at a part of herself who cannot hear, surrounded by dirty clothes and cat litter ground into the carpet.
During this time, one of your teachers learns that you’re stealing rolls of toilet paper from school to take home, and then CPS gets involved. Then it’s foster homes. Edges of familial units. High school vicissitudes until finally you get adoptive parents. You change your name to Rose, work at the Baskin Robbins in the mall, use your 4-H leadership experience to qualify for a poultry science scholarship at Ozarka University, a flagship state school, tucked away against one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America, where there never has been an F5 tornado, as far as you know.
When you visit, it’s a land of white mansions on the edge of campus, yellow trumpets of daffodils, gigantic porch settees, and blonde girls walking in groups, all wearing the same high-waisted jean shorts. When you see how they study under dim chandeliers and cheer for the Ozarka Raccoon football team, you decide you want to join a sorority. Your adoptive parents advise against it, but you’ve been saving money scooping ice cream. You have enough to pay for annual dues.
Fall arrives, and you rush. You buy the right clothes. Force-smile so much that your face hurts. You line up and get honked at by every Jeep and scooter-driving male in the vicinity. And then you get into one of the most prestigious sororities, Beta Omega Kappa. The truth is, they think you are pretty—someone even says that scar on your forehead is charming, that it rips apart the conventionality of a pretty face. And you’re calculating. You bury your accent, say “that would be lovely” like it’s a catchphrase. You explain that you’re originally from Alaska (though your only connection to that place is your biological father spent two summers there on fishing boats). You deflect unwanted attention by interrogating others. You learn to act like you’re at the center of your own small universe.
So you stand there on the immaculate lawn with your sisters, two days before school starts, and they are teaching you the BOK cheer, which has a refrain that goes like this: “Be okay, it will be okay!” Amidst the high-spirited unison, you remember that all your life, you wanted to be this brand of normal—carefree, upper class, and virtuous by means of your inaccessibility—but you couldn’t be. You tried so hard. You imagined this normalcy as if it were down some declivity in your heart, something you always had but could never reach. It was like growing up with an ocean outside of your bedroom window that disappeared when you looked at it. But now, on the BOK lawn, you feel like you are wading into its waters for the first time, and you are finding it is warm, and the sand is fine.
At first, you are overwhelmed by the frenetic 450-acre campus. There are tanning wipes and condoms in vending machines. Pasta bars. Students conducting Bible study in coffee shops, reading verse from iPhones, holding hands to pray while their legs squirm beneath tables. Hours-worth of coiffed hair. Lurid binge-drinking. And when you go to see your advisor in the Don Butler Center for Poultry Excellence building, you walk past an 8-foot tall bronze statue of a rooster, wearing what looks like a crown of thorns on its head. Everything is hallowed. Everyone wants to know your name.
But when classes start, you find that all your professors are burned out teaching assistants who give you worksheets, overuse PowerPoint, speak in fake-authoritarian voices, or otherwise solicit class participation like manic-depressive game show hosts. Students shop for portable hammocks and watch cooking shows on their phones during lecture. Sometimes, you feel as if you’re learning what you studied in high school, just in bigger rooms with nicer computers.
One of these classes is Eddie Bishop’s section of English 120. His teaching style is one of controlled outrage, directed at everything except the students sitting before him, who he attempts to “level with.” Whenever his class ends, you walk out of Campbell Hall onto the cobbled road. It’s late in the day, so campus no longer looks like a bad TV show. There are no boys shouting from luxury SUVs. There are no officious “Help a Raccoon” stations, no hi-fives, no slow-walking athletes, no student-ministers standing on five gallon buckets, duct tape over mouths, holding signs that say I WILL NOT BE SILENT ABOUT MY FAITH. No. It’s just you in the sunset’s dying lushness, the brutalist stone buildings. On these evenings, Eddie’s lectures sometimes give you an emptied-out feeling, like you are un-learning the things you thought you knew. You decide that this is what you were looking for when you came to a university.
One day, Eddie makes everyone read a short story about a girl with a wooden leg who decides to be ugly. She changes her name to Hulga, studies philosophy, wears skirts with horses on them. Eddie says she wants ugliness to create a new self. She succeeds until a Bible salesman tricks her and steals her fake leg. You read a paragraph aloud in class—the one with her stranded and one-legged in a barn—then you raise your hand and say that the ugly girl no longer clings to her ugliness, she’s just sad. Eddie nods. “We have to consider,” he says, now pacing past the empty first row, “that our personalities are deep wells into which the world will drop ideas, desires, even other people. So, you have to be careful. You have to know what was down there in the first place.”
This is when you begin to fear the thing you made inside yourself. You spend as much time on schoolwork as you do making posters with glitter glue. You always need a date. You’ve been tanning, and the fair-skinned girls are starting to ask if you’re “mixed with something” (i.e. Mexican, though they often guess Italian). At parties, older boys hand you drinks they made in other rooms. They take you out onto sleeping porches and tell you not to be so stingy with your body. It all feels like the story about the ugly girl, except reversed.
All of this does not completely metastasize until a representative from Slendertone Fitness comes to the sorority. She has bins filled with bands that fit around your stomach and legs, sending shocks to your muscles to tone them. All the sisters who are infinitesimally “overweight” are named, encouraged to buy said equipment, and they do. You’re not one of the “fat” ones, but after this encounter, you feel that your routine of long jogs and avoiding Chicken Finger Fridays wasn’t for yourself after all, but was actually in preparation for this moment. Nowadays, even the things you thought you did for yourself were not. They were for the normal person you were creating, who is now metamorphosing within you.
Amidst all this, you think increasingly about your family. Some memories emerge so clearly from those hardscrabble days that you ex-perience them again, as if for the first time. At twelve years old, you are with your mother at the mall, and you are watching her talk to the boy selling phones at the Verizon kiosk. Your mother asks for the cheapest one, fumbling with her welfare card, and the tattooed, multi-earringed boy grabs a clamshell phone from the case, price-matches it to another store, and gives it to your mother for free. On the way home, you consider the dirty summer-dress your mother is wearing—the blue one swimming with cartoon fishes—and your own decaying shoes and barely-healed forehead, and you decide you look like someone who needs to be given things, and that you don’t want to be.
You spend so much time evaluating boys the same age your brother would be that you become a sort of connoisseur. Their posture, hair-thickness, the shoulder from which their backpack hangs. One afternoon, you see a skinny, dark-haired boy in the park, eating a torta from La Super Quesadilla, his green flannel tucked into jeans, how the bright sun makes the grass around him look blanched and lost. Is that him, staring ambiguously past the swings in your direction?
That night, you lie awake in your dorm with your laptop, studying your old neighborhood with Google Street View, and you find that the cameras haven’t been back since the tornado hit. You click past your grandmother’s house, the waist-high chain link fence before the unkempt grass, sagging gutters, and chewed up screen door. You click on the arrows until you’re down at the supermercado you used to walk to with your brother, and when you see two figures with garbled faces waiting at a crosswalk, sodas in hand, you cry so hard you can feel it deep in your jaw.
Lately, you’ve been feeling best when working on your term paper for Eddie’s class. You’ve decided to write about the ugly girl, about the artificial things we lean on, like beauty and religion. You read Malebranche, study nihilism, meet with Eddie one-on-one in places like Starbucks and Slim Chickens because he doesn’t like his office. He says things like “good stories have no meaning” and “you have to consider education as artifice.” It all feels a little absurd, but at least it’s an absurdity you’re free to imitate.
When you hand in the paper on the last day of class, all you can think about is getting it back. You will sit beside Eddie at a small coffee table, wearing a dress that you hope makes you look older, all your papers neatly aligned in a binder. At some point, his admiration will overflow, and he’ll say something off-kilter, something like “you have no idea who you are,” but he will say it like a compliment. He will use words like incomparable, exacting, perigee. You will walk with him across the anodyne campus and into the afterlife of the person you once were.
This is what happens instead. A student walks into the library during finals week with a modified Chinese-type SKS assault rifle, then opens fire, killing eleven students and an instructor. All campus activities are suspended for a week, and during this time you hear a rumor that he left behind a video the FBI will not release. Barbara Walters comes out of retirement to interview the father of the shooter on prime-time television. News teams book every hotel room in the city limits, and everyone keeps saying “tragedy” with such vague disdain, as if the shooting was just a mad dream, not some kid adding his personal darkness to a collective shadow that had already spread across our lives. Still, at night, when you overhear prayers about evil conduits, you clasp your hands and listen. You sleep with the blinds closed and the fluorescent lights on.
When the university publishes a list of the victims, you find out that one of them is Casey Bishop—Eddie’s wife. You go online to confirm this, and find a picture of three people on a hiking trip, standing with their backs turned to a bluff line somewhere in the Ozarks. One of them is unmistakably Eddie, with his precise beard and thin, flyaway hair. The other two people you don’t know. Me, with an overblown smirk, the kind that now belongs to an abandoned version of myself. And Casey, wearing a billowy sweater, bangs cutting across her eyes. She’s bearing her teeth like she is half smiling, half preparing to battle the stranger we asked to take the photo. You look too long and she becomes fixed, the way dead people become their own archetypes, how they take you back to the honeysuckle and azaleas and lichen-covered rocks and rolling hills that surrounded them. Back there, time is so habitable. It is infinite.
On the day campus re-opens, you want to walk to the English department to see if your paper will be there, wondering if Eddie graded them before all this happened. But you’re afraid of campus—everyone is. Eventually, you rationalize that this is probably the safest the campus will ever be, so you walk onto the bright sidewalks, past a media cavalcade at the on-campus hotel, where news helicopters buzz overhead. Your paper is in a box on the floor with sixty others. There are a few sentences underlined, and on the back page scrawled in blue ink, Eddie has written THIS PAPER IS BEAUTIFUL. The irony of such a statement is not lost on you—it makes you think there is some critique embedded in it, like your paper is beautiful in the same way that the ugly girl is ugly.
So you walk back to your dorm, through a campus that has police officers leering down every corridor. Flowers and makeshift cenotaphs line the sidewalk. Ironwood trees shift in silence. Colors of the sky smolder against stone buildings. You decide you can’t be here, so you walk off campus towards downtown. It is winter now. Week-old snow is piled on shady patches of grass, and puddles are icing over again in the absence of the sun.
When you cross Arkansas Avenue, you pass by my house, where Eddie and I stand in my kitchen, lit up in the front window like a giant fish tank. Normally, we’d be reading quotes from student papers, or talking about love like it’s a cliff we’re walking towards. We’d be overstating how lost and in debt we are, as if being small-town professors has granted us entry into some high and mighty misunderstood club. But today, we are marching around the empty cul de sac of the shooting. We are trying to talk about loss, though we haven’t felt it yet. We’ve been feeling something else entirely. Something more like suspense.
At first, you think this coincidence means something, like the tragedy is circling around to explain itself. But nothing happens. Eddie takes a phone call. I sweep the floor. The window buzzes with empty light. So you keep walking, still with no destination in mind. Cresting one hill, you can see the far-reaching gray of leafless trees, undulating over hilltops and eventually into the delta where you’ll spend the next month, because Christmas break is here. You expected college to take you far away from home and the person you were. Instead, it’s like a roller coaster that dis-appeared before ascending its first peak, one that has left you staring down onto the world from a stranded place in the sky.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.